Ethics: A Jagged Line

Earlier this calendar year, I had an ethics class. It was only a half-semester course, but I rather liked it. That’s probably because I really enjoy morality and ethics. In fact, some of the research I worked on during my undergraduate degree required me to read one of George Lakoff‘s books, Moral Politics. Even now, I really enjoy reading the work of researchers like Dan Ariely, who often write about ethics. Anyway, back to the ethics class from earlier this year.

Towards the end of the course, the class was having a discussion about something that I don’t remember. In the course of the discussion, it was clear that there were valid reasons (on both sides) of the dilemma. As the discussion was wrapping up, the professor drew a jagged line on the white board (much like the jagged line in the picture at the beginning of this post). I don’t quite remember the “exact” phrase that the professor said, but that’s not important. The important thing is that I remember the takeaway — ethics are not black and white.

Conveniently, the jagged line picture also has ‘black and white,’ but the metaphor I like to think of is the straight line (vs. the jagged line). Some might think that there’s a clear right and a clear wrong — in every situation (a straight line, if you will). However, I think that life is much more nuanced, much more complex than that — a jagged line. Sometimes doing “x” in a situation will be ethical, and sometimes doing “x” in a situation will be unethical. It’s important to understand the context to understand the ethicality of a situation. That’s certainly an important takeaway, if you watch Professor Sandel’s Justice course.

Before I end this post, I wanted to touch share something from the current President of George Mason University, Angel Cabrera. He’s only the 6th President in the school’s history and his most recent position was as the President of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. He recently wrote a post for the World Economic Forum. An excerpt:

No matter how high the legal penalties may be, an opportunistic, self-interested manager within a large corporation can always find a way to make the pay-off of a bribe a no-brainer. This is so because the personal benefits of earning a contract can be significant and the probability of getting caught can be easily minimized. The very same factors that make the modern corporation so productive – specialization and localization of knowledge – also make it extremely difficult to control the decisions of each individual manager. The delegation of authority to managers with specialized knowledge makes the corporation vulnerable to decisions by those managers because they are often the only ones who understand the full complexity of a given contract (technical details of the products being sold, personal circumstances of the individuals involved in the transaction, dynamics of the social and institutional context in which the transaction takes place, etc).

When the golden opportunity presents itself to bribe, benefit from it and not get caught, the only thing that can stop him or her is a deeply engrained belief that the action is morally wrong.

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