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How To Be Evil

Jul 22, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen

doing a deal with the devil 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.

Accounting Errors

doing a deal with the devil 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

Immanuel 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!

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21 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Lucifer Lucifer said on Jul 22, 2010

Your post is evil. Go do something good.

fjpoblam fjpoblam said on Jul 22, 2010

Leave the responsibility in the customer''s hands. The customer is always right. A la:

"You asked for it. You got it. Toyota."

Danny Danny said on Jul 23, 2010

Great article. It''s definitely one of those things I didn''t realize I do, but I do. But I guess we should strive to do better (but we won''t).

''virtue is its own reward''

Robert Hellestrae Robert Hellestrae said on Jul 23, 2010

Nice article, and employees @ all levels of corporations in all industries can develop a more sophisticated understanding that profits can be generated without doing evil. Best regards, Rob

Keith said on Jul 23, 2010

Loved the perspective on the birds.

Joshua Allen Joshua Allen said on Jul 23, 2010

@Lucy - Admitting to being evil is an act of virtue, isn''t it?
@fjpoblam - Great point. I wonder if that''s what Dave was going for by naming his next company "Userland"
@Danny - I agree
@Rob - Thanks!

RTrammel RTrammel said on Jul 23, 2010

There is room for improvement in your writing skills. ;-)

albert albert said on Jul 24, 2010

interesting analysis, however the root of all evil is greed. the antidote is education, but it can''t stamp it out. the flaw is within the human psyche.
random - placeholder text for fave alias/email input does not reappear if left empty and/or after page refresh. while placeholder text for comment textarea doesn''t go away....until you manually highlight and delete it.
@fjpoblam indeed. americans want as much as possible for nothing. enter walmart, outsourcing slave labor while building inferior, sometimes toxic products. deficits still rising, recessions hit and we still produce nothing. but no one will care until it''s entirely too late.

fjpoblam fjpoblam said on Jul 25, 2010

Well, then: Is the customer always right?

vvurdsmyth said on Jul 26, 2010

RTrammel, his writing style looks fine to me. Clear, concise and moves along without a hitch. A fine article, J Allen.

iambriansreed iambriansreed said on Jul 27, 2010

Great article; thanks.

Elliotte Rusty Harold Elliotte Rusty Harold said on Jul 28, 2010

Your post misses the point by trying to simply count birds on a balance sheet. In fact, I''d call it a poster child for lying with statistics. The BP spill is devastating to wildlife not necessarily because of the absolute numbers of birds it kills right now, but because of the colossal damage it does to critical ecosystem and breeding grounds for many species (not just birds) over generations. There''s the real potential to wipe out large percentages of some species such as Least Terns, and to destroy the Gulf Coast as wildlife habitat for generations to come. Much of the impact may be in birds that never hatch in the first place. And of course this doesn''t even start to consider the damage done to the people who live on the Gulf Coast and depend on the Gulf''s ecosystem for their livelihoods.

But back to birds, the damage from the BP spill is already far worse than the much more broadly distributed and far less significant bird kills from wind turbines. 1 or 2 birds a year, here and there, from a wide range of species is no big deal. By contrast eliminating entire breeding islands that support a significant percentage of the entire population of a few species is devastating. Even compared to the bigger problem of feral cats, one has to consider that most cat victims are either invasive species themselves (House Sparrows, European Starlings, and the like) or well populated suburban natives like Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds, and Northern Cardinals.

I''m not sure if your calculus demonstrates any particular logical fallacy, or simply ignorance of the actual impact of the spill on North American avifauna and the Gulf Coast. Either way, though, it''s simply wrong. The BP spill is much, much worse than any of the other problems you cite. Your number counting misses the real issues completely.

Joshua Allen Joshua Allen said on Jul 28, 2010

@Elliotte - Thanks for the comment. I have to agree with you; the balance sheet for birds is misleading.

Shawn Borsky Shawn Borsky said on Aug 11, 2010

@Elliotte I agree with your point that it is a misleading statistic.

However, I can firmly see the point. He is right, it doesn''t make BP less evil, but goes back to the tendency to see smaller issues as tragedy vs. a statistic. ( But, in the BP spill example it is a tragedy because of the far-reaching effects).

But, I think the point is still solid, that in many cases people will highlight a specific statistic that is more morally tragic when larger and more significant issues exist.

@Joshua Great read, I really enjoyed this article.

Matthias Klees Matthias Klees said on Aug 11, 2010

Speak your mind, but please--be kind
Google has really the most targeting slogan.
Because "Don''t be evel" does not mean "be good"

Great Article!
a hello from hirnwellenreiter
(citizen of Optimistan)

Mike Reesman Mike Reesman said on Aug 21, 2010

Dr. Evil!

mcgruder said on Aug 23, 2010

For me one of the great evils on the web is that small but vocal group of web developers and designers that choose to inflict their particular choice of technology on us.

If it wasn''t for ie6 we''d all be up to our necks in the css as well as all the varied and highly exotic flavors of html that these miscreants constantly promote. The sluggish sites and the tired old designs would be too much to stand!

Paul Mc said on Aug 6, 2011

Great article. While i think the 'root of all evil is greed' is a bit off, i think it might be close. Desire seems to come closer and the balance sheet seems to be common in many places i've witnessed people doing evil deeds. I think evil people can either more easily or more flexibly find justification for doing what they 'desire'. To add to your sections above (there definitely is some overlap, though) Rewriting/Re-remembering History and the Scape-Goat trigger.

I've encountered a few people, whom i've immediately distanced myself from that have the amazing ability to remember things that didn't happen to justify things that they want to do. This definitely fits into the moral balance sheet theory, but stands out to me as a separate type. People or companies decide what they want to do and then imagine a set of circumstances that would make that action rational or necessary and then can actually convince themselves that it happened that way.

The Scape-Goat Trigger, is finding a single action or statistic and blowing that out of proportion. If BP had decided that the only way to generate global awareness of a problem and force congress to step in and regulate ALL oil drilling, was to cause a disaster. They could then justify cutting corners because there was a greater evil out there. Finding ANY reason, however small and over-emphasizing them, gives people a way to pole-vault over rationality with a tiny stick they've elongated into a 'cause'.

(i realize i'm a bit late to the party but found the article very thought provoking. Read 'Beyond Good and Evil' by Nietzsche ? )

Zele said on Nov 3, 2011

I like most of your other articles, but not this one.

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