On July 27, 2023, Norwegian mountaineer Kristin Harila, with the help of her guide Tenjin Sherpa (“Lama”), became the fastest climber to scale all 14 of the world’s 8,000+ meter-high mountains—in just 92 days. This amazing feat was marred by allegations that as they summited K2, Harila and Lama…and about 50 other climbers…hiked past Muhammad Hassan, a Pakistani porter who was part of a separate team and had slipped on a ledge, falling several meters before becoming tangled in ropes and hanging upside down.
Other climbers criticized Harila for treating Hassan, who died that day, as “a second-class human being.” Harila responded with a strong defense, claiming that she and her team had provided Hassan with oxygen and water in life-threatening conditions but had split up so other climbers could get past on the very narrow path. She and Lama continued the climb, she claims, while her cameraman spent 2-1/2 hours trying, unsuccessfully, to rescue Hassan.
We do not and cannot know whose version of the facts is correct, and we may never know. But this story reminded us, and probably most ethicists of a certain age, of Bowen “Buzz” McCoy’s “The Parable of the Sadhu” from 1983 in the Harvard Business Review. Even today, 40 years later, this HBR article is often the subject of lengthy discussions in business schools.
Like Harila, McCoy was high up in the Himalayas. Like her, McCoy was in treacherous and possibly life-threatening conditions when he came across an Indian sadhu, a holy man. The sadhu was malnourished and barely dressed. He needed immediate help to survive. A group of New Zealand trekkers ran across him first, and brought him down to McCoy, but were willing to do no more. McCoy and his climbing partner, Stephen, and some Swiss climbers, all gave the sadhu some food, water and clothing. Some Japanese climbers took the sadhu 500 feet down the mountain toward safety, but left him by the trail, still in very bad shape. All the climbers helped the sadhu a bit, but no one was willing to take full responsibility for his safety. To this day, none of the climbers, who were unwilling to abandon their trek to save him, knows whether the sadhu survived. Stephen was the only climber who wanted to do more, but by himself could not have succeeded in saving the sadhu.
In terrible conditions, McCoy was faced with an unexpected moral challenge. If he had done more to help the sadhu, he likely would have been unable to cross the pass he was tackling that day and this might well have ruined the last half of the “once-in-a-lifetime” trek he was undertaking. Similarly, Harila probably could not have set her amazing record had she stopped and done more to help Hassan because July 27 was the only day of the season when weather conditions made summiting K2 possible.
Stephen argued to McCoy that as individual Christians or people with a Western ethical tradition, they should have done more to fulfill their moral obligations to the sadhu who, as a fellow human being, was obviously a subject of moral worth. While on the mountain, McCoy answered: “Are you really saying that, no matter what the implications, we should, at the drop of a hat, have changed our entire plan?” Once he returned to the States, however, McCoy felt some guilt, an important moral emotion, and wondered in the HBR article: “Where is the limit of our responsibility in a situation like this?”
McCoy doesn’t answer that question but believes that the disparate group of hikers were handicapped in that they had no sense of purpose or plan and no process for developing a consensus. The business ethics lesson he draws, then, is that people can manage more effectively if they ensure that their organizations respect their people’s values and beliefs. “Without such corporate support, the individual is lost” he wrote.
Interestingly, in 1998, Janet McCracken, William Martin, and our late University of Texas colleague Bill Shaw (hereinafter “MMS”), published an article in the Journal of Business Ethics entitled “Virtue Ethics and the Parable of the Sadhu.” MMS argue that business schools spend too much time on “quandary ethics”—courses that tend to place the students in one ethical dilemma after another so that they will have practice in reasoning to a defensible conclusion. But how many business students are going to run into a stranded holy man on a mountain? And, MMS believe, business ethics is normally approached from a very rule-based approach to determining right from wrong, such as deontology and utilitarianism. Are Kant’s or Mill’s writings truly relevant to determining one’s moral responsibility to climbers dangling off a mountainside? MMS are doubtful.
MMS’s key argument, as their title implies, is that business schools should focus more on teaching Aristotle’s virtue ethics. They argue:
The virtue ethics model is focused not so much on how to resolve problems as it is on how to live one’s life. It is concerned with moral enlightenment, moral education, and the good for mankind rather than with resolving dilemmas…We claim, then, that preventative medicine—a prescriptive regimen for a healthy moral life rather than a cure for moral quandaries–is what Aristotle had in mind…and further, that the virtue ethics model holds the greatest potential for the development of healthy business practices.
We see merit in both McCoy’s message that corporations should cultivate a culture that supports their employees’ and other stakeholders’ moral views and in MMS’s argument for the importance of virtue ethics. Just as MMS touted virtue ethics, we wish to make a quick argument for the value of teaching behavioral ethics—the science of moral decision-making—which can help us learn from our mountaineers’ moral challenges. Behavioral ethics studies the social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and situational factors that can cause good people to do bad things.
For example, the self-serving bias is the human tendency to gather, process, and even remember information in ways that advance our self-interest. McCoy and Harila both had sacrificed a tremendous amount and taken great personal risk to accomplish their goals. McCoy wished to finish his lengthy trek. Harila desired to set her world record. They had sacrificed so greatly and had so much at stake that it would have been difficult for them to just give up on their quests and their minds would have worked overtime to make a plausible case that the sadhu and the porter would probably survive without them, or that any efforts they made to help them would likely be fruitless, or that to sacrifice their quests to save the sadhu or the porter would have exceeded their moral responsibility. In that way, they could easily arrive at the conclusion that their self-serving minds wish to reach—that they should continue their quests regardless of the outcome for these two endangered men.
The self-serving bias was likely reinforced by loss aversion, the tendency people have to dislike losses more than they enjoy gains. Both McCoy and Harila likely viewed their situation through a loss lens—they both were facing the loss of something that was very important to them…finishing a once-in a lifetime trip for McCoy and setting a world record for Harila. Harila, especially, had the world record within her grasp. Loss aversion would have magnified the conclusion that the self-serving bias was already pushing them toward….that they should continue their adventures, and it would have minimized the consideration they gave to the sadhu and Hassan.
Additionally, the conformity bias, people’s tendency to take their behavioral cues from those around them, would reinforce this conclusion. When McCoy saw the New Zealanders, the Swiss, and the Japanese all make small sacrifices but refuse to do more, that may well have seemed especially like the applicable moral standard for his emergency situation. Harila watched 50 other hikers subordinate Hassan’s life to their desire to summit K2, so this likely seemed like an acceptable course of action to her as well.
Then there’s the concept of diffusion of responsibility (one of Albert Bandura’s mechanisms of “moral disengagement”—tricks people’s minds use to distance their self-image from their actions so that they can do bad things and yet still think of themselves as good people). Studies show that if you are in trouble and need help, you may well be better off having only one person nearby rather than 20. If there is only one bystander, that person realizes that if they do not act, you may suffer tremendously, so they are more likely to act. But if there are 10 or more bystanders (as in McCoy’s case) or 50 (as in Harila’s case), it was easy for McCoy and Harila to tell themselves that they didn’t need to act because others probably would.
Another mechanism of moral disengagement is the rationalization, excuses we give ourselves for not living up to our own moral standards. One of the most popular rationalizations that people use, according to Vikas Anand and his colleagues, is denial of victim, where we say something along the lines of: “Yes, what I did was wrong, but the guy deserved it.” Check out what McCoy said to his buddy Stephen in arguing against a broader duty to the sadhu:
Here we are, a group of New Zealanders, Swiss, Americans and Japanese who have never met before and who are at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. Some years the pass is so bad no one gets over it. What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives? Even the Sherpas had no interest in risking the trip to help him beyond a certain point.
Stephen responded to McCoy’s denial of victim argument by asking: “I wonder what the Sherpas would have done if the sadhu had been a well-dressed Nepali…or what you would have done, Buzz, if the sadhu had been a well-dressed Western woman?” Thus, Stephen rested his argument on a recognition (and condemnation) of the in-group/out-group bias, the tendency of people to help people in their “in-group” at the expense of those in their “out-group.” The sadhu was very much an outsider to Buzz and Stephen, as was Hassan to Harila. That made it much easier for Buzz and then Harila to decide that they owed the sadhu and the porter no particular duty of care. Under identical circumstances, they no doubt would have realized that they owed such a duty to members of their own hiking party—their “in group.”
A climber critical of Harila made the same point in an interview with the Associated Press that “There is a double standard here. If I, or any other Westerner, had been lying there, everything would have been done to save them.”
Certain situational factors can also impair people’s good-faith ethical judgment, including two that were in particular play for both our climbers—time pressure (both were facing deadlines that would prevent them from finishing their quests) and tiredness (both had to be exhausted after their lengthy climbs in high altitude as well as suffering from altitude sickness). Studies show that both time pressure and tiredness can cause people to fail to act according to their own moral standards.
All these factors undoubtedly clouded McCoy’s and Harila’s moral judgment. On that day in 1982, above 15,500 feet in the Himalayas, Buzz McCoy made a moral judgment that he second-guessed for the rest of his life. Kristen Harila may have done the same on July 27, 2023.
If you are aware of the social and organizational pressures (such as the conformity bias), cognitive heuristics and biases (like the self-serving bias, the in-group/out-group bias, and diffusion of responsibility), and various situational factors (such as time pressure and exhaustion) that often cause people to make poor moral judgments and action decisions, then you may guard against them. Behavioral ethics can help you get it right. But we also agree with MMS that practicing every day to be the sort of moral person that you wish to be is also a prescription for leading a more ethical life.
Vikas Anand et al., “Business as Usual: The Acceptance and Perpetuation of Corruption in Organizations,” Academy of Management Perspectives 18(2) (2007).
Blake Ashforth & Vikas Anand, “The Normalization of Corruption in Organizations,” Research in Organizational Behavior 25: 1-52 (2003).
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
Chris Cameron, “K2 Climbers Criticized over Continuing Ascent after Finding Dying Porter,” New York Times, Aug. 12, 2023, at https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/12/world/asia/kristin-harila-himalayas-dying-climber.html.
Andy Gregory, “Climber Denies Stepping over Dying Porter on K2- Saying Danger of Mountain Meant Team ‘Had to Split up,’” The Independent, Aug. 11, 2023, at https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/k2-sherpa-dying-harila-latest-b2391584.html.
Zarar Khan & Kristen Grieshaber, “Record-breaking Summit of K2 Dogged by Allegations that Western Climbers Left Pakistani Man to Die,” Associated Press, Aug. 12, 2023, at https://apnews.com/article/pakistan-porter-death-k2-norwegian-climber-record-51429bae5b1c53a449c360ad42c38153.
Lianne Kolirin & Chris Stern, “Mountaineer Denies Ignoring Dying Porter on K2 Record-Breaking Climb,” CNN, Aug. 11, 2023, at https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/mountaineer-k2-porter-death-scli-intl/index.html .
Bowen McCoy, “The Parable of the Sadhu,” Harvard Business Review 61(5): 103-108 (Sept.-Oct. 1983).
Janet McCracken, William Martin & Bill Shaw, “Virtue Ethics and the Parable of the Sadhu,” Journal of Business Ethics 17: 25-38 (1998).
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias
Diffusion of Responsibility: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/diffusion-of-responsibility
In-group/Out-group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-group-out-group
Introduction to Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics
Loss Aversion: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/loss-aversion
Moral Emotions: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/moral-emotions
Self-Serving Bias; https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Subject of Moral Worth: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-agent-subject-of-moral-worth
Virtue Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/virtue-ethics