Why Do We Fail to Do What's Right? Bring Your Questions for Authors of Blind Spots

We recently published a guest post on the ethics of the decision-making that led to the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. That post was adapted from a new book called Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. The authors are Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame.

Blind Spots looks into the gap between our intended and actual behavior; why we often overestimate our ability to do what’s right; and how we convince ourselves to do what we want rather than what we should. The authors tie their theory to a string of recent blowups, including: baseball’s steroid scandal, Enron’s collapse, Bernie Madoff‘s fraud, and corruption in the tobacco industry.

Brazerman and Tenbrunsel have agreed to answer your questions, so fire away in the comments section. As with all our Q&A’s, we’ll post their answers in short course.

To prime the pump, here’s the Table of Contents from Blind Spots:

1. The Gap between Intended and Actual Ethical Behavior

2. Why Traditional Approaches to Ethics Won’t Save You

3. When We Act against Our Own Ethical Values

4. Why You Aren’t as Ethical as You Think You Are

5. When We Ignore Unethical Behavior

6. Placing False Hope in the “Ethical Organization”

7. Why We Fail to Fix Our Corrupted Institutions

8. Narrowing the Gap: Interventions for Improving Ethical Behavior


Clancy

When thinking about one’s own “moral code” (i.e. standards we set for ourselves to try to make the right choices and live a more moral life) which approach makes more sense: Setting the bar very high while acknowledging that you will never actually achieve it and knowing that by these standards you will do many “immoral” things because “you’re only human.” Or setting much lower expectations such that you might be able to achieve them?
Example: “It is always morally wrong to lie, but I know that I will tell many lies in my lifetime, though I will try not to.” Vs. “It is sometimes ok to lie in certain circumstances.”

Paul Silver

I hope that chapter 7 on fixing corrupted institutions addresses the excessive influence special interests have on public policy. Many public representatives are essentially paid, by Unions and Commercial interests, to sabotage fair and reasonable policies. One possible remedy is publicly financed campaigns. The big question for me is why so few wealthy supporters of fair government are willing to put up the money to help this movement offset the special interests.

AaronS

Some questions:

Do you think that "American culture" played a role in the Challenger disaster (and others)? That is, is there any good reason that the same thing would not have played out similarly in other cultures under the same circumstances...or would cultural differences have perhaps avoided the disaster? (I am thinking that some cultures might have esteemed the engineers' comments far more highly than those of the corporate suits.)

Are ethics really just aspirations? Thus, unless we fall FAR short, we can shrug it off as "just being human?"

Lastly, do you think the Ten Commandments are so "absolute" because they were written for an "immature" people/time/culture? That is, are they perhaps kind of like us telling our small children to "NEVER cross the road alone," knowing that when they are 21-years-old, that rule will no longer be valid?

Ray

It seems to me that failing to do what's right thrives primarily in environments where decision making is vested in one individual (or in large organizations, very few individuals) who deem it unnecessary to seek input from those who implement or are the objects of those decisions. Some of us seem prepared to gamble with the ethics of a decision and ignore/overlook doing what's right in the belief that somehow the reward will be worth it. We can do that more easily alone or in very small groups, but not in more open and collaborative environments.

Isn't that evident in the behaviour of women among whom sharing of information, group discussion and decision making, and consensus is more the norm and which seems to lead to fewer ethical blowups?

Are men somehow more hardwired to achieving positions where leading from the front and alone can seem to be a greater accomplishment than doing what's right?

Does all this mean that women are morally superior to men or simply that they act and behave in ways that make it more difficult to avoid doing what's wrong and easier to do what's right?

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Jacob

There is an awesome summary of Bazerman's book, Blind Spots, here:
http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/you-are-not-as-ethical-as-you-think-you-are

Highly recommended you read the post and the book!

James

Who decides what's right, and why should I go along with their decision even when me ideas of what's right are completely different?

For instance, I have absolutely no ethical objections to using steroids. If I were in a field where marginal improvements in athletic performance would make the difference between success and mediocrity, I might well choose to use them. I wouldn't see anything unethical about doing so. Indeed, if there's any unethical behavior at all, it's that of the people paying for performance, while at the same time hypocritically punishing those who try to attain that performance.

Steevn

"Indeed, if there’s any unethical behavior at all, it’s that of the people paying for performance, while at the same time hypocritically punishing those who try to attain that performance."

But that's a bit like objecting to lip syncing singers (or possibly using autotune for a less sever example) though. The audience wants a performance as good as on the record, but not at the expense of faking it.

jac

From what I read, especially in your earlier post, it seems that you have cherry picked your evidence. We can say with certainty that the Challenger should never have been launched because we know the results of that launch. Hindsight is 20/20. How do you believe that we should deal with the costs of inaction? An example of such an ethical dilemma would be approval of new drugs by the FDA. If the FDA makes a mistake and incorrectly approves an unsafe drug people will be hurt, and the victims of the mistake will be obvious. Conversely if the FDA incorrectly disapproves of a safe drug people who could have received treatment will suffer, and possibly even die as a result. In this case the victims won't be obvious, but they will be equally harmed by the incorrect decision. How do you believe we should weigh risk vs reward in the real world where outcomes are not always obvious?

caleb b

A couple of questions:

I know that people become less ethical when the watch others break the rules with no punishment. A perfect example (and studied one at that) is jay-walking after a large event. It's breaking the rules for the large crowd to continuously block traffic by crossing against the light, but if enough people are doing it, I will too. I feel like a sucker if I’m the only one waiting for the walk light while everyone else crosses with immunity. So, my question is: is there a studied relationship between the severity of a rule break and how many people must a perceive are breaking that rule in order to break it myself.

So, as for my jay-walking example, I might only need to see a few people crossing before I cross myself, but if people were stealing copies of Freakonomics from a pallet in front of Border’s, I would need to watch many more doing it before I would join in.

Also, how do high profile crimes affect that genre of crime? After Madoff, are we seeing more Ponzi schemes (it seems like it), less, or the same but now it is news worthy? After Enron, did we see more corporate fraud crimes, less, or no change?

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James

Why do you think jaywalking is unethical?

Considered from a purely utilitarian viewpoint, jaywalking* is dangerous when you step out alone into traffic, but it's not (or only minimally so) when you're following the lead of hundreds, who've brought the traffic to a stop.

*And why is it called jaywalking, I wonder? One for the quote finder, I think.

caleb b

Well, only because it is against the rules and causes "harm" to the drivers that are trying to cross the intersection.

Similarly, what about the people that know that the road is going down to one lane, but ride in the closed lane all the way to the end and cut in at the last minute. What stops everyone from trying this because the only punishment that you can receive is a honk and a one-finger salute. I would argue that most people have a moral compass that says that it "just feels wrong."

Jaywalker = Jay + Walk Apparently a Jay is someone who is a fool, or in this case unfamiliar with the rules of traffic.

James

But on the other hand, I did not make those rules. Why should I feel bound to follow them as a matter of ethics, rather than practicality? After all, those drivers are causing similar "harm" to me by frustrating my desire to cross the road.

Likewise with your cutting in example, it seems far more a matter of practicality and foresight than of ethics. If I move to the lane early, I have my merging problem solved, at the cost of a definite few seconds delay. If I go to the end, the drivers who've already merged quite likely will not be inclined to let me in, so I may well trade my instant gratification of speeding past already-merged cars, for a longer total delay.

Or take a similar situation which annoys me. I'm driving down the road and see a red light ahead, so I slow down enough so that it will turn green before I reach it. (I can predict the timing fairly well.) Why do other drivers speed past, then jam on their brakes, come to a complete stop, then have to accelerate again when it does turn green? While if there's a free lane, I'll roll through the intersection at speed, and be well down the road before they get moving again?

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ThatMattGuy

It's not a rule, but a law that you are discussing. Your right to cross the road ends when the probability of you going through my windshield ends. Do you feel the same way when coming to a red light when there's people in the crosswalk? Utilitarianism fails again.

Elise Moser

Hello,
Here's my ethical question: I believe the dairy industry is cruel, with the forced breeding of female animals, the crating of veal and the abuse and callous killing of male offspring. I do not eat meat and pretty successfully avoid other animal products, but I find it hard to get all the way off dairy, usually for convenience or out of consideration for people who are feeding me or eating with me. Why can't I put the suffering and death of baby animals over convenience and social niceties?

Alan T.

I believe that legislators often have to choose between acting in the public interest or in the interest of major campaign contributors. In your book, you give the example of legislators who received large campaign contribution from auditing firms and then blocked legislation
to impose ethical standards on those firms.

As you also explain in your book, many people mean well but act in unethical ways because they are unaware of the ethical implications of their decisions.

Suppose, for a moment, that my Congressman sincerely wishes to act in the public interest, but that he has convinced himself that what is good for his campaign contributors is good for the public. (I can think of many reasons why this is unlikely to be true. One reason is that
corporations that can afford to make large campaign contributions desire legislation that will protect their market share, whereas legislation that promotes competition benefits the economy as a whole.)

Suppose further that I have 60 seconds to convince my Congressman that the policies he promotes benefit only his campaign contributors, not the American people whom he genuinely wishes to serve. What should I say to him?

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