Hackings, sackings and so on
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 84 winter 2011
Just call your number, press hash and enter your pin code. That’s what my service provider told me when i asked how i could listen to my voicemails remotely (having lost my mobile phone, again).
And if I hadn’t set a pin code? “Just dial the last six digits of your number.”
Knowledge really is power. Were I a private investigator with that default code trick of the trade up my sleeve I’d consider it a Duty to the Métier to dial the numbers of folk like David “I didn’t do morals at school” Tweed or mendacious ministers of the crown. If I got their voicemail, bingo, I’d hit hash, re-enter the last six digits dialed and provide any prize to journalists for a fair fee. It might be unlawful, but many ethical things are; just as many lawful things – Tweed’s business practices, say – are unethical.
I would sleep with more than a clear conscience – with the self-blessed rest of a good guy fighting the good fight. Private investigator in league with investigative journalists.
And the more I did this, the more routine it would become. The kind of thing you do without thinking.
The line between good fight and good story would soon blur like the headlines themselves speeding off the printer. Under the pressure of deadlines and dollars, who thinks twice about what they are doing if they have not even thought once?
It’s said that a corporation doesn’t have a conscience, the implication being that conscience is a matter for individuals. But a corporation has a culture in place of a conscience.
Every organisational culture – business or government – can encourage (or discourage) thinking. A culture can require reflection and without replacing the morning tea break with a Japanese tea ceremony. It can do this simply through the thoughtfulness of those in charge. People respond to what is expected of them in the most surprising ways, often with even greater gusto than the honcho setting the expectations.
Stanley Milgram’s early-sixties Obedience to Authority psychology experiment, reminds us of the downside of such gusto. His bold experiment, hidden inside a bogus experiment, demonstrated how the man/woman in the street – when put into a laboratory and instructed by an authority figure – will happily (some laughed, reportedly) inflict painful, life threatening electronic shocks to screaming subjects.
The evolution of ethics now disallows Milgram’s Obedience to Authority experiments but similar observations can be made in real life, in commercial and government organisations. Here good people do bad things and without the pesky necessity of an authority figure looking over their shoulder issuing explicit instructions.
Many instructions in business and government are implicit, a result of the values that underpin – or undermine – the culture. Whenever greed seeds those values – greed for power, greed for growth, greed for profit – a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, sooner or later.
That people like you and me can consciously, even conscientiously, do wrong despite good conscience is a dispiriting thought save for the faith to be had in the essential goodness of people.
It’s this essential goodness that is our greatest resource, humankind’s salvation in the long run.
Organisational cultures can be set to nurture it; or, intentionally or unwittingly, to crush it.
Not every participant in the Milgram experiment was willing to do wrong, a vocal minority refused. No doubt many in the Murdoch experiment are good people.
But those that are bad may also be good people, essentially.
When evil happens in an organisation, in a way that befits its values and consequent culture, is it the evildoers who are to blame ... or the authority figures, so quick to blame?
Handwringing and table thumping is the real disgrace.
The denial of responsibility ... the pie in our face.