The Conscience Code

If you are interested in behavioral ethics, and we hope you are, we have a book recommendation for you—G. Richard Shell’s The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values, Advance Your Career (2021).

Dr. Shell is the Chair of the Wharton School’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at Penn and the author of several popular books on negotiation and related business topics.

You won’t find the term “behavioral ethics” anywhere in his book’s text, but Dr. Shell is decidedly interested in the psychology of moral decision-making, which is behavioral ethics’ empire. Shell mines the same psychological literature as we do here at Ethics Unwrapped (e.g., Eugene Soltes’ Why They Do It, Hoyk & Hersey’s The Ethical Executive, Bazerman & Tenbrunsel’s Blind Spots, Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, John Doris’s Lack of Character, Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?, Rushworth Kidder’s Moral Courage, and the like).

Shell uses the same business scandals to illustrate poor ethical decision-making as we are wont to do—Enron, Theranos, Worldcom, Houston Astros, Nick Leeson, German Police Battalion 101, Varsity Blues, etc.

Shell cites the same famous psychological experiments that we so often do, such as Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, Asch’s experiment on the conformity bias, and Chabris & Simons’ experiments on inattention blindness.

Shell lauds the same moral heroes whom we often tout—Mother Teresa, Frank Serpico, Erin Brockovich, Sherron Watkins (Enron), Cynthia Cooper (WorldCom), Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz (Theranos).

Shell provides very specific steps to help readers effectively advocate for the values they wish to advance. His material is very solid, drawing as it does on his previous work. It does, though, generally plow the same ground as Mary Gentile’s wonderful Giving Voice to Values book and program and our GVV videos.

Both Shell in his marvelously written book and we here at Ethics Unwrapped emphasize that character is important, but is often overwhelmed by various psychological influences and situational forces that can cause good people to do bad things.

The differences between Shell’s approach and our approach are superficial. First, we use different terminology to describe the same phenomena. Shell speaks of peer pressure; we call that the conformity bias. We warn of the dangers of obedience to authority; Shell echoes our caution. He speaks of the pressure that incentives and the need to meet goals, deadlines, and expectations can place on ethical decision-making. We stress the same points in terms of conflicts of interest, the self-serving bias, and the impact that time pressure and stress can have on moral decision-making. We often speak of “The Courage of One”—the fact that if just one person stands up for what is right, often others will quickly join. Shell writes of “The Courage of Two”—the related notion that having just one ally can often help us stand up for what is right. Shell writes of role expectations; we make videos about role morality. You get the idea. Tomato, tomahto.

The second difference is one of emphasis. Both Ethics Unwrapped and Shell agree that our ethical decision-making is the product of our character as it interacts with all the social and organizational forces, cognitive heuristics and biases, and situational factors that can influence our moral decision-making. However, Shell appears to believe that character counts more significantly than we think that it does. This is a difference in degree only because we agree that character is critical, and we very much like Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s virtue ethics that Shell quotes multiple times: “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

One of the best things about Shell’s book is that he provides many real-life examples of various behavioral ethics influences from stories he has heard from his MBA students arising from their experiences in the working world. Many of them provide wonderful teaching moments.

We really enjoyed The Conscience Code and strongly recommend it. Like Shell, we believe that readers who absorb the book’s lessons have a good chance of advancing their careers and leading the kinds of lives they can be proud of.

 

 

Sources

Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It (2011).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2021).

Clayton Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon, How Will You Measure Your Life? Finding Fulfillment Using Lessons from Some of the World’s Greatest Businesses (2012).

Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Rev. ed. 2006).

John M. Doris, Lack of Character: Personality Moral Behavior (2002).

Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers (2d ed. 1991).

Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (2010).

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012).

Robert Hoyk & Paul Hersey, The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior (2008).

Rushworth Kidder, Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test (2005).

Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (1977).

  1. Richard Shell, The Conscience Code: Lead with Your Values, Advance Your Career (2021).

Eugene Soltes, Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of White-Collar Criminals (2016).

 

Videos

Conflict of Interest:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conflict-of-interest

Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias

Giving Voice to Values: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/introduction-to-giving-voice-to-values

Introduction to Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics

Obedience to Authority: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/obedience-to-authority

Role Morality: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/role-morality

Self-serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias

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