No way to run a world!

Why we have to learn integrity from our dogs, and soon!

After yesterday’s post about the ice dagger poised to fall on the heads of humanity, I was hoping to offer something more cheerful for today. Indeed, I had a guest post ready for publication but then ran into a small technical hitch that stopped it being scheduled for today.

So I turned to this recent article that appeared on The Conversation blogsite that is, unfortunately, another reminder of these mad times. It is republished within the terms of articles that appear on The Conversation.

ooOOoo

How could VW be so dumb? Blame the unethical culture endemic in business.

Author: Edward L Queen, Director of Ethics and Servant Leadership Program, Emory University.

How much can corporate culture explain VW’s deception? Jim Young/Reuters
How much can corporate culture explain VW’s deception? Jim Young/Reuters

That far too much of the world’s corporate leadership is driven by moral midgets who have been educated far beyond their capacities for good judgment should be obvious after observing the events of the past week.

The financial industry-led economic collapse of 2008 should have taught us this lesson, but the specificity and clarity of it was brought home by news of price-gouging in the pharmaceutical industry and, even more blatantly, by the announcement that Volkswagen intentionally programmed thousands of its diesel automobiles to cheat emissions testing.

We should be outraged by such behavior and demand appropriate punishments and sanctions as well as restitution and correction. But we should not be shocked. As an ethicist who has looked at the behavior of individuals in business and corporations, I can point to a number of troubling trends that help explain these transgressions.

Impaired moral imaginations

For the past five to six decades, epigones of Milton Friedman have been emphasizing that the only duty of a corporation is return on investment (regularly ignoring his caveat of doing so within the law and social norms).

This lesson, drilled into generations of business school graduates, now drives tsunamis of corporate malfeasance. Data regularly demonstrate that business school students are more likely to cheat on examinations and assignments than their peers, although – and this is of interest for the Volkswagen case – they are closely followed by engineering students.

Are business school teaching the right values? mleiboff/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Are business school teaching the right values? mleiboff/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Additionally, some evidence suggests that not only are business students more impaired in their moral judgments in a broader sense than are those in other majors and professional schools, but that business schools themselves may be responsible.

More disturbing, observational and anecdotal evidence suggests that business students are not only impaired in their moral judgments but that significant percentages of them have severely impaired moral imaginations. By this I mean not only do they make bad ethical decisions, but they actually are incapable of identifying an ethical situation when they are presented with one.

Numerous interviews with business ethics faculty I have had over the past decade suggest that when business students are presented with an ethics case, that is a case where they have been told that there is an ethical problem, 20% to 30% of the students cannot find or identify the ethical issue. This has been borne out by my personal experience when teaching business students.

Unmistakable malfeasance

With regards to the Volkswagen scandal, let us be clear about the nature of the company’s activities. This was not a mistake, an error, an ethical lapse or poor judgment. This was an intentionally designed and executed violation of the law in both its letter and its spirit. It also was an ethical violation of the highest level.

Volkswagen intentionally deceived those to whom it owed a duty of honesty. It fraudulently misrepresented its automobiles to be other than what they were. Most significantly, it intentionally chose to do so and went out of its way to commit the wrong.

This last fact may make it far more difficult for VW to recover from the reputational hit than it perhaps has been for GM or Toyota. Even though the latter’s product defects cost people their lives, they did not intentionally produce such parts.

The sheer brazenness and conniving that went into Volkswagen’s actions are probably what shocked people the most. This was a highly technical and sophisticated operation that basically taught the emissions system how to distinguish between road travel, typical idling and idling while undergoing an emissions test.

No spin can mitigate that fact. There is and can be no claims of confusion or misunderstanding, no failures to communicate. This will erode people’s trust in Volkswagen as a company to a degree that the failures of other companies may not have experienced. In the Volkswagen scandal, just like the story about price gouging in pharmaceuticals that broke the same week, consumers are confronted with the stark reality of corporate malfeasance.

In both instances, the wrongdoing was exacerbated by the responses of the companies’ CEOs. The now former CEO of Volkswagen, Martin Winterkorn, basically acknowledged his incompetence and failure of leadership by claiming that he was unaware of the actions taken by his employees. Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, in a series of tweets responding to criticisms of its pricing of the drug Daraprim demonstrated a level of knowledge of moral and social norms that can only be described as clueless.

Redefining success

These events – and others – make clear that there is a need to look at the broader cultural realities that drive unethical decisions in business, particularly the perception that the only way of determining value and worth is money.

This situation is not new – as early as 1906 William James wrote in a letter to H G Wells, “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”

When a person’s worth is determined only by money, only by success as it is and can be monetized, when one has no sense of being without the BMW, the Rolex, the Armani suits, the yacht, etc, the moral flabbiness emerges. Indeed, it engulfs entire organizations and perhaps even entire societies.

ooOOoo

Those last two sentences of that essay need repeating over and over again. This may just be a blog about learning from our beloved dog companions but as my home page spells out, this is not some silly romantic notion:

As man’s companion, protector and helper, history suggests that dogs were critically important in man achieving success as a hunter-gatherer. Dogs ‘teaching’ man to be so successful a hunter enabled evolution, some 20,000 years later, to farming, thence the long journey to modern man. But in the last, say 100 years, that farming spirit has become corrupted to the point where we see the planet’s plant and mineral resources as infinite. Mankind is close to the edge of extinction, literally and spiritually.

Dogs know better, much better! Time again for man to learn from dogs!

So there!

14 thoughts on “No way to run a world!

      1. OK, now read it. What I am hearing from you, Per, is that the VW ( and Audi and Skoda) scandal may give the US and the EU no room other than to really clamp down on emissions in general. That in a few years we may look back and see what level of changes resulted from this exposure. I sincerely hope so!

      2. Not exactly Paul. What I say is that it is extremely important that you are completely sure you can measure and control well what you regulate, since otherwise you open the doors for the wrongdoers to game your regulations… like for instance UN’s SDGs.

  1. A great article and a wonderful quote from William James, which sums up the current Neoliberal infatuation. It is rather concerning, if not altogether surprising to me, that business schools attract nascent psychopaths.

  2. It’s a question of mood: the mood has been that the masters who exploit us, among them great bankers and business leaders, and politicians, have been too big to jail. So VW thought: why not me too?
    https://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/evil-mood-propagating-our-lords-are-too-big-to-jail/

    The strategy was deliberate: initially they used Blue Tec from Mercedes (which BMW also uses). That uses a so-called exhaust fuel with urea to neutralize oxides of nitrogen, NOx. I am going to write an article on Diesel, because right now the baby is thrown with the VW bath. The NOx is caused by the higher temps of Diesel engines, which make them intrinsically more efficient, from Carnot’s theorem.

    Less CO2, more NOx (except with Blue Tec!)

    Weirdly WordPress unsubscribed from LfD. I just fixed that (again!).

      1. Loved your post Paul, and what Patrice had to say.. ” It’s a question of mood: the mood has been that the masters who exploit us, “.. So true, and more and more of these hidden truths will emerge as we wake up to what the real world of commerce has been doing all along!..

      2. Sue, I have just read Monbiot’s latest essay. It breaks my heart to reflect on the increasing madness of too many people, too much of the time.

        Combined with me just finishing John Zande’s book, I am left wondering what on earth is to become of us.

        Both Monbiot’s essay and Zande’s book will be reviewed soon in this place.

  3. Thanks Sue. As I said in my last short essay, and I have one more coming today, our morality has to go back to that of earlier times, as Paul is saying, towards more integrity,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s