When we ran across Derek Delgaudio’s book AMORALMAN: A True Story and Other Lies, we figured that the writers of an ethics blog should be reading a book with that title, and we’re glad we did. Given that we focus on behavioral ethics, we are always interested in learning how others made the moral and immoral choices that they have. It takes a while to get there in this book, but the effort is worth it.
This is primarily an autobiography of a master illusionist and, importantly, a self-deceiver. Delgaudio had a rough childhood. His father disappeared before he was born. His mother took up with another woman, which didn’t go over well where they lived, leading to Delgaudio being subjected to quite a bit of abuse by his classmates in school.
He buried himself in books about sleight-of-hand, becoming a very talented magician with a nearly total aversion to performing. He then learned the types of card tricks used to cheat at poker and other games, though he chose not to deal in real card games.
To learn the best tricks, he got himself introduced to many of the country’s most talented card cheats, most of whom lived on the wrong side of the law. But Delgaudio chose not to join them. If his own account is to be believed, Delgaudio led a moral life, but a secretive one.
When Delgaudio was twenty-five, Ronnie, one of the professional “card mechanics” who had befriended him and taught him many tricks, asked him for a favor. Ronnie was dealing at a nightly illicit card game in an L.A. mansion and was making very good money. Unfortunately, Ronnie got busted for violating his parole conditions. Without Ronnie’s dealing to ensure that he won a lot, Ronnie’s boss couldn’t afford to keep the card game running. So, when Ronnie got out of jail, he’d have no livelihood to return to. Worse, Ronnie had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer
Ronnie asked Delgaudio to fill in for him until he returned from prison. He almost begged. Delgaudio, despite misgivings, agreed and, for the first time in his life, was going to violate the law. Using an alias, Delgaudio pretended to be a dealer, when he was really just a con man helping the crook who organized the game. His focus was not on what was right or wrong, but on being a good card mechanic–one who could use the tricks he had learned to help his boss cheat the other players out of their money. Delgaudio’s start was rough, but he improved and became a very good card mechanic.
When Ronnie got out of jail and was about to return to the card game to replace Delgaudio, the boss decided he could make more money by keeping Delgaudio as well as Ronnie. So, Delgaudio had to decide whether to continue dealing in the illicit games, helping his boss cheat.
Generally, people do not make up lists of pros and cons and rationally go through them before deciding whether to do something illegal and/or immoral. But sometimes they do. And Delgaudio did.
On the con side, he listed:
- “Max” (apparently the cheater’s son, who was incredibly obnoxious during the card games, driving Delgaudio to distraction);
- “Illegal” (a fact that carried obvious adverse consequences should he be caught);
- “Dangerous” (also an adverse consequence);
- “V/Social life” (because of the long and late-night hours of the poker games, Delgaudio was seeing little of his girlfriend, Vanessa, and they had little or no social life); and
- “Secrets” (although he had kept secrets his entire life, Delgaudio was discomfited by using a fake name to work a fake job).
On the pro side, Delgaudio listed:
- “Education” (by watching the people in the card games he was dealing, Delgaudio thought that he was learning lessons about human nature that he could pick up nowhere else);
- “$$$$” (the large amounts of money he was making opened many doors for Delgaudio and Vanessa);
- “’Sky is the limit’” (it was becoming clear that Delgaudio’s outsized talent as a “card mechanic” gave him the option to make much, much more of himself in this arena);
- “Freedom” (as a dealer, Delgaudio felt he had a lot of freedom in his job, though this may have been a mirage).
Regarding these lists, Delgaudio wrote:
Notably absent from the Cons column was any consideration of morality or ethics. I knew that it was wrong, intellectually. But it didn’t feel wrong. That’s probably because my reason for being there was righteous and just: I am helping a friend (who has cancer!) keep his job.
That felt like a solid justification for doing a questionable thing. But, with only two games remaining, that excuse was about to expire. My mission to keep the game going was nearly accomplished. After Ronnie returned, if I were to agree to keep dealing, there could be no denying that I was there for me.
It’s pretty clear to me now that the Cons and Pros list was a bit of intellectual theater I was performing for myself. I wanted to convince myself that I was trying to make the right decision. I wanted to prove that, at the very least, I was being sensible. I wanted to believe that it was a hard decision so that I could believe I was a good person.
This passage illustrates so many of the teachings of behavioral ethics research.
First, almost all of us want to think of ourselves as good people, yet we often also want to do things that we know are wrong. Delgaudio wanted to believe that he was a good person, but also wanted the benefits (education, money, freedom) that came with his job as a card mechanic. The self-serving bias would have made it difficult for him to be objective in making this decision.
Second, framing is a key concept. What is in our frame of reference when we make decisions has everything to do with the outcome of our decision-making process. As noted above, in making the decision to initially begin dealing in L.A., Delgaudio did not have ethics anywhere in his frame of reference. Nor did it show up on his Pros and Cons list. This bodes ill for his final choice.
Third, incrementalism is the slippery slope. Instead of one day making a clear decision to cross an ethical line, we make a series of decisions that slowly add up and we cross the line without clearly perceiving it. Delgaudio wrote that when he sat down at the table in the mansion to deal his first hand, this
…was the moment I knew I had reached a critical point in my journey. I had arrived at “the line.”
Of course, I had heard about the line and how others managed to cross it. But I had never been close enough to it to realize it’s not a line. It’s a ledge. When Ronnie called, it appeared in the distance, like a horizon. I began moving toward it when I agreed to meet [Ronnie’s boss]. The next thing I knew, I was sitting at a table with a deck of cards behind my knee, staring into an abyss.
Fourth, because we always wish to think of ourselves as good people and yet often desire to enjoy the fruits of wrongdoing, we are always looking for rationalizations that we can use to convince ourselves that we are still a good person even though we’re doing wrong. Delgaudio used a classic rationalization—altruistic cheating. The research shows that in general people are more inclined to cheat if they can convince themselves that they are also benefitting others, like Ronnie.
Cognitive biases (like the self-serving bias, framing, and incrementalism) and rationalizations (like altruistic cheating) create moral illusions that can lead good people to do bad things. As he writes in the introduction, Delgaudio was reluctant to write this book: “Above all, I feared the moral implications. I had convinced myself, and the world, that I was an honest man leading a moral life. My choice to sit at that card table and steal money from strangers served as evidence to the contrary.”
Having contemplated his list, Delgaudio initially decided to return to the card games with Ronnie. An unusual and perhaps inexplicable event caused him to change his mind. We won’t spoil the story. It’s a doozy.
What we will do is emphasize that we all can easily suffer from the same moral self-delusions that plagued Delgaudio, even though none of can match his powers as a sleight-of-hand artist and master illusionist that are on display in his film In & Of Itself, which we also recommend.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias (2018).
Derek Delgaudio, Amoralman: A True Story and Other Lies (2021).
In & Of Itself (2020).
Eugene Soltes, Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal (2016).
Altruistic Cheating: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/altruistic-cheating
Introduction to Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics.
Moral Illusions Explained: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-illusions-explained.
Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias