The front page of the New York Times (Austin edition) on Wednesday, October 11 was particularly depressing. The stories on California’s fires and Puerto Rico’s post-Maria suffering were brutal enough. Depending on your views regarding climate change, you may or may not believe that humans played a role in the severity of those events. But there can be no doubt that the other three stories involved humans’ self-inflicted wounds. All three directly involved poor ethical choices that were so severe that they pushed the Times’ daily criticism of ethics in the Trump administration all the way to page 13 (“’Concerned’ Ethics Chief Scolds Top Officials”).
First, it turns out that not all the sexual harassers are at Fox News. A number of women, including famous actresses, have accused liberal paragon and Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein of sexual misdeeds ranging from the wildly inappropriate all the way to out-and-out rape. The motive for sexual misconduct seems obvious, but how do Bill O’Reilly, Uber’s Travis Kalanick and Weinstein do these things and still manage to live with themselves? Psychologists who study successful leaders find that even more than the rest of us (and we are all susceptible to this), leaders are overly confident about their morals. Their rationalizations are often uniquely self-serving, enabling them to feel subconsciously that the rules that apply to other people do not apply to them. Powerful people often get to a point where they do terrible things with little or no effort to even hide them. Think of former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer who was vigorously enforcing laws against using prostitutes at the same time that he was violating those same laws.
Unfortunately, psychologists find that the rest of us are often so enamored of leaders that we tend to judge their misdeeds less harshly than similar conduct by the less powerful. We often give leaders a pass when we see them acting inappropriately, and thereby enable them. Their victims often do not speak out, whether for reasons of career advancement, fear of not being believed, or just the effects of trauma. So the harassment continues.
The second front page story concerned a New York City detective whose career highlights the fact that police perjury and half-truths are a major and persistent problem across our country. In New York, detective Kevin Desormeau’s falsehoods are forcing the review of hundreds of cases. No doubt the cops rationalize that the good that comes from clearing the streets of those they believe to be bad guys outweighs the damage done by the lies they need to concoct. This common rationalization is a dangerous falsehood. The damage done to the lives of innocent people falsely accused and convicted is obvious. Nearly as bad is the damage done to the credibility of our criminal justice system which underlies the peace and the order necessary for a civil society.
And, finally, there was the Times’ Kobe Steel story. By falsifying data about the quality of aluminum and copper it sold, Kobe’s employees have forced companies all over the world who used those metals to double check the safety of the cars, trains, planes, and other machines that they fabricated with them. The financial cost to these companies will be huge, though the actual safety impact on the general public is not yet known. Like the Weinstein and New York cop stories, this will turn out to be drearily familiar. Kobe’s saga will be one of company leaders pressing for profits, of underlings striving to please, and of a Japanese culture of minimizing criticism of others. Kobe joins Takata, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi among Japanese companies with recent major scandals. Our scandals are different. It’s not that we’re so honest. It’s just that—like President Trump is fond of noting—we just don’t make stuff here anymore. So, our scandals, though similar in all other ways, involve not manufacturing but services. Think Equifax, Uber, and Wells Fargo.
In a world where nature seems to have it in for humans in the form of hurricanes, fires, and floods, it’s clearly in our best interests to minimize our self-inflicted moral wounds.
Ethics Unwrapped, Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top
Manohla Dargis, Harvey Weinstein is Gone, But Hollywood Still Has a Problem, New York Times, Oct. 11, 2017.
Jack Ewing, Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal (2017)
Joseph Goldstein, He Excelled as a Detective, Until Prosecutors Stopped Believing Him, New York Times, Oct. 11, 2017.
Dacher Keltner et al, “Power and Moral Leadership” in Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment, and Policy (Deborah L. Rhode, ed. 2006)
Terry L. Price, Understanding Ethical Failures of Leadership (2005)
Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017)
Jonathan Soble & Neal E. Boudette, Kobe Steel’s Falsified Data Is Another Blow to Japan’s Reputation, New York Times, Oct. 11, 2017.