Thursday, August 25, 2011

Toward a More Ethical America

Most people know the right thing to do. The challenge is getting them to do it.

In just one week in my private practice, clients, in the confidentiality of my office, said the following:
  • "I'm going to stay on unemployment until the extensions run out. Then I'll look for a job. Meanwhile, I'm working under-the-table."
  • "Lawyers often double-bill."
  • "I want to milk the education thing as long as I can so I don't have to grow up." (Professional students waste class slots that could have gone to people who would use that slot to be productive, to better society.)
  • "I flirt to get what I want and then claim I feel violated when they flirt back." (Beware.)
  • A physician admitted to me that some doctors do procedures, including surgeries, that could have more wisely been treated medically. Why? Simply to make more money.
All that on top of the corporate excesses, priests screwing parishioners (including children,) people lying on the resumes and income taxes, using synthetic urine to pass drug tests, hiring people to write their theses, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, getting people to more often do the right thing would bring enormous benefits to society: from more honestly on tax returns to more circumspect decision making to more honorable relationships, business and personal. If we were all more ethical, we'd have to spend less time, money, and resources policing: for example, the mountain of regulations that business must comply with, which nonetheless often don't foil those who wish to be unethical.

The question is, "How do we get more people to choose integrity over expediency?" Nearly every school, including business schools, teach ethics yet too often when it's expedient, people cut corners, sometimes big corners--Enron comes to mind. But lack of integrity is pervasive: from test cheating to resume cheating, from tax cheating to customer cheating--so often do salespeople withhold negative information about a product. And of course, the financial crisis started with people who couldn't afford to buy a home being told they could get a "stated-income" mortgage. So they signed up figuring that if their home declined in value they could simply walk away, leaving the bank to pay for their loss. Then sleazy bankers and insurance companies packaged the mortgages in a way that would hide the bad loans and otherwise unfairly reduce their risk. And the lack of integrity spiraled from there.

There will never be a perfectly integrity-first society but I believe the following will take us closer: We must all come to believe that integrity must trump expediency. Not for fear of punishment because there are too many times that lack of integrity won't get punished. We must believe that integrity trumps expediency because it is cosmically right: that our worth as a human being is centrally dependent on being a person of integrity.

How do we get people to believe that, indeed believe it so strongly that they'll much more often choose integrity over expediency?

To effect such a fundamental change in people's values, I believe requires efforts than begin pre-school and continue well into adulthood:
  • Parenting education (as part of Lamaze and other pre-birth parenting education--e.g.,. in the post-birth hospital room), should stress the primacy of teaching your child that ethics must trump expediency. Parents need, through their actions more than their words, to make clear the primacy of integrity. For example, every time a parent takes their 12-year-old to a restaurant where kids under 12 eat free and the parent says, "My child is 12" and pays, the child gets the message that integrity indeed does trump expediency.
  • Pre-K-through-graduate school, every year or two, students should create (for example, as a term paper) a model ethics training program for slightly younger students. Such an approach immerses the students in the process, unlike in a lecture should generate minimum defensiveness, and provides an ongoing source of improved ethics courses. There need be only three rules for that course development:
  • Its goal must be to change the fabric of a student's thinking process so s/he will almost reflexively choose ethics over expediency.
  • It must be critical-incident based, e.g., for elementary school students: bullying, for high school students: cheating, for business-school students: withholding negative information to sell a product.
  • It must put students in the shoes of the victim of ethical malfeasance. For example, when, to make more money, a surgeon recommends surgery when drug treatment would do, imagine how the patient feels on hearing he "needs" surgery, how his family feels, how he feels when he's checking into the hospital, wheeled into surgery, and when he suffers post-operatively.
To extend the ethics curriculum beyond the school years, producers of public-service announcements, TV dramas and sitcoms, movies and video games should be encouraged to create story lines that present thorny ethical dilemmas: for example, where expediency would yield great benefit and the ethical violation to derive that benefit is not great.
    I would be dishonest to say that I have always chosen integrity over expediency but my batting average is pretty good. And if, from childhood, that concept had been drummed into me as powerfully as the message that that working hard is important, perhaps I would even more often make the cosmically ethical choice.


    Anonymous said...

    Reading this post, I have an observation and would like your thoughts:

    Many experts like yourself see China rising to economic preeminence in this century.

    Behind this rise is a great deal of expediency, from flouting intellectual property laws to currency manipulation to disregarding environmental, health, and safety considerations.

    Will this expediency come back to haunt China, or will we become more expedient to keep up?

    Marty Nemko said...

    Great question, dear Anonymous. My hunch is, that, like most things, it will be somewhere in the middle.

    Napamike said...

    expediency=rationalizing and there is just no right way to do the wrong thing.
    Check out the training at the Michael Josephson institute- he has some good programs for teachers and coaches to try and instill good values in the kids. Of course it has to be reinforced at home, so there's the challenge- Just watch TV and look at the ethical dilemnas being handled on sitcoms, dramas etc.
    Nice write up Marty.


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