An Ethics Question For The Ages…

[This is an updated version of an earlier blog we published]

Why do some folks act unethically?

For me, this is “the-ethics-question-for-the-ages“:

“Just why do people act ethically in some situations, but those same people act unethically in other situations?”

I hate to disappoint you, but the answer ain’t at all clear to me…

Sure, I have some thoughts that I’ll share with you, but if you feel you must excoriate me for not knowing what I’m talking about, go right ahead. After all, who am I to deprive you of a little joy?  🙂

Despite not having a clear answer myself, though, I still find myself asking the question whenever I can.

For example, anyone who talks to me of ethics will certainly find themselves facing the question. And anyone who has had the misfortune of applying for pretty much any position in my business, he or she will certainly face the same question. Come to think of it, if I improbably found a prospective soulmate and love of my life, I’d probably ask her too. Not definitely, just probably…

And why do I keep asking it even when I don’t have the answer?It’s because I’m curious… I just wanna know if the person I’m asking has something that even remotely resembles a moral compass. I think this is kinda worth knowing…

How I ask the question…

I might start by sharing this classic Albert Camus quote—


Then, I’d ask this:

“So, why d’ya think there are SO MANY wild beasts out there?
And, really, how would YOU solve The Apple Conundrum?”

OK, I know:

Until anyone reads this, nobody will have any idea what “The Apple Conundrum” even is… No worries, folks, be cool: You’ll know soon enough… 🙂

Helping with the answer…

Because I’m such a kind and generous soul, I thought I’d help you all with just a small insight into a possible answer to that question. I thought I’d do that by sharing with you the fascinating story of The Princeton Theological Seminary Study. While the Study partially suggests an answer to the big question, it does also offers a valuable gift in helping us bring our ideas to life

Finding the Study began with my last story, “The Ethics Test That Many Failed.”  That, in turn, led me to something I called “The Apple Conundrum ” And it was only as I was trying mightily to solve the Conundrum that I came across the Study

As you might already know, “The Ethics Test That Many Failed” was an ethics test that some of our finest and brightest failed quite spectacularly. They failed because they looked away and said or did nothing as those around them lied, cheated or acted unethically. And by doing nothing, they effectively enabled a group of scammers who had targeted some quite innocent souls.

As I looked at those enablers, something struck me as odd:

They all seemed so NORMAL! Was this weird—or WHAT?

Some of the enablers, for example, were quite religious and righteous. Some claimed to embrace and follow all the ethical and moral values of their particular religions. Some came from prominent and wonderful families—and were themselves loving and responsible parents. Some seemed quite generous and charitable. Some were alumni of our very best schools. And many were already quite rich—some ridiculously so.

So, pray tell, what happened to these apparently quite normal folks—many of whom were leaders in their industries and professions?

How could they enabled the scammers and, in some cases, how could they have become white-collar criminals themselves? What had happened to them???

This, folks, is what led me to something I’ve called “The Apple Conundrum”

Apple Connundrum

“The Apple Conundrum”… 

This, gentle readers, is “The Apple Conundrum”

Consider a perfectly normal person who wouldn’t even THINK of stealing an apple from his local grocery store. 

Consider that same perfectly normal person entering a grocery store and seeing some wonderfully delicious apples. Consider him leaving the store without stealing an apple and then going to work.

What, I wonder, was it that deterred him from stealing that apple?

Consider that same perfectly normal person then arriving at work and proceeding to— 

*   steal pens, pencils and pads for his kids; 

*   fudge his expense reports to claim reimbursement for expenses he never incurred; 

*   lie outrageously to customers and clients and, in the process, defraud those customers and clients; 

*   knowingly manipulate financial records so that his company would appear to have met quarterly targets when they clearly had not, thereby committing a fraud on those who were relying on accuracy of those financial records. 

What, I wonder, had turned him into someone who was unethical, untrustworthy—and perhaps criminal?

Somehow, in that short walk from the grocery store, our normal and otherwise ethical and honest friend had morphed into a monster.

How on earth had THAT happened??? 

So, my friends, you now know what is “The Apple Conundrum”

Solving “The Apple Conundrum”…

To solve the Conundrum, I knew I’d need help. But, from whom?

I thought I knew what I was looking for. I’d need to find a group of all-seeing and all-knowing sages who, over time, had somehow come to understand and unlock the mysteries that shape the way we behave.

How difficult, I thought, could this be? 🙂

I quickly found one particular cult that I thought might help me in my quest for enlightenment. This cult had buried itself in the murky world of business ethics. It was populated by a brilliant group of academics known as “business ethicists.” 

Who better, I thought, to unlock the Conundrum. Surely, if they didn’t know about business ethics, who would?

Sadly, something went very wrong—very quickly. I was puzzled. The cultists relied heavily on great thinkers like Emmanuel Kant and the Utilitarians—convinced that these great thinkers could somehow help keep normal and otherwise-ethical people on the straight and narrow.

My cynicism got the better of me… “Yeah, really!” I thought… 

I found myself smiling.

How could anyone argue with a straight face, I wondered, that people became white-collar criminals because they lacked expertise in the application of the categorical imperative or the felicific calculus… Nah, c’mon, thought I…

My skepticism then only increased. I discovered that the cultists, to explain cheating or unethical behavior, had relied on three “folk” theories that suggested that folks acted unethically because they—

  • suffered from some character flaw; and/or 
  • were greedier than their colleagues; and/or 
  • simply didn’t know right from wrong. 

Try as I might, my smile was going nowhere. I just couldn’t buy this. My common sense wouldn’t allow it…

Much to my relief, though, I then discovered that these folk theories had been discredited by another cult—the criminologists. After extensively interviewing white-collar criminals in prison, these folks appeared to have repudiated each of the three folk theories. For example—

With respect to the character flaw theory, they pointed out that any alleged character flaw in those they interviewed seemed to apply so inconsistently and erratically as to make this theory practically meaningless.

With respect to the greed theory, they pointed out that many of the white-collar criminals they interviewed were already quite rich before they had committed their crimes. So much for this theory about greed… 

Finally, with respect to the theory that people had committed their crimes because they didn’t know right from wrong, they pointed out that the interviews they conducted had seemed to reveal conclusively that most of these criminals absolutely DID know that what they had done was wrong. Sure they may have rationalized their actions, but they certainly knew the difference between right and wrong. So much for the last theory… 

I was then intrigued by the conclusion the criminologists reached—

Perfectly ordinary people, they concluded, when put into the certain situations, were capable of committing quite serious crimes and acting unethically and immorally. These were choices they made based on the situations they were in. 

This made total sense to me. The next steps seemed obvious:

We had to explore the “situations” that might result in otherwise normal people doing what they might otherwise never do. Then, we would have to figure out how to control those “situations” so that we could head off the bad behavior at the pass.

To illustrate their point, the criminologists seem to have relied on studies like the Princeton Theological Seminary Study…

So, at last! I can now share that story with you!!! I hope keeping you waiting so long won’t make this too anti-climactic…

The Princeton Theological Seminary Study 

In this study, students at the Seminary were told they had to report to a building across campus to make a presentation. The experiment was set up so that each student would have to pass a stranger in need of help. Some students were told they were on time. Others were told they were early. The rest were told they were late.

The purpose of the study was to see if the students would respond differently to the stranger in need of help based on whether they were on time, early or late. In other words, would they act based on their particular situation—or would their situation have nothing to do with how they acted?

The study confirmed the criminologists’ suspicion, namely, that these students acted quite differently based on the situation they were in. These were their findings—

  1. Of those who were told they were late, only 10% stopped to help… 
  2. Of those who were told they were on time, 45% stopped to help… 
  3. Of those who were told they were early, 63% stopped to help… 

The Study’s conclusion was clear:

It is the situation in which you find yourself that will determine how you might act. 

The criminologists, however, added this rider:

It is also your perception of what your colleagues think of your actions that will play a pivotal role in how you act. 

So, back to The Apple Conundrum:

What about our friend who wouldn’t even think about stealing an apple?

Looking at culture of the workplace—and some red flags 

If the Study’s conclusion was correct, it seems we can predict our friend’s actions when he returns to work by his “situation” at work, namely, by the culture of his or her workplace.

On the one hand, if that culture is one in which lying, stealing and cheating is deemed TOTALLY unacceptable by management, the chances are that, if our friend lies, steals and cheats, his colleagues at work will find this unacceptable—and they will make that quite clear to him. Certainly, in this ethical culture, they are unlikely to look away if he lies, steals or cheats. He is thus unlikely to lie, steal or cheat…

On the other hand, if the culture of the workplace accepts certain “Techniques of Neutralization” to justify or rationalize some types of lying, stealing and cheating, then it is ALMOST CERTAIN that our friend’s colleagues in the workplace will do absolutely nothing if he lies, steals and cheats. He is now far more likely to lie, steal or cheat…

quote-ethics-must-begin_15124-1The only good news about this is that these “Techniques of Neutralization” will then become red flags to leaders and senior management that something needs to be fixed in the workplace.

According to the criminologists, this perhaps explains why psychologically normal folks, who share conventional societal values, will act out of character if they find themselves in a workplace culture that places no value on ethics and that accepts these “Techniques of Neutralization”

Time to address those “Techniques of Neutralization”

“Techniques of Neutralization”… 

What the criminologists discovered was that white-collar criminals seem to use the same series of excuses and rationalizations for their actions. These became known as “Techniques of Neutralization.” And these, in turn, became red flags for anyone seeking out signs of ongoing questionable behavior.


See if you can pick out which of these excuses our friend at the grocery store or my imaginary friend, Bob, in “The Ethics Test That Many Failed” might use—

1. Denial of injury

Here, our friend would seek to minimize or deny any harm that resulted from his actions—or inaction. If money were taken, for example, he would claim that it was borrowed—and not stolen. If the victim were already rich, he would claim the victim wouldn’t feel the loss—and thus wasn’t really injured. 

2. Denial of responsibility 

Here, our friend would claim he wasn’t responsible. He would claim that his actions were unintentional or the result of insanity or provocation—or that it was someone else’s fault. 

3.  Appeal to higher loyalties

Here, our friend would deny the act was motivated by self-interest. He would claim that higher loyalties to others or some moral obligation motivated him, such as loyalty to his employer, to friends, to colleagues or to family. 

4. Everyone is doing it 

Here, our friend would claim he had no choice but to do what he did because the competition was doing it. The only way to remain competitive, he would argue, is to keep up with the competition.

5. Claim to entitlement

Here, our friend would claim he was entitled to do what he did by denying the authority of the law, which, he would claim, was illegitimate. Or he would claim that he was underpaid and that he was thus only taking what was rightfully his. 

6. Denial of the victim 

Here, our friend would claim the victim was unworthy in some manner or other. He might claim retaliation—or that the victim deserved it for some reason. He might claim the victim’s company was itself unethical and deserved the punishment as meted out by him. Here, he is judge, jury and executioner. 

7. Condemnation of the condemners

Finally, here our friend would impugn the motives of those who condemn his actions. For example, he would criticize management of his company—or the police as being corrupt or unfair or that he was being prosecuted maliciously. 

Where’s the gift? 

From all of this, I would suggest the gift this story offers is clear. It begins with an explanation as to why otherwise quite normal ethical people would lie, steal and cheat. It recognizes that—

It is the situation in which you find yourself that will determine how you might act. Also, it is your perception of what your colleagues think of your actions that will play a pivotal role in how you act.

So, gentle readers, the gift is this—

We have to control the situation in which our friend finds himself and we have to make quite clear to him and his colleagues that they will not accept him lying, stealing and cheating. In other words, we have to create an ethical workplace. 

We also have to take responsibility for our actions…