In It To Win: Jack & Moral Equilibrium
Abramoff’s version of moral equilibrium, which describes our tendency to keep a running scoreboard in our heads that compares our self-image as ethical people to our actual behavior.
1. Can you explain moral equilibrium in your own words? How does it affect moral decision-making?
2. How does moral equilibrium apply to Jack Abramoff? What examples from his story can you cite to support your argument?
3. Can you think of an example from your own life where you or someone else fell victim to moral equilibrium?
4. How might you anticipate and/or mitigate the effects of moral equilibrium in your own life or decision-making?
On March 29, 2006, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to six years in federal prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Key to Abramoff’s conviction were his lobbying efforts that began in the 1990s on behalf of Native American tribes seeking to establish gambling on reservations.
In 1996, Abramoff began working for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. With the help of Republican tax reform advocate Grover Norquist, and his political advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, Abramoff defeated a Congressional bill that would have taxed Native American casinos. Texas Representative and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay also played a major role in the bill’s defeat. DeLay pushed the agenda of Abramoff’s lobbying clients in exchange for favors from Abramoff.
In 1999, Abramoff similarly lobbied to defeat a bill in the Alabama State Legislature that would have allowed casino-style games on dog racing tracks. This bill would have created competition for his clients’ casino businesses. Republican political activist Ralph Reed, and his political consulting firm Century Strategies, aided the effort by leading a grassroots campaign that rallied Alabama-based Christian organizations to oppose the bill.
As Abramoff’s successes grew, his clients, political contacts, and influence expanded. He hired aides and former staff of members of Congress. In 2001, Abramoff began working with Congressman DeLay’s former communications director, Michael Scanlon, who had formed his own public affairs consulting firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hired Abramoff and Capitol Campaign Strategies to help them renegotiate their gambling agreement with the State of Louisiana. Abramoff, however, did not disclose to the tribe that, in addition to his own consulting fees, he also received a portion of the fees paid to Scanlon’s firm.
In an effort to protect his Coushatta clients in Louisiana from competition by a new casino near Houston, Texas, Abramoff successfully lobbied for a state gambling ban in Texas between 2001 and 2002. Incidental to this ban was the closure of a casino in El Paso, Texas, owned by the Tigua Tribal Nation. The Tigua were another one of Abramoff’s casino clients.
Later in 2002, Abramoff made a pitch to the Tigua to work to oppose the ban for which he had previously lobbied successfully. With the Tigua’s money, Abramoff took Ohio Representative Bob Ney and his staff on a golfing trip to Scotland. Abramoff hoped to convince Ney and his colleagues to slip a provision into an election-reform bill that would grant the Tigua gaming rights. Abramoff’s efforts did not pay off, and the deal he sought fell through, but he did not inform the Tigua of this outcome. Rather, Abramoff continued to give the Tigua hope for the provision’s success, while also continuing to charge them for his and Scanlon’s services. And, in their email exchanges, Abramoff and Scanlon often mocked their tribal clients as “morons” and “monkeys.”
Throughout the course of their work with Native American tribes, Abramoff and Scanlon charged upwards of $66 million. The Coushatta paid over $30 million to protect their casino and to stop competing casinos in Texas. The Tigua paid $4.2 million to try to continue operating their casino in Texas. Abramoff has stated that he donated much of the money he made to charities, schools, and causes he believed in. But he also spent millions of dollars on activities or contributions in connection with politicians and campaigns he sought to influence. Furthermore, he evaded taxes by funneling money through nonprofit organizations with which he partnered.
After his conviction in 2006, Abramoff cooperated in the investigation of his relationships with Congress members, including aides, business associates, government officials, and lawmakers. Representatives DeLay and Ney both stepped down from their positions in Congress. DeLay, who had risen to the rank of House Majority Leader, was charged with money laundering and conspiracy of funneling corporate contributions to state candidates. Ney plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and making false statements. In exchange for gifts, lavish trips, and political donations from Abramoff, DeLay and Ney had used their positions in Congress to grant favors to Abramoff’s clients and lobbying team. Abramoff served three and a half years of a six-year prison term. He was released on December 3, 2010.
Since his release, Abramoff has spoken out against corruption in politics. He has stated that he believed himself to be a “moral lobbyist” and has apologized for his actions. In a 2011 interview, he said, “What’s legal in this system is the problem,” and in his memoir, he wrote, “Unfortunately, I was a miniature version of that system.” But not everyone perceived his redemption as a genuine effort. Tigua tribal leaders said his apologies were too little, too late. Rick Hill, former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, stated, “You look at Jack—though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of [Washington] D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”
Others point to the American political system, and see Abramoff as a symptom of broader corruption. Investigative journalist Susan Schmidt stated, “Abramoff couldn’t have flourished if this system, itself, was not corrupt, where the need for money—the members of Congress and their need for money—is so voracious and so huge that they don’t have their guard up.” California Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, “What Jack had been doing was what had been done before. People should pay more attention to the fact that we have got some enormous special interests in this country who are having incredible influences on policy.”
In his memoir, Abramoff reflected on personal and professional reform: “Regardless of my rationalizations, I was the one who didn’t disclose to my clients that there was a conflict of interest… I wasn’t the devil that the media were so quick to create, but neither was I the saint I always hoped to become. …I decided that, in order to move myself close to the angels, I would take what happened in my life, try to learn from it, and use it to educate others.”
1. Abramoff had an established set of morals in his personal life, and was deeply religious. He believed he was a ‘moral lobbyist’ who fought hard on behalf of his clients, and he donated much of his proceeds to worthy causes. Do you think the blame of his lobbying tactics primarily lies with Abramoff individually, or with the system within which he operated? Explain.
2. To what degree do you think individuals have a responsibility to act ethically within a corrupt system? How would an individual act ethically in this context?
3. Lobbying is a high-pressure, high-stakes business. Although lobbyists typically try to fly below the radar-screen, sometimes their business is high-profile as well. How might these situational factors affect lobbyists’ ability to act ethically?
4. Why do you think Abramoff and his associates would mock clients who were paying them millions of dollars? How does one rationalize or explain such behavior?
5. Since his release from prison, Abramoff has advocated for political reform, but many do not see his efforts as genuine. Do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a morally bankrupt felon who has no business advocating reform? Or do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a fallible human in a unique position to help us learn from his moral mistakes and reform a broken system? Explain.
6. Many politicians who received contributions from Abramoff or his clients donated portions of the funds they received to charity. Only a small fraction of politicians donated the money to Native American tribes. Do you think politicians who received these funds had a moral obligation to donate their money to Native American tribes? Why or why not? Do you have a different opinion of those who did donate to Native American tribes versus those who didn’t? Explain.
7. If you were hired to lobby on behalf of both the Coushatta’s casino in Louisiana and the Tigua’s casino in Texas, how would you negotiate the potential conflict of interest? Explain.
8. How many basic ethics and behavioral ethics concepts can you identify at work in this case study? Explain and discuss their significance.
9. What legal reforms would you recommend that would make lobbyists more likely to act ethically? Why would you recommend these reforms, and how might you implement them?
Investigating Abramoff – Special Report
Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist
How a Lobbyist Stacked the Deck
A Jackpot From Indian Gaming Tribes
Jack Abramoff Confronted by Native American Tribes
For Ex-Lobbyist Abramoff, a Multimedia Effort at Redemption
Abramoff and 4 Others Sued by Tribe Over Casino Closing
Abramoff Effect: The Smell of Casino Money
The Fast Rise and Steep Fall of Jack Abramoff
Trial Money Linked to GOP Fundraising
‘Operation Open Doors’
A Lobbyist in Full
Lobbyists, Clients Undeterred by Scandal
Lawrence Lessig interviews Jack Abramoff
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington
This video introduces the concept of moral equilibrium in the context of the story of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. During the Bush Administration, Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He was also at the center of one of the most significant political scandals since Watergate.
Moral equilibrium describes our tendency to keep a running mental scoreboard in our heads that compares our self-image as an ethical person with our actual behavior. When we do something good, we think of ourselves as good people and then may give ourselves permission not to live up to our own ethical standards. This is called “moral licensing.” When we have failed to live up to our own ethical standards, we look for opportunities to make up for those moral lapses. This is called “moral compensation.” For more details and examples of this concept, watch Moral Equilibrium. To learn about ethics concepts that affect our moral equilibrium and moral licensing, watch Being Your Best Self, Part 3: Moral Intent and Self-serving Bias.
The kinds of decision-making errors that are the subject of Jack & Moral Equilibrium and the other five shorts in this video case are the focus of a field of study known as behavioral ethics, which draws upon psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do.
This video draws from footage shot at The University of Texas at Austin when Abramoff visited campus to talk about his life and corrupt lobbying in Washington, D.C. It is part of a video case that includes a 25-minute documentary, In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story, six short videos that focus on specific behavioral ethics biases illustrated by Abramoff’s story, and a written case study. The documentary exposes personal and systemic ethical concerns in government and illustrates how well intentioned people can make serious ethical errors—and even commit crimes.
To learn more about the scandal that ended Abramoff’s lobbying career, read the case study on this page. For a case study on moral equilibrium, read “Buying Green: Consumer Behavior,” which examines how consumers may give themselves the moral license to lower their ethical standards in other contexts when buying more environmentally-friendly products.
Terms related to this short video and defined in our ethics glossary include: behavioral ethics, bounded ethicality, moral equilibrium, moral emotions, moral reasoning, and self-serving bias.
Books about the lobbying scandal include Jack Abramoff’s own account, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” (WND Books, 2011) and an exposé from journalist Peter H. Stone, “Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
Movies about the scandal include a documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010), and a dramatization starring Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack (Dir. George Hickenlooper, 2010).
The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”
For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”
A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”
Another article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?”
A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.
Transcript of Narration
Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Department of Business, Government and Society
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“Over the years we’ve all seen high-profile televangelists and “family values” politicians involved in sex scandals. You might have also noticed numerous cases of embezzlement by employees of charitable organizations. How is it that seemingly good people can act so unethically?
One factor is a psychological phenomenon known as moral equilibrium. The basic idea is that most of us want and indeed need to think of ourselves as good people. We keep a sort of running scoreboard in our heads, comparing our mental image of ourselves as good people to our actual behavior.
When we act in ways that don’t live up to our own ethical standards, we tend to feel bad and look for ways to make up for it. So we might do good deeds in order to restore balance to our internal scoreboard. This is called moral compensation.
On the flip side, when we do something good, we add points to the plus side of our mental scoreboard, and we then may give ourselves permission to fail to meet our own ethical standards. This is called moral licensing.
Moral compensation and moral license are the two components of moral equilibrium. Moral licensing is the scary one. It is what allows TV evangelists, family values politicians, and people who work for charities to start telling themselves how wonderful they are, and then to give themselves permission to depart from their own ethical standards. Importantly, these people don’t even realize how their past actions are affecting their current decisions.
One study asked two groups of people to write about themselves. The first group wrote about something they did that they were NOT proud of, and the second group wrote about something they did that they WERE proud of. Afterwards, both groups were asked to donate to charity or to volunteer.
The first group donated more to charity and volunteered more than the second group. The first group – bad deeds fresh in their mind – was engaged in moral compensation. The second group – focused on their own goodness – was practicing moral license.
There are many more studies on moral equilibrium, and they all make the same point: don’t get cocky! Just when you’re feeling especially good about yourself, you’re most in danger of giving yourself license to screw up.”