The Ethics of Complicity

Hillary Clinton wrote that it “takes a village” to raise a child. It’s not a one-person job. Few things are, including financial and political frauds, sexual harassment, and war crimes. Both the legal system and ethical analysis tend to focus on the actual perpetrators of wrongdoing, but often they are not the only ones who should be in the frame.

We have already blogged about the work of Professors Minette Drumwright of the McCombs School of Business’s Center for Leadership and Ethics and Peggy Cunningham of Dalhousie University in Canada. Their investigation into sexual harassment scandals, such as those involving Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes, demonstrates that a seemingly necessary prerequisite for long-term wrongdoing is that the perpetrator be assisted by “networks of complicity” (subordinates who support the harasser by running interference, deflecting criticism, and recruiting victims) and “networks of complacency” (bystanders in the organization who know of the harassment and while they do not actively and directly assist it, are unwilling to report it or take any other action to stop it).

And we have recently read Amos Guiora’s books on the Holocaust (The Crime of Complicity: Bystanders in the Holocaust) and sexual harassment (Armies of Enablers: Survivor Stories of Complicity and Betrayal in Sexual Assaults) where he makes similar points and argues that bystanders should often be criminally punished when they do not step up to the plate to confront serious wrongdoing and/or assist victims (a view we do not necessarily endorse).

Professor Max Bazerman of the Harvard Business School is a little late to the party with his new book Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop. However, because Bazerman is a leading scholar of behavioral ethics and the book is a good one, it merits this blog post.

In Chapter 1, Bazerman defines “complicity” as “being involved with others in an illegal or unethical activity or wrongdoing.” He puts “true partners” and “collaborators” at one end of the spectrum and “ordinary complicity” of the type in which we all often engage at the other.

In Chapter 2, Bazerman begins with the true partners and collaborators, exploring the opioid epidemic and the McKinsey consulting firm, which made a shipload of money helping Purdue Pharma and other drug firms market their dangerous pharmaceuticals long after the damage being done was clear. [See our blog post “Moral Injury: When McKinsey Comes to Town”] Then there were the physicians, the pharmacies, and the distributors who reaped vast profits helping Purdue and other manufacturers distribute their poison. These were all “true partners” with Purdue in that their economic interests, which seemed to be all they were interested in, aligned perfectly with Purdue’s. “The actions of these complicitors,” says Bazerman, “highlights that it is a mistake to blame only the primarily wrongdoer for a crisis or scandal.”

Bazerman gives the Holocaust as another example, plowing the same ground as Guiora’s The Crime of Complicity. He emphasizes that “killing many millions of people required the help of partners.” One of Nazi Germany’s partners was France’s antisemitic Vichy government whose values aligned with Hitler’s on the Jewish issue.In Chapter 3, Bazerman distinguishes “true partners” from “collaborators,” emphasizing that the former “share core values with the harm doer, while collaborators are willing to work with the harm doer as long as they get what they want in return.” As examples of collaborators in action, he focuses on the VC firms that enabled and encouraged Adam Neumann to create and sustain the WeWork fraud [see our blog post “What Didn’t Work for ‘WeWork’”]. A second example is Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” debacle, where for economic and other self-serving reasons [see our video on the self-serving bias], unions and governments were complicit in VW’s fraud.

In Chapter 4, Bazerman begins focusing on the ordinary types of complicity that we are all likely to be involved in, unless we are careful. Just as many ordinary Germans benefitted indirectly and passively from the murder of millions of Jews and the confiscation of their property, many Americans benefit from the systemic racism Bazerman believes to be rampant in the U.S. He argues: “Because silence and ignorance in the face of racism are just another form of complicity, those of us with privilege need to educate ourselves on the history of racism in our country and communities, learn about implicit bias, and find out more about how whites have benefited from racism.” [See our video on implicit bias]

Chapter 5 explores how we may be complicit by “believing in a false prophet.” Bazerman illustrates how credulous humans can be, using Jim Jones and the People’s Temple as an extreme example. True believers, well-intentioned but gullible, believed Jones’s craziness and actively helped him murder hundreds of his followers. It’s a bit of a stretch, but Bazerman then talks about how Walgreen’s aided the Theranos scandal by contracting with Elizabeth Holmes in a total absence of evidence that her company had produced a workable product. Their executives blindly believed in Holmes. WeWork is another example where, beyond all reason, venture capitalists and employees bought into the nutty leadership visions of founder Adam Neumann. Bazerman explores why it is that we humans are often eager to accept the visions of false prophets, examining in detail the difference between reason and faith.

In Chapter 6, Bazerman explores two significant reasons why people are often complicit in evil. First is the human tendency to be obedient to authority [see our video on obedience to authority]. That we tend to be obedient to authority is wonderful when it helps create order in society, but not so great when our boss is a Harvey Weinstein or an R. Kelly and we find ourselves assisting others’ wrongdoing. Second is misguided loyalty. As does Guiora in his book Armies of Enablers, Bazerman explains how loyalty to institutions over victims led many well-intentioned people to protect Michigan State University, Penn State University, and the Catholic Church while abandoning the sexual assault victims of Larry Nassar, Jerry Sandusky, and a host of Catholic priests. He also illustrates misguided loyalty by examining the Volkswagen, Boeing [see our blog post: “Engineering Ethics and the Boeing Scandal”] and General Motors scandals. Finally, he also provides some truly chilling statistics about police violence and explains why it is often enabled by other officers, police higher-ups, and even medical examiners.

Chapter 7 makes the point that trusting in other people is generally a good thing, but if you aren’t sufficiently vigilant, you may end up being excessively loyal to an individual just like you can be blindly loyal to an institution or a corporation. Bazerman illustrates with a very personal situation where he collaborated with someone he trusted but who committed academic dishonesty that reflected poorly on multiple co-authors, including Bazerman.

Chapter 8’s most important point is that because of the self-serving bias, people tend to respond to incentives and that organizations such as Volkswagen, Wells Fargo [see our blogpost: “Wells Fargo Goes Far to Cheat Customers”], and BP, often with the advice of McKinsey and other consulting firms, set unrealistic quotas or standards for employees that can be met only by acting unethically and sometimes illegally. Because employees naturally focus on those quotas or standards, they often let ethics fall out of their frame of reference in making decisions, with disastrous results. [See our video on framing]

Our favorite chapter in the book is probably Chapter 9, “The Psychology of Complicity.” In it, Bazerman explains five psychological tendencies which can lead to complicity with wrongdoing.

  • Single Sourcing of Blame. Humans like simple answers. They tend to favor explanations that place the blame for wrongdoing on a single person or corporation, ignoring the more complicated reality. This can lead people to let complicitors off the hook and to excuse themselves from wrongdoing when they are complicit.
  • The Psychology of Indirect Harm. Studies show that we are more likely to excuse wrongdoers when they act through others than when they do the dirty work themselves. This may lead us, for example, to largely ignore the role that a consulting firm like McKinsey may play in a disaster like the opioid crisis because its employees are “merely giving advice” that doesn’t cause harm until it is physically executed by McKinsey’s clients.
  • When Complicity is Out of Focus. Bazerman repeats the point on framing—when we are unduly focused on maximizing profits or, like Volkswagen, selling a record number of our product, ethics can fade from our frame of reference with unfortunate results. [see our videos on framing, ethical fading, and moral myopia]
  • The Omission Bias. When a bad ethical result occurs, humans tend to blame someone who has taken an action more than someone who chose inaction. Some of us fail to vaccinate our children because if we choose to have them vaccinated and they suffer an adverse reaction to the vaccine, we will feel worse than if we take no action and they suffer a bad result by getting the disease. Bazerman reminds us that this is a psychological flaw, because the decision to do nothing is still a decision.
  • The Slippery Slope to Complicity. People often begin with a tiny transgression that is easily rationalized that, over time, leads down the slippery slope to much larger wrongs. [See our video on incrementalism] Bazerman gives the Enron scandal as a classic example of incrementalism.
  • Finally, there is simple fear. We fear losing our jobs, for example, if we do not go along with an illicit scheme. Many of the people who were complicit with Harvey Weinstein feared the power he wielded in the movie industry. (See our video “Weinstein & Hollywood’s ‘Open Secret’”)

In Chapter 10, “Confronting Our Own Complicity,” Bazerman urges readers to take action to minimize their complicity in wrongdoing. Among many others, he offers the following key tips. First, be self-aware and keep in mind that you are vulnerable to the many psychological biases mentioned in Bazerman’s book and featured in our Ethics Unwrapped videos (framing, incrementalism, the self-serving bias, etc.). Second, realize that it is difficult to be ethical on the fly, so think carefully in advance about how you wish to act when you actually face an ethical challenge [see our GVV video on Voice, which describes pre-scripting]. Third, reduce the costs of doing the right thing by, for example, saving money so that you have an economic cushion should you need to endanger your job by standing up for the right thing. Finally, think about how best to recruit allies because it is easier to blow the whistle if you are not the only soldier in the foxhole.

Because this blog post is already quite long, we will leave Chapter 11 (“Leading Broader Solutions to Complicity”) to you to consume on your own. But, for the record, we recommend Max Bazerman’s Complicit.

 

Sources:

Max Bazerman, Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop (2022).

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

Hillary Rodham Clinton, It Takes a Village (2007).

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumwright, “R.Kelly Was Aided by a Network of Complicity—Common in  Workplace Abuse—that Enabled Crimes to Go on for Decades,” The Conversation, originally published Sept. 28, 2021 and updated June 30, 2022, at https://theconversation.com/r-kelly-was-aided-by-a-network-of-complicity-common-in-workplace-abuse-that-enabled-crimes-to-go-on-for-decades-168809.

Peggy Cunningham, Minette Drumwright & Kenneth William Foster, “Networks of Complicity: Social Networks and Sex Harassment,” Equity, Diversity & Inclusion 40(4): 392-409 (2021).

Peggy Cunningham & Minette Drumwright, “Banning Non-disclosure Agreements Isn’t Enough to Stop Unethical Workplace Leader Behaviour,” The Conversation, Dec. 13, 2021, at https://theconversation.com/banning-non-disclosure-agreements-isnt-enough-to-stop-unethical-workplace-leader-behaviour-173574.

Minette Drumwright & Peggy Cunningham, “Unethical Newsroom Behavior: Paradoxes and a Perfect Storm,” Journalism Practice: 16(5): 963-983 (2022).

Mary Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (2012).

Amos Guiora, Armies of Enablers: Survivor Stories of Complicity and Betrayal in Sexual Assaults (2020).

Amos Guiora, The Crime of Complicity: The Bystander in the Holocaust (2017).

 

Related Videos:

Ethical Fading: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/ethical-fading

Framing:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/framing

Implicit Bias:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/implicit-bias

Incrementalism:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism

Moral Myopia:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-myopia

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

Pre-scripting: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/pillar-6-voice.

Volkswagen’s Emissions Evasion: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/volkswagens-emissions-evasion

Weinstein & Hollywood’s “Open Secret”: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/weinstein-hollywoods-open-secret.

 

Related Blog Posts:

“The Key Man: Fraud and Its Supporting Cast,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/the-key-man-fraud-and-its-supporting-cast.

“R. Kelly, Sex Abuse, and Networks of Complicity,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/r-kelly-sex-abuse-and-networks-of-complicity.

“Sexual Harassment, Networks of Complicity, and Newsrooms,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/sexual-harassment-networks-of-complicity-and-newsrooms.

“Moral Injury: When McKinsey Comes to Town”: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/moral-injury-when-mckinsey-comes-to-town

“What Didn’t Work for ‘WeWork’”: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/what-didnt-work-for-wework.

“Elizabeth Holmes’s Conviction: Theranos and Loss Aversion”: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/elizabeth-holmess-conviction-theranos-and-loss-aversion

“Engineering Ethics and the Boeing Scandal, at   https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/engineering-ethics-and-the-boeing-scandal

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