On Philosophy

November 23, 2006

Why Groups of People Behave Unethically

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 1:10 am

If you pay attention to the news at all it is obvious that groups of people, for example corporations, generally behave worse than individual people. People on their own seem generally nice, but when they get together they can so some really nasty things. And this is not because the leadership of these corporations is made up of selfish and evil people (although some of them probably are). The real reason is that any group of people, without certain safeguards, will simply act in ways that the people making it up never would, ways that those people may almost universally disapprove of. We can trace this phenomenon back to three major causes: it is hard to hold a group accountable, it is easy for members of a group to claim that they aren’t responsible for the group’s misdeeds, and that when brought together in a group the positive inclinations of its members tend to cancel each other out, while the negative ones are reinforced.

Most would agree that if you don’t hold individuals responsible for their behavior they are more likely to behave poorly, and if individuals are raised in such an environment they will have a greatly diminished moral compass. I think the same principle holds for groups, and it is quite clear that it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold a group accountable. Sure you can punish the leaders, but often a group’s leaders are easily replaced, and not necessarily responsible for every wrongdoing anyways. To see this in action consider the tobacco industry. It is clear that their product kills their customers; even if their product wasn’t addictive this would be at best assisting suicide. And now that they know that it has these deadly effects we would assume that they should stop making it, and if they didn’t that they should be held accountable, as much as I would be if I intentionally poisoned you. And to some extent, through fines and lawsuits they are. But they definitely aren’t held to the same standards. Considering the number of people they are killing they would be deemed a mass murderer. Even if we distributed the guilt evenly among the employees it would probably come to at least one death per person (I admit, I haven’t done the math). In comparison the penalties they receive barely cut into profits. And so the people who make up the corporation barely notice; perhaps their bonuses are reduced slightly. Effectively this means that we aren’t punishing producing a toxic product, as far as most people in the corporation are concerned. I wonder what message that sends?

But, we might reason, even if the group as a whole isn’t properly punished the individuals that compose it might still be motivated by their own sense of right and wrong to at least quit, and thus correct the group from the inside. Obviously that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen because when people are part of a group they shift responsibility for their actions from themselves to the group as a whole, not realizing that it makes no sense to do this (since the group is not a person, and thus can’t really be considered to be responsible). When people are in groups and doing something that they know to be wrong they find it easy to rationalize their behavior by arguing that even if they stopped someone else in the group would pick up where they left off, or that because they contribute such a small part that their responsibility is likewise reduced. Both such arguments are well known to be flawed; I won’t go into the details here, but I would recommend reading Parfit’s Reasons and Persons if you are interested. However, people do justify their actions through such reasons, probably an instance of our herd/social instincts overriding our moral instincts.

So far then I have explained how bad behavior by a group can be perpetuated, even if the people within it should know better. It still remains to be explained why groups begin acting badly to begin with, since the motivation to do wrong must come from somewhere. I think that this can be attributed to an averaging of the desires of the members of the group. Most groups are formed for a single purpose, for example corporations, notoriously ill-behaved groups, are formed to make money. And this means that everyone who joins the group almost certainly shares its central motivation, at least to some extent. Why would you become part of a corporation if you didn’t intend to make money for that corporation, and in return be paid for your work? Other interests are not so selected for, and thus that one interest comes to dominate the others. Let me return again to the example of the tobacco corporation. Let us further pretend that nearly every member of the corporation wants to do something to remedy the problems that they have created. Even so there are many different ways to go about this. Some want to make safer cigarettes, some want to make nicotine substitutes, some want to help people quit, ect. And thus there is no focus, and so these good initiatives simply aren’t implemented as successfully as the primary purpose of the company, to sell more tobacco products, and thus they fail to correct the errors of the group. Even the CEO can’t fix these problems. To do so would reduce profits, and since not all board members favor that solution, but all are in favor of profits, it will be blocked. And even if a directive is handed down it will be implemented poorly, as people at lower levels worry about its negative impact on the company. And so little is done.

So what can we do? Well as a philosopher I should really restrict myself to ethical advice, and my ethical advice is this: take full responsibility for actions taken by a group you belong to. So if you are working for a tobacco company quit. Sure you might need the money, but is your salary really worth all those deaths? If people simply took full responsibility, and stopped trying to distribute it to others, most of these problems would go away.

You can watch an interesting documentary on corporations, and see that some of the people running these ill-behaved corporations are as ethical as the rest of us, here.


1 Comment

  1. Quiting your job and knowing the possibilty that someonelse would fill your position and behave less ethically has to be considered. Corporations behave like animals. Most will not turn down profiting activities unless they are unlawful. It’s about survival. The law of jungle has to been changed and globalisation hold promise here. Monopolisation of competitors holding both promise for ethical and unethical expoitations.

    Comment by wearethebigbang — November 30, 2006 @ 7:17 am

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