How To Be EvilJul 22, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen
Corporate evil is often in the news. Whether we’re lamenting BP’s senseless slaughter of Pelicans in the Gulf, or praising Google for slogans like “Don’t be Evil”, we clearly think that corporations, like people, need to be held accountable for evil.
Incentives are often at play when companies and people to do evil things, and we try to create government and corporate policies to remove bad incentives. For example, large fines for pollution make it less tempting for a company to cut corners on industrial plants just to increase profits. Not every company convinces itself it’s OK to commit evil in the face of temptation, though, so temptation can’t be the only problem.
If we had the book, “Recipes for Justifying Evil”, maybe we’d recognize when people are putting the nefarious ingredients together, and stop them before the foul dessert is finished. Maybe we could institute policies that make evil ingredients less likely to come together.
The Balance Sheet
Recent research,discussed in this article,shows that people subconsciously keep a “morality balance sheet”, which often leads them to follow up good deeds with bad ones:
- People who bought “green” products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products.
- When given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president, voters were more likely to later favor white people for job openings.
- After getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer.
One of the most surprising results shows that simply imagining or planning virtuous deeds makes people more evil: “Uzma Khan, a marketing professor at Stanford who studies the psychology of buying, once asked study participants to choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or designer jeans. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed a virtuous act before shopping were significantly more likely to choose jeans than those not thinking of themselves as virtuous.”
Even if you don’t intend to give your employees license to commit evil, evil is the likely result of asking them to imagine virtue, or of making virtue a part of your mission statement.
Besides the fact that “balance sheet morality” leads to hypocrisy, we don’t really have CPAs to audit the books and prevent accounting errors. Take Alex Tabarrok’s comparison of BP’s pelican slaughter with other bird massacres:
- Number of birds killed by the BP oil spill: at least 2,188 and counting.
- Number of birds killed by wind farms: 10,000-40,000 annually.
- Number of birds killed by cars: 80 million annually.
- Number of birds killed by cats: Hundreds of millions to 1 billion annually.
This doesn’t make BP less evil, but it points to another sort of error—people pay attention to moral issues that are starkly visible, only.
Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational”, talks about this exact effect in his new book, “The Upside of Irrationality”. Although the book was published before the BP oil spill, Ariely says, “Consider the disastrous oil spill from the wrecked Exxon Valdez. The estimates for cleaning and rehabilitating a single bird were about $32,000 and for each otter about $80,000.19. Of course, it’s very hard to see a suffering dog, bird, or otter. But does it really make sense to spend so much money on an animal when doing so takes away resources from other things such as immunization, education, and health care?”
Unfortunately, getting people to think about the billion birds per year who are killed by cats is counterproductive. Ariely reports the results of one experiment: “Unfortunately, those who thought in a more calculated way became equal-opportunity misers by giving a similarly small amount to both causes”. One of the commenters on Dan’s blog drives this point home, saying, “The BP oil spill was a tipping point for me. I sold my car, donated the money to gulf coast clean-up, and switched to mass transit/biking. It’s had a major impact on my life.”
Kant’s Recipe Book
Of course, keeping a balance sheet isn’t the only way we convince ourselves to do bad things. Philosopher Immanuel Kant studied the psychology of evil, and catalogued a sort of recipe collection of the ways that people convince themselves it’s OK to be bad. Robert Gressis, a philosopher at California State, has written an excellent paper that ties together Kant’s most important works on the subject. Kant’s recipe book is just one small part of the paper (mostly chapters 5 and 6), which I’ll excerpt here. In summary, Kant argues that we convince ourselves to do things we know to be wrong by indulging in “moral fantasies”. Gressis groups Kant’s explanations like this:
The Adequacy Fantasy – This happens when a company keeps a balance sheet of its moral actions and concludes that it has come out OK. As Gressis describes, “The adequacy fantasist adheres to a standard according to which she is no moral saint, but is also not morally deficient. By her own lights, she is doing well enough, although she could be doing better.” Sure, it’s wrong to cut corners on an undersea oil drill, but at least BP lobbied to free a suffering old cancer victim who was dying in prison. If the examples of hypocrisy from the previous section didn’t demonstrate why the balance sheet approach causes problems, Gressis gives Kant’s perspective in chapter 5.2.1 of his paper.
The Exceptionalist Fantasy – This happens when a company sees itself coming out well ahead of most others. “Compared to everyone else, we’re practically saints, so we can be excused for a few indulgences.” This exceptionalism need not be based on past deeds, but is often based on some intrinsic property of a company’s corporate structure or mission statement that it believes is exceptional.
The Despondency Fantasy – This is when a company, either through a false humility or fear of bankruptcy or competitors, concludes that it isn’t powerful enough to do what’s right. Kant also calls this timorousness or pusillanimity. You can sometimes see discussions of “ROI” and “cost-benefit analysis” veer off the rails in this way. I think this is probably similar to what Ariely calls the “drop in the bucket effect”.
Of course, Kant is talking about human beings and a universal moral law, so I have to butcher his ideas a bit to fit with a corporate mindset. However, I think his psychological insights apply to the way that companies and people rationalize things. Like people, companies can be held accountable to standards of right and wrong that go beyond the letter of the law and the pursuit of profit. Technically, it wasn’t illegal for BP to cut corners on the drill and kill thousands of pelicans, but we still judge them for it.
What To Do?
As we’ve seen, companies tend to do evil when they tell themselves stories: stories about how exceptional they are, stories about how much good they plan on doing, and so on. What can policy makers and companies do about this reality?
Robin Hanson concludes, “Be Stingy With Praise”. I would add, be conservative in describing your own company’s exceptionalism and mission, and don’t make a strategy out of convincing others that you’re philanthropic. Anytime you catch yourself paraphrasing one of Kant’s fantasies to justify a decision, stop yourself and question what you’re about to do.
Dave Winer’s old company slogan, “We Make Shitty Software” might go too far in self-deprecation, but company slogans can still be aspirational without donning a smarmy mantle of virtuosity.
What do you think? What are some corporate policies or slogans that hit the mark? Leave a comment below!