Introduction to Social Ethics

The dominant ideas in moral philosophy emerged from the Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement during the mid-17th to late 18th century that followed the Renaissance and preceded the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe.  The scientists and mathematicians of the Renaissance period were heavily influenced by the careful observations of nature perfected by the artists of the time.  In the case of da Vinci (1452–1519), there seems to be little distinction between art, science, and engineering, all of which could eventually be wrapped up in the single term technology — meaning the study of technique.

It may be that the realism evident in the cultural movement of the Renaissance inspired an empiricism in science, as best exemplified by Bacon (1561–1626).  However, the scientists and mathematicians of the early Enlightenment, such as Descartes (1596–1650) , Newton (1642-1727), and Leibniz (1646–1716), shifted their attention away from art and towards philosophy.  They saw science as a structured approach to discovery of the immutable and generalizable laws that govern Nature, as observed in the interactions between energy and physical objects, including the orbit of planets around the sun and the behavior of light.  It is this tradition of natural philosophy that gives the modern “Doctor of Philosophy” its title, despite the fact that graduates from modern Ph.D. programs in the physical and natural sciences typically never study the modern discipline of Philosophy at all.

Following the intellectual trajectory established by Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642), Newton used the natural laboratory of the solar system as the empirical basis for his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in which he described the laws of motion that governed the orbit of the planets around the sun and (by extension) the interactions between all other ideal bodies.  In the near perfect vacuum of outer space, where objects act upon one another at a distance, Newton could study without the distraction of non-idealities (like friction, or drag) that likely led Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) to believe that heavier objects fall faster than light objects.

Thus, Newton established the model of modern scientific investigation adopted during the Industrial Revolution — investigation of idealized particles by a detached scientific observer, testing mathematical descriptions of observable phenomenon — and established  physical science (i.e., physics) as increasingly independent from metaphysics.  But the Enlightment was also a celebration of the political and intellectual freedom of the individual (“Knowledge is power” – Bacon) as the emphasis shifted from knowledge of God to knowledge of self.  Philosophers like Locke (1632-1704, England), Voltaire (1694-1798, France), Smith (1723-1790, Scotland), and Kant (1724-1804, Prussia)  departed from the empirical Newtonian topics of study and established philosophy as a separate discipline, even though they were deeply influenced by Newtonian successes.  In fact, the Enlightenment was an especially productive period in the establishment of new domains of study.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:

The commitment to careful observation and description of phenomena as the starting point of science, and then the success at explaining and accounting for observed phenomena through the method of induction, naturally leads to the development of new sciences for new domains in the Enlightenment. Many of the human and social sciences have their origins in the eighteenth century, in the context of the Enlightenment (e.g., history, anthropology, aesthetics, psychology, economics, even sociology), though most are only formally established as autonomous disciplines in universities later.

Thus, all the sciences of the Enlightenment were either unconsciously or consciously imitative of physics in the sense that they adopted reductionist approaches to seek generalizable principles.  In moral philosophy and the social sciences (including economics), the natural locus of study was the individual as an analogue to the Newtonian particle.

One  of the major philosophical crises of the Enlightenment was the nature of free will.  From the Stanford Encyclopedia again:

Newton’s success early in the Enlightenment of subsuming the phenomena of nature under universal laws of motion, expressed in simple mathematical formulae, encourages the conception of nature as a very complicated machine, whose parts are material and whose motions and properties are fully accounted for by deterministic causal laws.

Philosophers such as Hume (1711-1776) who  sought to “establish the basic laws that govern the elements of the human mind in its operations” (ibid) explicitly adopted Newtonian mechanics as a metaphor for explaining human behavior — a view that proved remarkably persistent.

When real, observable human behavior failed to correspond to the idealized models developed by the philosophers, psychologists, and economists of the resulting Industrial Revolution, more often than not the failure was ascribed to the humans — not the theories.  These behavioral failures could be medical, psychological, cognitive, or moral, but the deviation between normative ideas of what behavior should be and descriptive accounts of real behavior were nevertheless consistently attributed  to some deviance in the individual exhibiting the behavior.

In this view, a moral individual ascribes to a consistent set of ideal principles, regardless of the behavior others.  According to Kant, to do less would be irrational.  While there may still be room to argue about which are the correct moral principles, the Enlightenment approach to moral philosophy holds that there must be laws of moral reason that are generalizable, universally applicable, and discoverable from some foundational principles.

Nevertheless, evidence that people do not behave as rationalistic and individualistic atoms — even in an ideal sense — keeps accumulating.  This series of videos either discusses or re-creates a series of experiments that are now several decades old.

The first is the Asch Conformity Experiment, which shows that individual reason is subject to distortions resulting from interaction with others in a group setting.

The next video illustrates the Bystander Effect, in which the moral actions of an individual seemingly depend on the expectations of a group, rather than a personal sense of right and wrong.

These three videos document the Milgram Experiment, in which subjects conform to the expectations of authority, despite the misgivings of their own conscience.

Lastly, the most infamous of these experiments may be the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students randomly assigned to the role of “guard” or “prisoner” adopted extreme persona that aligned with their assigned characters.

Both the Prison Experiment and more recent abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq call into question the usual explanation — what we might call the “Bad Apple Theory“.   According to this explanation, just one or a few deviant individuals can spoil the behavior of the entire group.

While there certainly may be immoral behaviors that are stronger in some individuals than in others, Phil Zimbardo (the psychologist who ran the Prison Experiment) offers a different explanation.  In his view, it is the system (or the apple “barrel”) that causes the behavior.   That is, the exceptional moral character necessary under such extremely difficult conditions is tantamount to heroism.

The problem with traditional ethics education is that it is predicated on the imperfect premise that individuals can, thru reason, somehow be made immune to failures of moral character.  In Zimbardo’s view, behavior in social settings results from a negotiation between individuals and the institutions in which they are embedded.  As such, it may be that context — the very thing reductionist science seeks to strip away — is the most important determining factor in human behavior after all.

Zimbardo Lucifer Effect


Note: the video below contains powerful, disturbing images and profane language.  A carefully redacted account of the experiment is available at this link.

Zimbardo calls the imposition of conditions that transform moral character the Lucifer Effect(Note: The Zimbardo “Lucifer Effect” lecture linked at left contains extraordinarily disturbing images, especially in Parts 2 and 9.  Sensitive viewers may either skip Parts 2 and 9 in YouTube or avoid these images by following the links below that segment the lecture into parts, skipping the most graphic details in Part 2, or other parts with the warnings below).

Part 1: Introduction to the Lucifer Effect.

Part 3: Who?  Or What Is Responsible for the Lucifer Effect?

Part 4: The Fundamental Attribution Error and the Power of the Social Compliance

Part 5: How to Create Evil in Good People

Part 6: De-Individuation, Demonization and the Evil of Inaction

Part 7: [warning: profane & sexual language, graphic images] Ethics of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Part 8: [some graphic images of torture] The Predictability of Abu Ghraib

Parts 9 & 10 are a detailed analysis of the Bush Administration prosecution of Abu Ghraib guards, policies regarding torture, and transformative changes to American law that allow designation of “unlawful enemy combatants” for whom Constitutional rights no longer apply.

Part 11:  The Psychology of Heroism

Tacit Knowledge and Moral Leadership as a Source of Business Value

In Erden and Nonaka’s paper “Quality of Group Tacit Knowledge” they introduce the idea that business value derives from tacit knowledge — that is, the knowledge that can only be gained through experience.  Tacit knowledge cannot be codified, explicated, or completely documented.  It is expensive to create and difficult to share.  Therefore, a firm that has a high quality of shared tacit knowledge will be able to stay ahead of competitors that cannot acquire that knowledge.

Understanding the distinction between tacit and explicit is essential to understanding other distinctions, such as the difference between rules and norms, and how legal differs from ethical, which differs from moral.

Rules vs. Norms

Rules are explicit prohibitions or requirements that prescribe specific consequences resulting from violations.  By contrast, norms are shared expectations of behavior (like manners) that don’t suggest specific consequences.  Norms are tacit social expectations.  The expectations of a norm may sometimes made explicit (e.g., “Don’t cut in line.”), but the consequences are not.  Consequently, norms are enforced through social processes, such as shaming or ridicule, rather than through judicial or bureaucratic processes.

This excerpt from an insightful TED talk by Clay Shirky called “How Cognitive Surplus Will Change The World” illustrates both the difference between a rule and a norm, and what can happen to culture when norms become explicitly stated as rules.

Legal vs. Ethical Vs. Moral

Laws result from legislative processes.  They represent rules laid out by the government and are attached to specific consequences, including maximum or minimum penalties, sentencing guidelines or other disincentives.  On the other hand, ethics do not typically result from legislative action.  They emerge from social processes particular to a group with aligned interests, such as a professional society or a guild.  Ethics are shared expressions of values and may be codified as rules of behavior, but they are typically enforced outside of government — i.e., by the specialty group itself.  Often, the punishment for breaking an ethical expectation is excommunication from the group, such as disbarment (for attorneys) that may result in a loss of livelihood.  In contrast to laws and ethical codes, morals exist at the scale of the individual.  They are not necessarily shared or negotiated among many individuals in a group.

It is possible for behavior to be legal, but unethical or immoral.  Similarly, moral behavior might be unethical or illegal.

Management vs. Leadership

The final important distinction to make is between management (explicit) and leadership (tacit).  In this video, Seth Godin tries to clarify this distinction, although his explanation is still more inspirational than descriptive.

Managers operate within a bureaucratic or administrative structure.  Their authority to influence the behaviors of others reposes on the organizational structure: it’s policies, procedures and allocation of resources.  According to Godin, managers work towards the explicit goal of incremental improvement within an existing paradigm by coercing compliance from subordinates.

By contrast, leaders work outside the bureaucratic structure of performance reviews, merit pay increases, and annual bonuses.  In Godin’s view, leaders empower others to accomplish things previously thought impossible.  Certainly, both managers and leaders influence the behavior of others.  However, moral leadership does not exert this influence for the benefit of the leader (such as a Chief Executive Officer), but rather for the benefit of the follower, or for society.  Thus, real leadership is an act of service.

Godin believes that the industrial paradigm of the modern corporation was short lived and is now essentially over.  What brought it to an end, in his view, is the Information Revolution, which he believes is exemplified by Google.

Godin’s critique is essentially consistent with Erden and Nonaka’s thesis that shared tacit knowledge is now the principal source of value in any firm.  Godin points out that information-communication technology has reduced the marginal cost of explicit information to essentially zero and brought transaction costs to such a low level that anonymous personal assistants can now be hired by the hour over the internet.  This, he says, breaks the industrial age “monopoly” from which profits were once extracted.

When explicit information, such as that which can be downloaded over the internet, is essentially free, then what what will serve as the source of competitive advantage for any firm?  Erden and Nonaka claim the answer is “tacit knowledge”, but they don’t explain from where this tacit knowledge originates.

Connecting Nonaka to Godin, we could hypothesize that the source of high quality group tacit knowledge is moral leadership — thus positioning moral leadership as the principal source of business value in the Information Age.