The Hidden Morality

The synopsis to Robert A. Hinde’s book Bending the Rules states that: “Everywhere people share certain moral principles — it is bad to steal, to kill, to lie. We see our morality as absolute, yet we live by rules that differ with the context: it is OK to kill the enemy in war; for a businessman to do the best for himself; for a lawyer to argue professionally for a position he would personally reject. We are constantly 'bending the rules,' while considering our moral principles as absolute. … The complexity of modern societies requires the rules to be somewhat flexible according to the context — personal relationships, science, law, business, politics and war. Some bending of rules is necessary for social cohesion, but too much is destructive.” What is interesting to note is that due to the contemporary need for human beings to define their own individual morality, our ability to meet traditional criteria of shared morality as a civilized society is further diminished with every passing day — and this has consequences that might be hard to comprehend in the short-run but can be devastating in the long-run.
A couple of terms ago, I took an economics course on entrepreneurship. The part that I found the most interesting (and somewhat confrontational) was when we got the chance to talk about ethics. There were two different scenarios that were presented to the class. The first situation went something like this: imagine that you are walking down a corridor after having met with a professor for a certain course. On your way, you are stopped by a janitor who tells you that for X amount of dollars, he will get you a copy of the final exam for that course. How exactly would you proceed in a situation like this? The overwhelming reaction of the class to the question was that they would not accept the offer. Some people wanted the janitor to be punished for even coming up with a proposition like this. A handful of people went above and beyond what was required, stating that they would get the exam paper and destroy it so that they could ensure that the janitor wouldn’t sell it to anyone else and a level playing field could be maintained for all students (yeah, right, and I’m the president of the U.S.). Only one person actually had the courage to admit that he would cheat in a situation where the alternative was definitely failure.
The professor then presented us with the second situation that went something like this: imagine that you are working for a company where you discover a loophole in how they handle their transactions providing you with an opportunity to get your fingers in the till. The class was asked again what they would do in a situation like this. Not surprisingly, the response was overwhelmingly negative and apparently no one in that class wanted to be called a thief. In fact, most people were under the impression that if they brought something like this to the attention of their employers they would actually be rewarded. So in essence their reason for not doing something which is obviously wrong and immoral wasn’t based on their perception of morality but rather on the promise of a reward. This, for me, is a little troublesome — people should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because doing it would earn them some kind of benefit.
At this point, the professor asked us to make the assumption that in both cases there was absolutely no chance of getting caught and the whole endeavour was absolutely risk-free. The reaction was utterly shocking. The majority of the class (about 90 per cent of the students present) changed their initial stance which they were quite vocal about just moments ago. Most of the class now agreed amongst themselves that if there was no accountability and if there was a guarantee that they would not be caught for what they were doing, they would actually go ahead and buy the exam in the first case and steal from their employer in the second case. I took this as a cue to voice my own opinion which went something like this: it doesn’t matter if there is a risk of getting caught or not in certain situations. Our behaviour should depend on our ability to think in terms of what is right and what is wrong. For me, lying is wrong no matter what the situation — and stealing is wrong too. Period.
Not surprisingly, my stance from a high moral ground wasn’t received well. All of a sudden a few people started speaking at once and saying things along the lines of how morality was subjective and how I was oversimplifying things and how what I was proposing didn’t really work in the real world. Of course, I wasn’t backing down either; not out of pride but because I truly believe in what I was talking about. I tried to reason that if we allow our morality to be non-regulated and susceptible to change then we would live our entire lives not knowing how and when to do the right thing. Bringing them back to the example in class about cheating on the final exam, I pointed out that initially almost the entire class had unanimously decided that they would not accept the janitor’s offer even though it had not explicitly been said that there was a risk (or even a high risk) of them getting caught. But when it was said that they had absolute freedom in making this choice without any repercussions, the majority now decided that it was okay to do the very same thing that they were against doing just moments ago. Either cheating is wrong or it isn’t. The situation in which you make that decision is irrelevant. And this is where our understanding of morality becomes important.
Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” I think what he meant was that the basic rules for establishing goodness are quite apparent, but what is important is to internalize this goodness. The way I try to live life is quite simple. Before I make decisions that have a moral angle to them, I think about it in third person. I think about how this situation would play out if I was at the receiving end of whatever it was that I was about to do. How would I feel if I was the owner of a company and one of my employees was stealing from me? How would I feel if I was being lied to? How would I feel if I was being cheated on? And when you start thinking along those lines the right way to act becomes abundantly clear. Our morality is something we cannot allow to be volatile, for if it is, we might as well just flip a coin every time we have to make a decision. According to Edward Craig, the way people think alters things and the way lots of people think alters things for nearly everyone. So if all of us begin to think that it is okay to lie when it suits our needs or it’s okay to steal when we feel like it or it’s okay to cheat when the situation allows it, we are setting ourselves up to be the kind of society we might not actually want to be. Finally, I think we should all take heed from what Oprah Winfrey had to say on this subject: “Real integrity is doing the right thing knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”