Tag Archives: Ethics

Why Not Saying “No” Might Get You Into More Trouble Than You Think

A quick Google Search will tell you that we have a hard time saying no — almost 70,000,000 results for the exact phrase of “how to say no.” A study published this last fall showed that our proclivity for not saying no might actually lead us into unethical behaviour.

The researchers begin by establishing that studies have shown how we tend not to say no when someone asks us to do something for them (i.e. engage in prosocial behaviour) and use this as the basis for testing whether this might also lead us to comply with unethical requests. To test this hypothesis, the researchers conducted four studies.

In the first study, students had to get another student to tell a “white lie.” The ‘recruiter’ was also instructed to predict how many people they’d have to ask before they’d find someone willing to tell this white lie. Results show that students had to ask approximately half as many people as they expected (8.5 vs. 4.4).

The researchers thought that telling a white lie might not have been “unethical” enough, so in the second study, they had students recruit other students to vandalize. As one would expect, students predicted that they would have to ask more people (10.7) before finding someone willing to help them out. However, as was the case with the white lie, it only took asking 4.7 people before they found someone to help them out.

In studies three and four, the researchers were trying to determine whether or not the people who were asking others do take part in unethical behavior were aware of their influence and whether the people partaking in the unethical behavior actually had a harder time “doing the right thing” if they were asked to partake in unethical behavior. In both cases, they found evidence for their hypotheses. That is, when we try to convince someone to partake in unethical behavior, we underestimate our influence and as the person doing the unethical behavior, we find it harder to “do the right thing” when someone suggests unethical behavior.

The key finding, according to the researchers:

The truly startling finding is the lack of awareness people appear to have of this tendency when they are in a position to influence someone else’s ethical behavior. Overall, the current research suggests that we may not recognize the extent which our words and actions affect others’ ethical behavior and decisions.

I’ve certainly written about the importance of our words. Although, it was in a different context. The finding from this study is, as the researchers’ say, startling.

Prior to reading the study, I wouldn’t have predicted that we would so easily be susceptible to partaking in unethical behaviour. In fact, one of my potential critiques was cross-cultural. That is, would results like these hold in different cultures? According to the researchers, yes. With that being said, I do wonder if conducting this study with a different population — Americans, rather than Canadians — might provide different results.

ResearchBlogging.orgBohns, V., Roghanizad, M., & Xu, A. (2013). Underestimating Our Influence Over Others’ Unethical Behavior and Decisions Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40 (3), 348-362 DOI: 10.1177/0146167213511825

Markets and Morality: Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets with Our Civic Life

About a month ago, I finished up a series about Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I really enjoyed reading through the chapters and chewing on the material. As you may recall, I also highly recommended watching Prof. Sandel’s course: Justice. A few day ago, I noticed that one of Sandel’s more recent TEDTalks was published online. After watching it, I thought I’d pass it along to you as a great way to get a quick understanding of some of the things that Sandel talks about in his book. The talk was filmed this past summer.

As I think about markets and morals, I can’t help but seem to agree with much of what Sandel is saying. I’m also aware that not everyone shares his opinion about markets and morality. Do you agree? Do you think that allowing markets to decide everything is crowding out morals? I’d be really interested to hear your opinions.

I do as best I can to take in opinions and information that is contrary to my opinions, but it can be difficult. Especially in the internet environment, it’s quite easy to get caught up in the echo chamber of your own thoughts and beliefs. That’s part of the reason that I try to write posts that provide a new perspective on issues.

On this matter in particular, I’d like to your opinions on Prof. Sandel’s idea of markets and morality. In fact, I’m hoping that some of you disagree with Prof. Sandel and you think that markets are truly the answer to everything. I’m hoping that you think that markets should operate in every part of our lives. I’m hoping that you think what Prof. Sandel is saying is wrong. Most of all, I’m hoping that you can offer a cogent response that’s at least half as well-sourced as Prof. Sandel’s book.

The Most Effective Form of Discipline: Punishment or Empathy?

Have you ever broken the rules? If you’re answering honestly, no doubt, your answer should almost certainly be yes. If you drive, you’ve probably rolled a stop sign once or twice in your life. Or, you’ve probably at least barely gone over the speed limit, even if you were trying to maintain a speed below the limit. There’s always jaywalking. That is, you’ve probably crossed the street when you weren’t in the crosswalk when the walk sign was on the cross. What about taking office supplies from work? You may feel justified in doing so, but I bet if you read your contract or the rules/regulations of your organization, it’s not something that’s endorsed. There are probably plenty of other examples where you’ve broken a rule (accidentally or intentionally!), but there may only be a few (one?) where you’ve had an experience that changed your life.

I don’t necessarily mean that it changed your life in some profound way (although it may have). I’m speaking more towards those experiences that you’ll always remember. The lesson(s) you learned from the experience(s) was/were just what you needed at the time. Do you have one of those experiences? Now that you’re thinking of that experience, I wonder: did you receive a punishment for breaking the rules or did you get off with a warning?

I’d hazard a guess that if I polled those of you reading this article, the majority of you would say that the experience where you were left off with a warning was the one that stuck with you. And why is this? Empathy. Compassion. Kindness.

These are human expressions that tend to touch us in ways that the antithesis of these expressions don’t. It’s a tired sentiment, but the news is filled with negativity. As a result, experiences that show us the opposite of this negativity tend to shock us. This surprise tends to stick with us and the experience can teach us something we weren’t expecting.

I’d like to share an example that I think accentuates my point. I came across an answer on Quora to a question asking about people’s best experiences with police. This particular answerer, Andrew Bosworth, was 16 years old and on his way home from Sacramento to the Bay Area. He was really tired and knew he was driving somewhat erratically. He’d glance down at the odometer and he’d be just as likely to be going 20 mph over the speed limit as he would be going 20 mph under the speed limit. Eventually, he was pulled over by the California Highway Patrol:

Instead of giving me a ticket, he pointed down the offramp to a place I could get some coffee and rest. He asked if I had enough money to get some coffee and offered to give me some if I didn’t. He said if I really couldn’t get back to an alert state that I should call a friend or my parents and get a ride because what I was doing wasn’t safe for myself or other drivers.

Honestly, I can’t imagine that getting a ticket would have had nearly as big an impact on my driving as the short, compassionate conversation that officer had with me that night.

While there are certainly times where some form of punishment may be more appropriate, I’d like to believe that in many cases, compassion and empathy can be just as, if not more, effective.

 

Chapter 5 – The Commercialization of Everything: What Money Can[’t] Buy, Part 5

About a week ago, I got back to the series I was doing about the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In last week’s post, the fourth chapter, we looked at corporate-owned life insurance and placebos. In today’s post, the fifth and final chapter, we’ll look at the commercialization of everything.

I wasn’t expecting to come across sports in this book, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first few pages were about stadiums being renamed by corporate sponsors. I didn’t realize that this was a fairly new thing. In 1988 only three sports stadiums had been renamed by corporate sponsors. Sixteen years later, in 2004, there were sixty-six. The amount of money went up significantly, too. In 1988, the deals totaled $25 million, while in 2004, the amount came to a whopping $3.6 billion! In 2010, over 100 stadiums in the United States were named for corporate sponsors. So, in the span of less than 25 years, we went from 3 corporate-sponsored stadiums to more than 100.

Having grown up in Toronto, I still find myself referring to Rogers Centre as Skydome. 

This chapter also discussed the idea of athletes selling their autograph. In the old days, this wasn’t even something to be considered. Many athletes willingly signed cards and sports equipment (i.e. baseball, hockey pucks, etc.) for fans. Near the same time that stadiums were being renamed, some athletes were beginning to sell their autographs rather than giving them away. This may seem greedy at first, but consider that athletes from before the 80s weren’t necessarily making lucrative contracts. In fact, athletes back then were not only often paid much worse than athletes today, but they were more on par with what you’d be paid to be an employee at a “normal job.”

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The chapter then moves into a discussion of — in my words — the commercialization of everything.We’re now seeing advertisements and commercials in places we wouldn’t have ever imagined. For instance, when you pump gas, there’s a TV above the pump feeding you advertisements. Or how about when you’re driving down the highway. It’s kind of hard to ignore some of those catchy billboards, isn’t it? Then, there’s the always in vogue idea of product placement. Some of the places you find product placement was a bit surprising. I didn’t know that police stations were in talks to have cars with advertisements on them nor did I realize that in some state parks around the US are there advertisements for things like North Face.

I was surprised to read about some of the commercialization in the US, especially when I know that in some states, there’s a ban on billboards (Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont). Moving outside of the US, I know that some countries (or maybe the citizens of those countries) have a real aversion to commercials seeping into unwanted places. For instance, São Paulo in Brazil hasn’t allowed public advertising since 2006. I also know that TV commercials in Germany aren’t nearly as frequent as they are in the US. On most German TV stations, there can’t be more than 20 minutes of commercials (before 8pm).

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The last part of the chapter ends the book almost exactly the way I would have [Emphasis added]:

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong — and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.

Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

In addition to debating the meaning of this good or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live…

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide by our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

So, if you prefer not to get too deep into a discussion of inequality that focuses on wealth, then I’d encourage you to think about the ideas that Prof. Sandel is talking about here at the end of the book. He’s just spent the last 200 pages explaining how markets (in some places), to some people, are corroding the value of these goods. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall down on, maybe it’s time we start talking about this. Maybe it’s time to have a dialogue in the public square of more moral and spiritual substance. Of course, this might not be as easy as it sounds, as he says, the last three decades have been void of this.

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If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

 

How Do You Know When You’re “Right” to be in the Minority?

For about a month, I’ve had a note on my list of things to write about as “Majority vs. Minority: Hard to Oppose the Majority.” I don’t remember which event sparked this thought, but it was rekindled a few days ago with the anniversary of the March on Washington. I’ve read different takes on what it was like during the Civil Rights movement, but I can never *truly* know because I wasn’t there. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to oppose such an oppressive majority opinion at the time. This isn’t the only time in history that the majority opinion has been — eventually — overturned, or at least, subdued. You can point to most revolutions throughout history as definite examples.

My question: how do you know when you’re on the right side?

I suppose there can’t be a universal fact-based answer to knowing you’re on the right side because every situation will be different. More than that, every person will have to decide for themselves what’s the “right” side and the “wrong” side. But maybe it’s too narrowing to think in terms of right and wrong. It certainly makes life easier when things are boxed into right and wrong, but that’s not always the case. As we know from theories of moral development, what was once immoral at one stage, becomes justifiably moral at another.

The more I think about this issue, the more I think there’s probably a good book in here. There’s a lot to explore from sociological, anthropological, and psychological perspectives. It’s certainly not easy to oppose the majority. There’s a strong urge to conform.

I think if I had to provide a thesis, it might be something to the effect of: the only person who can decide whether to support the majority opinion or the minority opinion is you. Sure, taking in opinions/facts from others is important in making your decision, but ultimately, you’ve got to decide for yourself whether this is something you want to support (or oppose). We’ve each got our own moral compass (or conscience). This little voice inside is how you can know and if you choose to go against that voice, it is only you who will have to deal with it.

Chapter 4 – Corporate-Owned Life Insurance and Placebos: What Money Can[‘t] Buy, Part 4

It’s been more than a month since I last completed a post in this series. To refresh your memory: we were looking at the chapters in Michael Sandel‘s book, What Money Can’t Buy. In the first chapter, we looked at things like when it’s okay to jump the line. In the second chapter, we looked at the difference between fines and fees. In the third chapter, we looked at fairness and inequality. In today’s post, the fourth chapter, we’ll look at the markets in life and death.

As with previous chapters, I’ve learned something that I didn’t even know existed. In this chapter, I learned about something called “janitors insurance.” This is another way of saying corporate-owned life insurance. Meaning, a company takes out a life insurance policy on its workers. Now, you may have already assumed (or thought) that companies might take out a life insurance policy on the CEO, as the time and energy that would need to go into finding a new CEO should the current one die suddenly, but would you have considered that some companies take out life insurance policies on workers much lower on the organizational chart?

I’m a little uneasy with this idea and I’m not sure which side I’d come down on if forced to choose. It’s certainly a delicate subject.

This chapter also talked about people being able to sell their life insurance policies. Let’s say a man (or woman) is the breadwinner in the family and takes out life insurance when he’s (or she’s) in his (or her) early 30s. The life insurance is really *only* important to the family through the breadwinner’s working years. So, when the person turns 65 (or when they retire), they feel that they no longer need that insurance — and sell it. Do you think that’s ethical? Is it unethical to prevent someone from selling it?

Again, I’m really not sure what’s right in this situation. For some reason, it feels a little more ethical that the people are willingly selling the life insurance that they had previously bought rather than if someone took out life insurance without their knowledge. Though, I’m aware that this may just be the contrast effect at play.

There were other variations on this theme throughout the chapter, but the one thing that I kept thinking about in response to this idea is the variations on the placebo effect that I’ve written about before. We know how powerful our own thoughts can be for ourselves (example) and how powerful our thoughts can be for others (example) — don’t you think that someone buying life insurance (i.e. buying stock in our eventual death) is a bit like sending negative thoughts to a person? Maybe that’s a little extreme.

When Is It OK to Bend the Rules?

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 11.58.14 PMA couple of days ago I shared a link on Facebook to a video of a contestant (a young contestant) on Jeopardy!. The post sparked a bit of conversation, so I thought I’d give it a bit more attention. The long and short of it is that the contestant incorrectly spelled the Final Jeopardy! question. As a result of this misspelling, he was scored as having answered the question wrong, even though everyone in the building and watching at home knew that he “answered” the question correctly. It seems that because of the rules that the judges had previously set forth, they couldn’t give the kid the benefit of the doubt, even though the misspelling only included one extra ‘T’ in two words that totaled 23 letters.

To put a bit more detail on this situation: the clue (or “answer,” as it’s known in Jeopardy!), was trying to get the contestants to write down: Emancipation Proclamation. This one particularly contestant wrote down: EmancipTation Proclamation. Now, d’you think that this is close enough to give the contestant the benefit of the doubt?

Based on Alex Trebek‘s (the host) reaction to what the contestant had written down, I think that he thinks the kid should have gotten the benefit of the doubt. You can hear him stalling for time in the video as the judges make their decision. After Trebek relays the decision to the contestant (and the audience), he tries to offer a bit of reasoning for this decision. It sounds like the “closeness” of an answer is determined in advance of the show for which the questions will be used. Meaning, even though the ages of the contestants on the show are between 10 and 12, the severity with which the judges were scoring the questions could have been as if adults were playing. Is this fair? Is it fair to adjust the rules?

As I reflected on this and some of the reaction that it precipitated on Facebook, I wondered how folks would react if the scenario weren’t a game show. What if this scenario were in a school setting? If the student incorrectly misspells the word, they’ll likely get it wrong — on a spelling test. But what if the test has short answers? Do they then get points because the professor/teacher knew what they were talking about? Do they get full credit? Does the professor/teacher take off a fraction of a point?

I don’t have a definitive answer for any of these questions, but it’s certainly something to think about when we reflect on when we think it’s okay to bend the rules.