Ethics, Truth, and Our Political World of 2016

It’s hard to say anything calming or therapeutic since the election in November. Many people are feeling vindicated and many others are feeling betrayed, fearful, and even traumatized. But a major factor in the anxiety many of us are feeling is the sense that we cannot believe what we hear any longer. We’re subjected to outright lies and conspiracy theories (for example, everything said by websites like that of Alex Jones) and to seriously biased and self-serving interpretations of real events that are used to spin a weaponized narrative (for example, things said by Mitch McConnell on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left).

But a more insidious form of distortion comes when our news sources treat all these things as simply points of controversy, without commenting on their credibility. This finally boiled over when the New York Times finally began putting the word “falsely” in its headlines about some of Donald Trump’s statements.

This essay by a therapist on John Grohol’s PsychCentral blog makes some excellent points about truth from a human relations point of view.

It’s disheartening for me to be teaching future counselors about the ethical principles on which all helping professions are based, and seeing those principles trashed and trampled in the public and political arenas.

Those principles include fidelity (taking your responsibilities to others seriously), integrity (always trying to be honest and true), and nonmalificence (thinking in advance about how your actions might harm people). Shouldn’t people who want the public’s trust as political leaders be as concerned about these principles as doctors and therapists are? After all, a therapist or physician can only harm one person at a time, while reckless political leaders can cause the deaths of thousands or millions of innocent people.

But ethics has lost all meaning in the political sphere, except perhaps as a weapon to harm your opponent when you can catch them in a violation of a rule. This is not ethics; it’s the exercise of authority. And those of us who are familiar with Kohlberg’s stages of moral development will realize that ethics by investigation and punishment, while it may be necessary, only calls for the immature form of moral reasoning that depends on fear of consequences, and never reaches the mature concern for the welfare of others that should mark adult moral reasoning.

The essay also makes me think of my Adlerian orientation, because being truthful with each other is a cornerstone of Alfred Adler’s “ironclad logic of social living.” And one that we ignore at our peril as a civilization (and indeed, as a species).

In addition to the purposes of lying spelled out in the essay, Rudolf Dreikurs said that children lie in order to gain power over others. If I can mislead others, I have an advantage over them. And that seems to me to be the central goal of political falsehoods… It lets power-hungry people manipulate the rest of us to gain power and control. That, in itself, is an antisocial goal. We need to get a handle on this, and make a commitment as a society to share a consensual reality even when we disagree on the best course of action. But even our disagreements (for example, whether to lower or raise taxes, and on whom, and in what ways) should be judged and resolved by looking at evidence, data, and historical results, not by hammering away at our favored ideological points (such as the “feeling” that taxes, or the parties who favor action on them, are good or bad per se).

Psychology and Ethical Behavior

Economic decisions can trump ethical ones

Today’s New York Times has a guest column by two management experts who have studied ethical decision-making in business. Their findings suggest that the line of reasoning that fines and penalties should deter unethical behavior is not borne out by research. Instead, these measures seemed to encourage irresponsibility because they led to makng choices solely on the basis of gain or loss, instead of on the basis of right and wrong::

“An economic analysis would predict that the threat of sanctions would increase compliance with the agreement. Instead, participants who faced a potential fine cheated more, not less, than those who faced no sanctions. With no penalty, the situation was construed as an ethical dilemma; the penalty caused individuals to view the decision as a financial one.”

This is relevant to everyday decisions in business as well as the overall way of thinking about safety and responsibility. On the one hand,, it suggests that deregulation should not lead to any increase in unethical behavior, because fines and penalties don’t act as deterrents. On the other hand, it also suggests that the “invisible hand” of the market would not serve as much of a deterrent to unsafe or unethical behavior, either. The argument that companies would not knowingly risk expensive disasters because they would hurt the bottom line doesn’t seem to have been borne out by last year’s BP oil spill. Instead, it suggested that a combination of accepting risk and diffusion of responsibility among the contractors did indeed lead to cutting corners and trying to save a few dollars in profit, leading to the disaster we all saw.

Diffusion of responsibility is the concept that was described in the social psychology research that followed the murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York resident, in the 1960’s. Researchers used it to explain why none of the witnesses called police or tried to intervene: everyone assumed that it was someone else’s responsibility. As we hear about BP suing its contractors over the explosion and spill, I’m reminded of the theory. No doubt, the attorneys who litigate the case will want to turn that psychological theory into a financial reality by establishing that BP had a right to expect its contractors to act responsibly, but was not responsible for ensuring that they did.

So what are we to do if neither the threat of fines nor the threat of economic losses seems to deter irresponsible or unethical behavior? Are we doomed to endure more Enrons and Deepwater Horizons? Perhaps the idea of social interest, Alfred Adler’s central concept, can help. Being aware of the effect of our behavior on others, and of having a responsibility to contribute to the common good as a central purpose of life, will help us to serve as responsible consumers, investors, leaders, and neighbors.

You may also know this as the Golden Rule.