Situational ethics

Sonnie Bailey

25 October 2019

Ethics is interesting

The topics of ethics and morality, in the abstract, elicit eye-rolls in many people.

But those same topics often provoke the most interesting and engaging conversations with these same people.

Because ethics and morality – or more pointedly, what is the right thing to do – is a perennial, deep, and fascinating subject.

(With lots of interesting dimensions: for example, have you ever thought about the relationship between luck and morality?)

There is often room for good-faith debate and genuine disagreement on certain matters. And these disagreements often point to beliefs and values that are fundamental to who we are.

Theoretical ethics

A terrific starting point on the topic of ethics is Michael Sandel’s series of lectures titled Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do? 

Harvard has made this course freely available on Youtube.  I dare you to start watching the first lecture, titled “The moral side of murder”, and not get hooked:

But the purpose of this article isn’t to talk about utilitarianism or categorical imperatives or anything of the sort.

I want to point out something that I believe is often overlooked when it comes to Ethics 101-type conversations.

Practical ethics

There’s a practical aspect to being ethical.

And what’s overlooked, in particular, is that our behaviour (ethical or otherwise) is influenced heavily by our situations.

To a large extent, our ethical decisions are influenced by our situations.

One of the best examples of this is what is known as the Good Samaritan study, conducted by Princeton social psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson in the 1970s.

Darley and Baston studied a group of students training to become priests. These students were about to give a sermon about the parable of the Good Samaritan (of all parables!). Some of these students were told they had plenty of time to get to where they were to give the sermon. Some of these students were told they were running late. On the way, each student came across a man in distress.

The findings: 63% of students who had plenty of time helped out the man. But only 10% of students who were in a hurry stopped to help. This was even though the Good Samaritan parable was top-of-mind for all of these students.

These findings resonate with me. Because when I’m busy, I’m far less generous with my time, and less generous in general.

The problem is, I’m almost always busy. And you might be, too.

The fundamental attribution error (or: “I’m good, but others are bad”)

When I think about situational ethics, I’m reminded of the “fundamental attribution error” our tendency to focus on situational factors when judging our own behaviour, while at the same time judging other people as if it’s their personal characteristics (and not situational factors) that are responsible for their behaviour.

A video explainer is here:

In short: when we make unethical decisions, it’s because of the situation.

We’re good people who happened to do an unethical thing.

But when others make unethical decisions, it’s because they’re bad people.

I think situational factors play an enormous impact on our ethical behaviour, and to ignore this when discussing ethical theory does an enormous disservice to actually making, and encouraging, good behaviour.

There are some challenges with this, including:

  • In the world of business, organisations that promote ethical behaviour are rarely the most profitable businesses.
  • Some (many?) industries are in a weird equilibrium where the dominant business model elicits bad behaviour.
  • If we really, really, REALLY wanted to be ethical… well, most of us would make very different life decisions.

Bad situations draw out the worst in people

I’ve worked in several organisations where I’ve had colleagues who were wonderful people.

But in some of these organisations, the organisations themselves weren’t very nice.

There were various contributing factors: for example, the incentives in the organisation, and the culture which was driven largely by senior people, some of whom had conflicting interests, and one or more of whom were simply as…les.

I would find that these nice people were acting against their own nature. In another context, they’d probably be close friends.

I’ve seen this again and again in my life: situations bring out the best and the worst in people.

A good explainer when it comes to law is Patrick J Schiltz’s long article titled “On being a happy, healthy, and ethical member of an unhappy, unhealthy, and unethical profession”.

(Be warned: reading that article was extremely influential on me, and has probably resulted in me earning substantially less compared to if I’d never read it. On the flip side – I’m probably happier, healthier, and ethical. so I’m wealthier in other respects. So it cuts both ways.)

Weird equilibriums result in weird behaviour

On the topic of weird equilibriums: I’ll refer you to Brian Rogers’ articles “The billable hour is bad for your soul” and “Are lawyers like gardeners who mow with scissors?”.

Life decisions create our situations


Nassim Taleb, who is both incredibly interesting and a world-class boor, has a chapter in his book Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life titled “The skin of others in your game” (chapter here). He explains:

“Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.” 

More specifically, he points out that:

“The vulnerability of heads of households has been remarkably exploited in history… / It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage”.

It’s no coincidence that most fictional heroes, like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, don’t have families.

The difficulty, though, is that it’s almost impossible to have no skin in the game.

You could be a paragon, and decide not to have children.

You could turn your back on Lois Lane or Mary Jane.

You could be financially independent (have “f#(k you money”). But you also couldn’t have friends.

Another perspective: CARLA F. BAD

Think of it another way: when the FBI runs background checks for security clearances, it considers the following items:

  • Character
  • Associates
  • Reputation
  • Loyalty
  • Ability
  • Finances
  • Bias
  • Alcohol
  • Drugs

(An acronym covering these things is CARLA F BAD. Hat tip to Asha Rangappa.)

Many of these factors relating to life decisions we’ve made, which impact our situations.

We can try to structure our lives to make it easier to be ethical

Some of my own principles include:

  • Having a financial buffer so you’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck.
  • Similarly, not being overburdened with debt.
  • Developing marketable skills, so you can be confident that you’ll be able to find a reasonable job if you needed to do so.
  • Building a business where I have LOTS of employers (ie, clients) rather than one single client.
  • Being upfront with people about my own failings and beliefs rather than tailoring my representations to the people I’m with, or to get the “best” short-term outcomes.
  • Developing a sensitivity to, and vocabulary for discussing, factors that can cause ethical failings (by thinking about these topics and writing about them).
  • Avoiding situations where I think my moral compass will be compromised.
  • Building time and flexibility into my life (… which I’m failing at, at the moment…).
  • Diversifying my identity, relationships, and happiness, so I don’t have a single point of failure in my life.
  • Cultivating deep and enduring relationships with people who will have my back, no matter what.
  • Structure a life where incentives are in place for me to speak up without fear or favour. With this blog, and my business, I’m In a rare position where speaking out works in my favour.

I’ll hasten to add that there are some positions where it’s impossible to keep the skin of others out of your game. And in many of these positions (I’m thinking politics and senior roles in large hierarchical organisations), I’d prefer someone who at least has ethical leanings rather than an exemplar of the dark triad.

Society needs to encourage good conduct and discourage bad conduct

Ultimately, this is what gets me upset about Donald Trump and the current version of the US Republican party, headed by people like Mitch McConnell, who enable Trump’s behaviour.

A failure to

  • call out,
  • stand up to, and
  • punish

bad conduct (whether it’s unlawful or simply awful) doesn’t just relate to the conduct in question.

It sets an example. It creates a broader cultural and social context, which communicates that it’s okay to break moral and ethical norms.

You can see where this is going.

Unfortunately, acting in this way is short-sighted at the personal level and the societal level. Being ethical and having integrity is good for your own soul. It’s good for the soul of our society.

At a social level, the real wealth of nations is trust. If we don’t have trust, we’re not in a good situation.

At a personal level, create a situation where you can trust yourself. Where you can be trustworthy. Where you can develop a reputation for being trustworthy. It will pay dividends.

And where possible, I encourage you to ask: what can we do, in our own ways, big or small, to encourage others to engage in ethical conduct?


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