• 2011
  • MY SAY: Knowing your ethical blind spots

MY SAY: Knowing your ethical blind spots

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My Say
The Edge Malaysia - 15-08-2011

China has executed 14 "billionaires" — those with assets of at least a billion yuan — in the last eight years, according to recent press reports from the republic. This is in line with expanded government efforts to curb corruption and crime in the country. One of those billionaries was also involved in murder.

The latest to be sentenced to death, reportedly for corruption, is the former vice-chairman of China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator by subscriber numbers.

Such a breach of ethics among billionaires and the rich, however, is not typical of China alone. The phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World newspaper owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch is no less ethically embarrassing. Malaysia, too, has its share of corruption problems involving the rich and powerful.

However, it is unlikely the death sentence will be imposed on those found guilty of corruption and crime elsewhere unlike the harsh punishment meted out in China.

The recently released Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It by M Bazerman and A E Tembrunsel makes for interesting reading. The authors used clear examples, ranging from the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster to the collapse of corporations such as Enron, to highlight where human failings lay. Under the spotlight too were corrupt practices in the tobacco companies, sport and businesses.

Ironically, in these instances, those involved were able to justify their actions with virtually no concern about the consequences. While no one is above making ethical mistakes, the book reminds us of the blind spots in the battle between our "should self" and "want self". The former encompasses our ethical intentions and the belief that we should behave according to our ethical values and principles, whereas the latter is that side of us that is "emotional, affective, impulsive and hot-headed". This is in stark contrast to the rational, cognitive, thoughtful and cool-headed "should self".

Based on the research carried out by the authors, the bad news is that our tendency to act is more influenced by how we want to behave. The blind spots cause us to fail in recognising that there is an ethical dimension that is typically glossed over by self-interest. This temporal battle between the "want" and "should" selves is ongoing, especially during decision time, when the "want self" prevails due to dominant visceral responses and "ethical fading".

Ethical fading happens when the ethical dimensions are not sufficiently recognised to prevent decisions to be taken as a result of compartmentalising them as a "management decision", for example, in getting the problem solved.

At times, one is caught in a form of "bounded ethicality: moving forward too quickly with readily available information rather than first asking what data would be relevant to answer the question on the table and how the decision would affect other aspects of the situation or other people". Group thinking is one such tendency of not wanting to challenge the assumptions or not wanting to rock the boat. When people have a vested interest in seeing a problem in a certain manner, they are no longer capable of objectivity, note the authors.

What is perhaps the real eye-opener of this book is that we like to think of ourselves as fair, moral and lawful, but we commit unethical acts or approve of the dishonest acts of others, believing that we are doing the right thing. Some even think that they operate under a higher standard.

To understand and realise the gap between should (intended) and want (actual) behaviour is to focus on the rapidly developing field of behavioural ethics; the traditional way is no longer adequate to explain what is going on.

In the mad rush to be materially successful, the blurring between the two selves and thus the ensuing behaviour must be clearly dealt with. Behavioural ethics research lends support to the notion that most people want to act ethically, yet the blind spots unknowingly push them towards corrupt ways.

More frightening still is that even the so-called "ethical organisations" are not safe from blind spots, regardless of the kind of pledge they make. It has little impact on their behaviour and worse still, is viewed as a sign of hypocrisy, of not walking the talk. On the contrary, the authors note that oaths, compliance systems and other organisational attempts at encouraging behaviour are not only failing to meet their goal of curbing unethical behaviour in most cases but can actually "promote" unethical behaviour!

That said, it is the informal norms and pressures that underlie the formal system that exert far more influence on shaping behaviour than any formal way.

With the onslaught of ethical violations of megaproportions globally, unless we are able to deepen our understanding of what constitutes ethical blind spots, putting offenders to death, as in China, will make little difference to solving the problem in the long run.

* The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at vc@usm.my