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Ethical Behavior in America.
January 11, 2004 11:24 PM   Subscribe

Does our culture actively discourage ethical behavior? The alarmingly high rate of cheating in schools, discussed by David Callahan, seems to imply that cheating is not an aberration in our culture but more like a norm. [More Inside]
posted by gregb1007 (48 comments total)

 
Our corporate culture is corrupt; executives are willing to squeeze all the financial juices out of their company while driving it into the ground at the same time. They'll up their salaries even if their company can't much afford it. They'll falsify their accounting to show profits and lure gullible investors to buy more stock. Then, they'll sell high right before their profits are revealed as fraudulent and the stock plunges to a low and bankrupts the stockholders who recently bought it.

But where do these businessmen learn to ignore all ethical norms and look out only for their own good. Well, according to the book "Cheating Culture", most Americans start ignoring ethics and cutting corners for their own benefit in school. The book talks about how most students don't believe they can succeed by playing fairly - since everyone cheats, they figure that they can't afford to put themselves at a disadvantage by being honest.

Is this the type of view that also dominates corporate culture? Companies may also believe they can't afford to play by the rules and stay in business at the same time. If most companies use tax loopholes to cut costs, can their competitor take the high ground and pay honest taxes while passing on higher prices to their customer? Maybe not, because the customers make a choice about who they'll be doing business not on the ethical merits of the company but merely based on the bottom line. In that way, we Americans choose to support corrupt corporations over more ethical ones.
posted by gregb1007 at 11:25 PM on January 11, 2004


"When I was in school, I cheated on my metaphysics exam: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

--Woody Allen
posted by e.e. coli at 11:48 PM on January 11, 2004


Why should the small people be ethical while the corporations and fundraisers of America be shown and described as faceless backstabbers? Why should kids in school have ethics? Look around and see the obvious corruption of our nation!

Of course, this has all been said before, long before I was ever born. The sky isn't falling yet but my contention is that the corporate identity has to be drastically cleaned up, which is going to need as much federal control as possible. Once businesses that represent the USA become more noble, the proletarians will follow suit.
posted by Keyser Soze at 12:43 AM on January 12, 2004


There is a difference between corporate fraud/dishonesty and the individual case. The corporate version stems from a lack of accountability - everything is compartmentalized, no-one is forced to take individual responsibility for a corporation's behaviour.

But it is interesting about the individual - Callahan seems to be saying that the main reason for cheating is to keep up with [or ahead of] the Jones'. But years ago I had to deliver replacement electronic goods for insurance companies - it was staggering the number of times I could tell that the owners had lied. So many otherwise law-abiding citizens lying to insurance companies because they could get away with it.
posted by meech at 1:02 AM on January 12, 2004


...as much federal control as possible... businesses... become more noble...

*snicker*
posted by quonsar at 1:03 AM on January 12, 2004


This has nothing to do with "culture" and everything to do with human nature.

"We need broad measures to reverse America's drift toward a nation where the rich are given special privileges and middle class Americans see the system as stacked against them."

Because this is a recent development??? <boggle>

Where has David Callahan been living? And can I move there?
posted by Blue Stone at 1:41 AM on January 12, 2004


Blue Stone, while I agree that human nature always inclines people to cheat, I think tough punishments and a cultural emphasis on honor and fairness have been able to curb that inclination. This is kinda analogous to the ten commandments. People are aggressive creatures with vicious impulses that tempt them to kill, rape, and etc... But modern Western socities in general suffer less from these crimes than say... the Barbaric Huns because we've placed so much emphasis on treating them as simply unacceptable. I think the problem with cheating and unethical behavior is that at this point in time in our history our society doesn't punish and look down on corruption as much as it could. I do believe that if our regulatory agencies would crack down on fraud more (SEC, IRS, others), than people would probably be less corrupt. Not because of their noble nature or because they would be enlightened to be more honest. Simply because their ever-present urge to cheat would threaten to get them into trouble. And as for those folks who tried to pass fully functional products as defective to get a refund... well if there were courts around to handle their case than they might think twice about it... By the way, not sure if that would be a wise idea to persecute false product returns. Sometimes the benefits of catching crooks may cost more financially than the crimes they seek to prevent.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:55 AM on January 12, 2004


Our corporate culture is corrupt
When it suits one's purpose, painting an entire class with one broad stroke is acceptable. How ethical is that?
posted by mischief at 3:43 AM on January 12, 2004


Occam's razor should come into play here:

Overzealous expectations put into place by authority figures with the ability to punish may cause adverse reactions when expectations feel out of reach by those who are to perform them.

Authority figures can be stockholders, parents, teachers, or customers.

Remember this experiment? People will do all sorts of things when they feel forced to. Even when the compelling force is nothing more than failing to meet the expectations of an authority figure who, at worst, could damage your feelings of self worth.

This has nothing to do with "Winner takes all" mentality. It does have everything to do with "Losers get punished" mentality. There's a subtle, but poignant difference between them.

Stop punishing losers so badly and people cease being afraid of losing. Therefore you stop cheating. Of course, this is an impractical way to motivate people, buy hey, I'm not a psychologist. I just took the electives in College!
posted by shepd at 4:14 AM on January 12, 2004


Does our culture actively discourage ethical behavior?

Yes, yes it does. But that's hardly unique. Get over yourselves, you magnificent navelgazing bastards, you.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:37 AM on January 12, 2004


one man's cheating is another man's creative thinking
posted by timb at 4:38 AM on January 12, 2004


Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing
posted by larry_darrell at 5:56 AM on January 12, 2004


painting an entire class with one broad stroke is acceptable. How ethical is that?

Corporate executives are not a "class." They are there because they made a career choice and elected to choose a path in which they are forced to work within the confines of a legal structure and culture influences their decisions.

I'm not saying that your every sewage worker is unclean, but when one is surrounded by shit all day, it's merely good judgment to assume that some of the sludge is going to rub off them.

Choose an industry in which unethical behavior is rampant, and you will be influenced by it.
posted by deanc at 7:16 AM on January 12, 2004


"If God does not exist, everything is permissible." Fyodor Dostoevsky

The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.
posted by aaronshaf at 7:38 AM on January 12, 2004


Choose an industry in which unethical behavior is rampant...
Well then, what are my choices?
posted by mischief at 7:47 AM on January 12, 2004


As far as cheating in schools goes, here is an interesting take on the subject from Donald Norman.
posted by TedW at 7:52 AM on January 12, 2004


...government watchdogs haven't been given enough resources to enforce the law, and many Americans are cynical that the rules in our society are fair, so they feel it's justified to cheat.

With all the ridiculous terrorism FUD lately, I don't think many people expect government watchdogs to be fair either.
posted by Foosnark at 8:08 AM on January 12, 2004


There is no honor among rationalizers.
posted by rushmc at 8:34 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

That's like saying that the only reason you didn't misbehave as a child was fear of daddy's belt. Not a very sophisticated ethical framework, being based entirely upon classical conditioning and fear. I would suggest that a big part of being an adult is accepting personal responsibility, rather than attempting to transfer responsibility for one's choices and actions to others, real or imaginary.
posted by rushmc at 8:41 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

Surely you must recognize that your God is a manifestation of values that most of the rest of us have already internalized as good moral behavior that spawns tangible and emotional benefits for both the individual and the society. Your atheist=neanderthal insinuation is annoying and insulting.
posted by PrinceValium at 8:41 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

Even putting aside the God question, what about pride? Or simply honestly wanting to know how good you are at something? or even the more self-serving reason of wanting to avoid the hassles involved with getting caught.

If religion helps steer you away from dishonesty, then that's great, but it's not the only thing that can.
posted by jonmc at 8:48 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

Meh, no need to use so abstract a reason as "the holiness of God", when "myself and my fellow man" will do quite nicely. Quite simply, cheating & dishonesty spread false information. False information tends to handicap a society's ability to cope with reality, thus posing a threat to the continued survival and growth of humanity.
posted by PsychoKick at 8:52 AM on January 12, 2004


"If God does not exist, everything is permissible."

Which is why most people in jail are non-believers. Oh, wait.
posted by callmejay at 8:54 AM on January 12, 2004


I don't believe in god, yet I don't cheat. what gives?

maybe I am god, but don't realize it.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:13 AM on January 12, 2004


"Everyone is as moral as they can afford to be."
--Lenny Bruce
posted by tspae at 9:15 AM on January 12, 2004


Most people take it as a given that today's corporate executives cheat more than yesterday's. I'm not sure that is true. Think of the late 19th century robber barons. It could be that we are just better at catching the crooks these days.

Compare with politics. Some people say Nixon's biggest mistake was not that he acted unethically (many presidents before him did), but that he didn't realize that times had changed and that sort of behavior would be discovered.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:48 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

You terrify me.
posted by majcher at 9:56 AM on January 12, 2004


Aaronshaf invokes the holiness of God. I have recently thought the problem is a general lack of anything being seen as holy. Where is honor if nothing is holy or sacred?

Holiness is not an issue of fear, but an inspiration. Go look in the mirror real good. What you see there is holy. You are holy. Stop with the denial and deal with it.
posted by Goofyy at 10:08 AM on January 12, 2004


So many otherwise law-abiding citizens lying to insurance companies because they could get away with it.

I think the psychology of insurance fraud has a lot to do with the "they owe me" thought process...which seems to short circuit some ethical decisions. It's akin to taxes...almost everyone looks for every possible loophole to avoid paying taxes...because internally, people don't associate taxes with roads and police and fire trucks...they associate taxes with someone taking hard earned cash out of their hands to do god-knows-what with it.

I also think that there's been a disconnect somewhere in the teaching of the concept of right versus wrong. At the risk of having my libertarian badge taken away, I think the core problem comes down to a generational refusal to parent. People wanted to be friends with their kids...and stopped being parents. Right and wrong have to be taught at the home level first. A good grounding in ethics must be instilled by the most important role model a child has.

Cheating at school would be dramatically reduced, I believe, if we stopped teaching to tests and using number matrixes to judge the potential of a child...a thing which cannot be measured.

Cheating as adults is just sad. I think ethics should be a mandatory class in high school and university. If algebra can be mandatory, then so should applied ethics. At the university level, it's a really fascinating field.
posted by dejah420 at 10:11 AM on January 12, 2004


"Arendt's work deals with subjects of politics, authority, and totalitarianism. In her reporting of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she raised the question whether evil is radical or simply a function of banality - of the failure of good people to take risks."

Hmmm... Could all of this cheating be related to the "banality of evil?"
posted by kaibutsu at 10:37 AM on January 12, 2004


It seems that cheating, as with any moral issue, is a subjective beast.

I was watching a documentary on San Fran's Chinatown last night. Back in the day, in order to solve the "Chinese Problem" the U.S. had passed legislation that prohibited Chinese people specifically from immigrating (along with lots of other racist restrictions). Since children of citizens become citizens automatically, existing Chinese U.S. citizens would travel to china, "have a baby", then return to the U.S. with someone else's child in order to offer them greater opportunities in life.

From the perspective of the scared white people, this was cheating. From the perspective of the inhabitants of Chinatown, this was surviving in face of corrupt legislation.

Just because you think some action is a cheat does not mean that everyone else shares your belief.

Goofyy: I have recently thought the problem is a general lack of anything being seen as holy. Where is honor if nothing is holy or sacred?

Is there a general lack of anything 'holy', or do people simply disagree on what these 'holy' ideals are?
posted by jsonic at 10:39 AM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

You terrify me.


Oooh, roger *that*. Are you saying, aaronshaf, that the reason you don't pull a "Lord of the Flies" on the rest of us is because of the surveillance and retribution of something external to you? That *is* scary.

As much as I think the current generation of parents is, objectively and scientifically speaking of course, shitty, I think "corruption" is both contextual and eternal. Wringing our hands about it won't change it; understanding why people feel so much pressure to cheat and doing something about those factors stands a much better chance.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:22 AM on January 12, 2004


MetaFilter: magnificent navelgazing bastards.
posted by homunculus at 11:25 AM on January 12, 2004


The only reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors are those magnificent navels. In the end, they keep me going.
posted by ed at 1:28 PM on January 12, 2004


The only real reason I have for not cheating behind closed doors is the holiness of God.

That's the saddest thing I've ever heard.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 1:56 PM on January 12, 2004


A similar discussion.
posted by Snyder at 2:48 PM on January 12, 2004


The Year of the Fake
posted by homunculus at 3:17 PM on January 12, 2004


Ethical Behavior in France.

A very well-written article, which is useful as a reference point for corruption in the US. While I'm not religious, I have to ask, what was expected to happen when we tore down religion and left nothing in its place?
posted by majin at 6:06 PM on January 12, 2004


Surely you must recognize that your God is a manifestation of values that most of the rest of us have already internalized as good moral behavior that spawns tangible and emotional benefits for both the individual and the society. Your atheist=neanderthal insinuation is annoying and insulting.

That would be Dostoevsky's atheist=neanderthal's insinuation, actually. If it were, in fact an insult. For one thing, it appears to be a first person statement, which means that at best it's a rather indirect insult. Though subtlety was not beyond Dostoevsky, and I guess that's what insinuation means anyway.

But perhaps more important is the subtle point that the sentence says the holiness of God, not the potential wrath of God, is the speaker's motivation to be good when otherwise unobserved. The idea of existence of an embodiment of Good can be a powerful positive motivator both for believers -- and I know from first and second hand experience this motivation can, in fact, also operate in athiests who've either known people who approach the ideal or have decided that they're the kind of people who will embody it. But the perception an actual embodiment of Good is even stronger still than ideals alone, especially in the face of cynicism and demonstrations of the reverse ideals that has to eat at anyone who spends some time here on the planet.

Whether or not you think that perception is a delusion, I'd think you'd have to grant that delusions and true visions are both very powerful.
posted by namespan at 7:51 PM on January 12, 2004


I have to ask, what was expected to happen when we tore down religion and left nothing in its place?

Um, I believe if you check you'll see that quite a lot was put up to replace it. If someone can't find anything, they aren't looking very hard.

I'd think you'd have to grant that delusions and true visions are both very powerful.

In the sense that a madman can exercise startling strength but to no sound purpose, perhaps.

Good represents the reality of which God is the dream. —Iris Murdoch
posted by rushmc at 9:12 PM on January 12, 2004


It seems that cheating, as with any moral issue, is a subjective beast.

This viewpoint would explain a lot, too.

In the sense that a madman can exercise startling strength but to no sound purpose, perhaps

Powerful isn't always good, it's true. But if you're saying religious visions (or delusions if you will) can't lead to a sound purpose... well, I believe if you check you'll see there are quite a few good examples. If someone can't find anything, they aren't looking very hard. ; )
posted by namespan at 9:42 PM on January 12, 2004


Good represents the reality of which God is the dream. —Iris Murdoch

"Their dreams are very powerful." – Fred Saberhagen, The Third Book of Swords
posted by namespan at 9:44 PM on January 12, 2004


It seems that cheating, as with any moral issue, is a subjective beast.
namespan: This viewpoint would explain a lot, too.


Such as??
posted by jsonic at 8:59 AM on January 13, 2004


I believe if you check you'll see there are quite a few good examples.

Even a berserker (nod to Saberhagen) run amok may randomly do some good; this is not a moral victory, however. All morality must be grounded in a dedication to the truth.
posted by rushmc at 9:00 AM on January 13, 2004


All morality must be grounded in a dedication to the truth.

Is this a statement of you personal morals, or are you asserting an objective truth?

In case I'm coming across as being pedantic, the reason I ask is that one (of many) things I find irrational about theism is its tendency to assert unsupported claims as objective truth. If one argues against a theist by simply asserting a different unsupported claim as objective truth, then they are attempting to fight illogic with illogic.
posted by jsonic at 9:31 AM on January 13, 2004


Just because a claim is unsupported doesn't mean it is unsupportable. The ultimate nature of "Truth" is obviously something beyond the scope of this thread.

If you prefer to reword the statement for clarity, however, feel free: "All morality must be grounded in a dedication to the discovery and adherence to the truth."
posted by rushmc at 1:31 PM on January 13, 2004


Even a berserker (nod to Saberhagen) run amok may randomly do some good; this is not a moral victory, however.

(1) Not a lasting one for the berserker to be sure, but why not a moral victory in general? Running amok against an immoral or amoral programme certainly increases the tally of moral acts vs the ones available to an entity following the programme.

(2) But I do agree that no (well... perhaps few) single moral or immoral act can be indicative of an entity's moral evolution. Or the fidelity of their internal understanding to truth.

(3) Howerver, the religious-influenced good I obliquely referenced rarely arises out of a random program of action; rather, it tends to arise out of disciplined study and/or action, values committed to out of conviction. While this is certainly accessible and even practiced by athiests, thiests may experience a sense of connection to a personal embodiment of these values. This hardly constitutes running amok from a programme of moral values, and therefore seems far more alien than analogue to your example.

More concretely, take a Gandhi. Whatever misperceptions and poor conclusions he may have held in his head over his lifetime, it seems disingenuous to seperate what seems like a highly moral series of actions from his religious beliefs, or assert that they were random accidents. Similarly for MLK, or more ordinarily, a friend I have who feels she sometimes gets spiritual impressions to help, in specific ways, people ranging from relative strangers to those close to her, or other friends who feel like their religious background demands they spend some time supporting development efforts in third world countries.

I wouldn't say that the ultimate truth of how these people percieve and construct their universe vs how things are doesn't matter: it clearly does and it's way too interesting to ignore anyway. What I would say is that there are principles that may be as important as the detailed blueprints of the cosmos, but visible and discoverable -- and perhaps even more powerful -- from multiple cosmological/epistemological viewpoints.


The ultimate nature of "Truth" is obviously something beyond the scope of this thread.

Indeed. : ) That's probably half the problem with Metafilter.

And unfortunately too much is beyond the scope of a lifetime. I'll also say that even with the above relativistic statement, I do think there is *a* true cosmological/epistemological viewpoint, and it's likely that it's the only one from which some principles can be seen, and you have to keep trying to find it (and plus, again, it's just interesting). But I doubt it's held in the mind of any human on the earth, which is why I think one shouldn't fault people for taking advantage of the ones they've got and trying to live up to them. When it comes to even our clumsier moral and metaphysical understandings, our reach still exceeds our grasp.
posted by namespan at 10:36 PM on January 13, 2004


But I doubt it's held in the mind of any human on the earth, which is why I think one shouldn't fault people for taking advantage of the ones they've got and trying to live up to them.

We're not entirely in disagreement, namespan, but my objection is to people wasting time with models that are blatantly false, negative, and/or immoral. We may not be capable of putting together the whole picture yet (or perhaps ever), but we can certainly eliminate some obvious dead ends along our journey.
posted by rushmc at 10:46 PM on January 13, 2004


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