Just the way it is

It’s easy to be outraged by the behaviour of a single person, especially someone in a position of authority. But the issues that cause the most harm are the systemic ones.

Ethical action usually requires a degree of outrage or indignation that motivates us. But understanding which things we choose to act on is tricky. We might walk by a homeless person without a second glance but help an injured animal. We might be indignant about the NHL denying the effect of concussions on players’ health but think nothing of unsafe working conditions of miners in Africa working for a Canadian corporation.

There are a number of reasons for variations in what University of Washington professor Thomas Jones calls “moral intensity.” For example, he argues that the nearer the person being harmed is to you, the greater the intensity. So hockey players in Canada matter more than miners in Africa. Other factors he identifies include the magnitude of the harm, how immediate the harm is, how likely it is to occur, and whether our social group considers the act to be unethical.

When my class was discussing the benefits of ethical hotlines and whistleblowing, I decided to test the moral intensity of some issues that might impact them. I posited an anonymous hotline for students in their program and asked who might blow the whistle in the following instances:

1. A fellow student is selling illegal opiates to other students (I reminded them of the risk of death from fentanyl-laced drugs).

2. A fellow student has obtained an illegal copy of the midterm exam and is selling it to other students for $500.

3. A fellow student who is the president of the students’ association is using money from member dues to party with her friends (you are not one of those friends).

I should point out that none of my students thought that any of these actions were ethical. Many said they would report each of the three situations. I would have guessed that the largest percentage would report the drug dealer, given the potential magnitude of harm. Next would be the illegal midterm, since that impacts the fairness of grades to everyone and undermines their program. I would have guessed that the lowest percentage would have turned in the student association president.

In both of my classes, the highest level of indignation was directed at the president using their money to party. They felt that their money was being misappropriated. They didn’t back down even when I pointed out that the amount was very small — if they contribute, say, $50 per student to the association, at most a few dollars of the funds from each student were being misused. The fewest number of students would report the sale of illegal drugs. Some students who would not turn in the drug pusher said it would make no difference — people who wanted drugs could always find them. Similarly, the midterm, which came out in the middle, represented something that unfortunately does happen on university campuses and there was a degree of resignation and reluctance to turn in a fellow student.

Before you turn your ethical indignation on this generation of university kids, consider how we react to corporate scandals. All I remember about Tyco is that Dennis Kozlowski spent US$6,000 of the company’s money on a shower curtain for his apartment. But I had to look up the fact that almost US$3 billion was awarded to shareholders in a class-action settlement. And if you ask people why Chip Wilson departed as CEO of Lululemon, they are likely to talk about how he blamed fat women for not looking good in the sheer fabric of his yoga pants. The facts that stick with us are pretty trivial, although they might be symbolic of the disdain these CEOs had for their shareholders and customers.

I think it’s easiest to be outraged by the behaviour of a single person, especially someone in a position of authority. But the issues that cause the most harm are the systemic ones, which are hard to understand and even harder to change. Unfortunately, most of us shrug our shoulders and accept this as “just the way it is.”