How often do you look around, with others present, in a morally ambiguous dilemma and find no leadership? To find that nobody knows what to do.
I was in a discussion once over collecting data from people, the data was going to be used by a client in ways that were not clearly communicated to those from whom the data was collected. I decided, without any known policy or regulation in place, that there was probably an issue. I raised this issue with my superior, and we decided a course of action, to not hand over the data. When we met with the client, my superior did not raise the issue, but I did, very un-confidently, and without the support of my superior, the client took the data, and used it in a probably harmless way, because I relented. Those who gave up the data were not asked, and were told that the data would be handled with strict confidentiality to the independent firm, who I worked for, who gave the raw data over to the client. All of this, most likely, was not on the minds of those who gave their data, we received no inquiry about how the data was being handled. Ultimately, nobody noticed this dilemma, and probably only I care about it.
I quit that job, but I never forgot that moment. It seemed to me that I was causing problems that didn’t need to be caused by raising questions that hadn’t been considered, by recommending conservative action, costing money, potentially the client, for fear of an unlikely-to-materialize risk. I still feel like a coward for relenting, but at the same time, I don’t feel the mistake has any noticeable consequences for anyone, none that would ever be blamed on me, and I live with that as a small narrative to console my failure. The failure that I have defined for you now, that I didn’t have to define.
I remember the lack of leadership. I, the young, inexperienced employee, was alone in questioning the transaction. I received no follow up discussion, everyone else seemed happy not to raise the subject ever again. If I extrapolate this experience, I wonder how common it is. How much of this type of situation, for example, fueled the financial crisis in 2008. How often are we failed by leadership? How often do we fail to lead ourselves? I have never seen this situation in a T.V. show, a book, or a movie, it seems to lack sufficient drama. Ultimately nothing bad happened. Nobody protested, nobody got sued, at worst some people might put more importance on a very minor report in their daily work life than they probably should. At worst, some people let some information out to a company that they overly trusted, thinking there was a check-and-balance to protect them from any wrong doing, of which the stakes were very low.
Yet, I’m still disturbed by this episode, and it is only one of many. Not all about data, not all in my professional experience. Most stories in the mainstream have stronger characters that encounter dilemma, few are about collective failure, how a stronger desire to ignore pesky moral dilemma is pervasive in any situation where there are clear benefits to ignoring the dilemma. I have never seen a movie about a flight crew that crashed a plane, but nobody is really to blame, but that happens in real life. How often do these little chinks in the grander narratives of justice snowball in to full blown crisis? Who gets hurt? What sorts of stories do we need to move on from that pain? Scapegoating comes from these problems, and scapegoats are victims, if morally imperfect, even compromised victims.
When I look around to the people that walk the streets, I see people that, like me, like to believe they are good. We don’t really know this. It’s an assumption that we are good. That we will do the right thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We are more like children than we like to admit. We openly tout and rage and protest about our rights, for what we are entitled, but we do not act in the same manner to define that for which we are responsible. This is the job of someone else out there, our politicians and lawyers, perhaps. But the politicians, are chiefly responsible to reflect the will of all of us. Voter turnout is a sad reminder of the importance we put on our responsibility to participate in public, moral, decision making. Again, cynicism is the more defensible response you will hear from those who do not vote. People shirk out of a feeling of dis-empowerment, because their marginal impact is just that…very marginal. Is it correct to assume, then, that there is no meaning behind voting because it is a marginal expression of power? Even symbolic meaning? The cynic laughs at symbolic action. Is (s)he necessarily correct?
The mainstream media, I feel, is out there to comfort us. To keep us believing that there are heroes, but there are only other people out there. No one of us is even close to morally perfect, there are no 10’s, we all fail more than anyone else realizes, and we seem all too eager to throw those who fail publicly under the bus. There seems like little to admire in our GroupThink if we think of compassion as a value. Doubt me? How does the media talk about suspects in crimes? Innocent until proven guilty? How do people talk about suspects around the water cooler? How much info does the average person need before (s)he condemns another on the basis of an accusation?
Let’s have a thought experiment.
Say you could put integrity on a scale. This scale measures moral courage, and assigns a score to the individual based on how well (s)he overcomes moral adversity. Assume that moral dilemma are encountered daily, in fact, every conscious decision that is made is a solution to a moral dilemma. Some moral dilemma are more challenging than others, and so one might consider that a greater score will be assigned to those who overcome greater challenges, true, but now let’s assume we have a perfect control for the assignment of moral dilemma, that is we can control for relative performance and relative opportunity to display moral courage/strength. Scores will not be biased by opportunity. Let’s also assume that we can control for the cultural influences that shape moral decision frameworks. Relative consequence for moral action is also considered.
In fact there are many assumptions that I have missed, and the ones I have put forward are likely to contain contradictions, I am certain there are contradictions. These assumptions are ridiculous to any real life situation, but the underlying question is: how would we each score if we could perfectly compare each other?
I have a theory that I am working on, and is probably better called an opinion than a theory. It goes like this: people fail more than they would like to think. If there is an average, then we would call the average a morally neutral person. Evil people are those who score nearly zero. Saints are those who are nearly perfect. No person would achieve 0 or…say 10. These extreme scores would be purely theoretical. A 5 is not necessarily where the average would turn up. It could be a 2, or an 8. The distribution is unknown to us, isn’t it? And there is no reason to believe it is a normal distribution, it could be flat, concentrated at a point, bimodal, right or left skewed…we see this everywhere else in life, there is no way to legitimately believe it can be put in a 1 dimensional plane, but that’s why this is a thought experiment.
If you observed Hollywood movies, protagonists are usually average or above average, actually. To be a hero, to be a sympathetic character, the writers would need to present circumstances that would allow the audience to accept actions that might otherwise seem inappropriate or wrong. Ok…but now consider that Hollywood movies are biased towards presenting easy moral dilemma…because real moral challenge is wrought with much greater ambiguity than people are willing to pay money to consume. Real moral challenge is much harder to evaluate, and would be divisive in a public debate. At the root of this example is the idea that moral challenge is akin to many other challenges faced by people, in order to be good, it requires work, and commitment, and constant growth and training.
It is precisely for the reason that it is hard, and there is no clear way to be good, that people shirk moral exercise. Worse still, unlike, say, physical exercise, where the benefits are tangibly observable in a public realm as well as a personal, biological way, moral fitness goes unrewarded or validated, almost always, and is fraught with deep uncertainty. There are very rational reasons to put principles aside for a more materially rewarding endeavour.
But let’s touch on that uncertainty. This is where exercise is important. Where and how do we do moral exercise? I argue that it comes from debate, and in general asking as many questions as possible, by doing thought experiments, by trying to encounter as many dilemma in your mind and working out the values and how things play out.
Probably the most important moral exercise is practicing empathy. Imagining the world through another person’s perspective. I fully admit that this is a personal value, and a moral imperative I follow as best as I can, but I don’t come to this conclusion without believing there is a morally defensible, biological, and evolutionary argument to be made…which I will defer for now, and leave it as an assumption, or leave it for you to decide for yourself.
The problem I have, now, with much of the practice I see in others, where I think others are not likely to be morally prepared for the world as it is, is that people do not stress out about it. The mainstream, if it reflects the values of most people, if it is the best litmus test for aggregate moral fitness, is woefully inadequate to deal with the problems we have today. It’s an outdated guidebook for an increasingly challenging world.
One easy example is the tension in the news over the increasing collection of personal information. Why are the Hollywood movies all about big, made up monsters and superheros and not the creepy, potentially dangerous, morally ambiguous, and unforeseen consequences of posting cat pics on the internet? Most people would say there is little to fear, and they might be right, but those same people can’t tell you why there is little to fear, instead they offer social whipping. It is weird to make an issue out of cat pics, isn’t it? You would be overreacting to a innocuous risk if you did. Asking the question out loud, even, is departing from the crowd. Orson Wells’ 1984 is so creepy and so good, it gave us the word GroupThink. That book scares the shit out of me, still to this day. How many of us read it, and then think about it, and then continue to think about it, and to continue to be haunted by the familiarity of so much of the story?
Why aren’t there T.V. shows about communities in which people stop vaccinating their children against infectious diseases? Is a show about zombies really good enough to equip us for people that are truthfully diseased? How much fear did Ebola cause, and why isn’t that issue really dealt with in the mainstream? If smallpox comes back, can we retroactively hold those people who chose not to vaccinate accountable, with legal punishment, for increasing the societal risk of spreading deadly disease?
I suppose, even the mechanisms of social moralizing are in decay, or at least have not kept pace with the implications of our technology. It’s the post-modern world, and cynicism is the defensible reaction to a moralizing figure. How do you react to someone who says: It is wrong to post only your best experiences on facebook, because it creates false, at minimum misleading, narratives of your life, and with these false narratives, others are experiencing depression because their lives do not reflect the happiness seen in others? There are a range of responses, and the ones that easily come to mind appeal to the freedoms we all have to ignore these things if they cause harm, and the freedoms you would take away if you tried to control individual messaging.
Now let’s think about the moralizing person. Is it possible for that person to be rewarded, socially? That is a person that chastises others. That is a person that wrecks the good times, is a constant target for rolled eyes. That is a person that is often left feeling isolated for thinking about problems others seem not to. Take a guess at where I might be exposing personal experience, and now throw away all of my arguments as a simple plea for more respect. I suppose I am aware of myself, and yet I will still stick to my theory.
Now reward yourself with a pat on the back for taking the time to read this and ask yourself some hard questions, because nobody else will.
Here’s Tyler Cowan talking about simple stories: http://www.ted.com/talks/tyler_cowen_be_suspicious_of_stories