On Philosophy

September 21, 2007

The Collective Ethical Problem

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Groups of people, organized around a common goal, have the tendency to act unethically (in strength proportional to their size) in pursuit of that goal, even if all the people that compose them are individually ethical. This apparent paradox (where does the unethical behavior come from?) explains why genuinely bad people aren’t that common, and yet organizations that seem best described as morally deficient (such as corporations that are seemingly willing to do anything for money) are. What can we do to correct this tendency?

But before I discuss a possible solution let me shed some more light on why groups act unethically. I see the problem as stemming from two sources. One is a misjudgment by members of the group about how the other members will act. Members of the group obviously see the purpose of the group as important, or are at least committed to acting as if it was (otherwise they wouldn’t be members). Thus they are willing to make small sacrifices to achieve that goal, to act in ways that are slightly unethical, because they reason that the goal of the group justifies such small transgressions. But of course everyone reasons that way, and so, as members of the group, many people act unethically on behalf of the group, which has the potential to add up. But this is only part of the problem. The majority of the unethical actions that groups take result from the fact that the common goal shared by their members does not include acting ethically. Thus, as a whole, the group will focus most of its resources on pursing that goal and few on anything else. And pursing a goal the exclusion of all else usually results in unethical behavior. Another way to see this phenomenon is to observe that the members of the group will have different opinions as to how the group should act ethically, what is right and wrong for the group, and what tradeoffs can be made to pursue the overall goal. Thus attempts to improve the ethical status of the group will be sporadic and unfocused, and as a consequence won’t achieve much. In comparison everyone has a pretty clear idea about the stated purpose of the group and how to achieve it, and so the group tends to achieve its stated purpose at the expense of ethics.

Since the unethical nature of groups is an emergent phenomenon we can’t expect telling people about it will correct the problem. Nor is it likely to self-correct, acting ethically is not necessarily to the advantage of the group (although a world in which all groups acted ethically would be), and so spontaneous fixes to this problem are unlikely to emerge and succeed. (Of course individual people were once in the same situation, but, unlike groups, we have our own intelligence, instead of emergent behavior, and thus could decide on a rational basis to act ethically and create systems to encourage such behavior.) Obviously then the solution, whatever it is, must be imposed on groups by a central authority. In fact this is exactly the kind of situation in which governments are most effective.

Given that the unethical behavior of groups arises from the fact that they form around goals that don’t include ethics (just as a person whose sole goal in life was to make money would probably act unethically) one way to fix the problem might be to force groups to add ethics to their explicit goals. Corporations could adopt an ethical charter that spells out exactly what limits there are on the ways in which they will try to make money. Obviously such a charter will not stop corporations from acting unethically, just as making people sign a statement that they will abide by the laws won’t make them obey the laws. But the point of such a charter is not to end wrongdoing, the point is to stop wrongdoing that arises unintentionally. The point of the charter is to focus members of the group on acting ethically as well as the primary goal of the group, and to detail exactly what ethical action entails, at least when a member of that group. Emergent unethical behavior, as I stated above, can come from people willing to act unethically in small ways to achieve the goal of the group. Hopefully directions from above saying not to do that will at least diminish such behavior. More importantly, such a charter will unify the members of the group interested in acting ethically, instead of acting haphazardly to make the group act ethically their efforts will be concentrated by such a charter, ideally resulting in a second emergent force that counterbalances the group’s natural tendency to act unethically to some degree.

To finish let me say a few words on how such an idea could be implemented in practical terms. Obviously it isn’t possible to force all corporations to adopt such a charter, if they catch wind of such a proposal they will collectively fight it, creating opposition that would be impossible to overcome. Thus a more successful approach would be to make adopting such a charter optional, and to allow some leeway as to its exact nature. A panel could be formed that would create standards which any ethical charter must meet, thus allowing individual corporations to create a charter they are at least somewhat willing to adopt. To encourage corporations to adopt charters the government could offer them a tax break for doing so, and might allow them to label their products with a special seal (thus giving them some competitive advantage). And this would make corporations push for the proposal rather than oppose it. Finally inspectors would have to be hired who could make sure that corporations were doing more than adopting the charter in name only, which would include enforcing it with the same degree of effort they spend trying to catch people who embezzle or cost the corporation money in other ways. Individuals might also be allowed to bring suit against companies that violate their ethical charter.

And that’s my proposal. While it might not be perfect it is better than what we have in place now for curbing the unethical tendencies of groups: nothing.


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