Reality is the Only Thing That Matters


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar NewDealer says:

    As judges sometimes say, I concur in part and dissent in part.

    You are right that reality and what happens in the material world are the only things that matter. And like you, I generally dislike simplistic moral commands like “Don’t be bad” or “Don’t steal” while doing no actions that help reduce the need for crime.

    However, I still think morality and ethics are needed. This is where my liberal arts and multi-disciplinary mind come in. Specialization is good and necessary but I think too many people end up just thinking about problems or policies in a one dimensional way based on the specialized training. My city planner friends and my economist friends have very different solutions towards affordable housing in major cities. Dare I venture to say that a good policy could be found somewhere in the middle of the two?

    There are a lot of things that might be perfectly justifiable from an economic sense or a business/profit motive sense. This does not necessarily make them right in a moral or ethical way and I don’t think tempering the profit motive with a little ethics and morality would vastly slow-down the economy or make people poorer.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      > morality and ethics are needed

      I can agree with that if it’s properly qualified to read “morality and ethics are needed to guide our own, individual actions”. If Kazzy’s boss was asking whether what he was doing was moral, I think we could safely advise her with the understanding that we might be able to influence her positively. Absent her participation though, the world is no different whether I give her condemnation or adoration.

      When we are talking instead about whether some third party is being ethical though (in contrast to what we can do about it), I think we are wasting our brains.

      Specialization is good and necessary but I think too many people end up just thinking about problems or policies in a one dimensional way based on the specialized training.

      Ideally specializations that fall victim to that will have someone point it out and integrate whatever dimensions are missing from their current viewpoints. (I know you didn’t say this, but I fear that someone might use your argument to argue that we should just average everyone’s viewpoints to come up with the right answer.Report

  2. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    When we have already judged and can’t go back, it is sometimes worth asking how the world would be different if we held the exact opposite views. This can be an enlightening (though sometimes depressing) question to answer truthfully.

    For example, I’ve realized that the number of abortions in this world would be the same even if I had the exact opposite beliefs on abortion that I have now. This can be a liberating realization if you have someplace better to redirect your mental energies.Report

  3. Avatar Fnord says:

    Even if you answer the “what CAN I personally do?” question, how do you decide what you SHOULD do about it without asking the moral question?

    Yes, moral debates on the internet can be nothing more than intellectual masturbation. But that’s equally true of factual debates on the internet, or indeed any debates on the internet.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      I perhaps “should” have distinguished between personal morality and the morality of others. The former is appropriate.Report

      • Avatar Fnord says:

        So it’s less about morality per se than about a focus on oneself. You don’t ask “what can [other person] do?” any more than you ask what they should do. You ask what you yourself can and should do.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        I think that’s a fair way of putting it.

        But I have one gigantic warning to add. Few people are actually curious about whether what they are doing is moral. I think we rarely face true moral conundrums of the sort that exist in ethics classes that there can be multiple acceptable answers to.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Or … it may be that everyone (moreorless) believes their beliefs and actions are moral as a matter of course. Why would they reconsider views they’re already morally certain about?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        The older you get, the more those ethics classes do come into focus. See, it’s easy to behave ethically when you don’t have much power over others, when it’s you being hard done by, abused, when it’s others taking advantage of you.

        It’s when you’re somewhat farther along the trail, when you have the power to take advantage of others, when you can get away with stuff you never could when you didn’t have that power — that’s when those grey areas start appearing. You start seeing it with your kids, when you’re not sure whether to intervene in a situation or let the kid face the consequences. You really see it the first time you sack someone. When your marriage starts getting in trouble, you see it with terrible clarity.

        Ever seen a little kid when he catches someone else doing something wrong, how he’ll run to some authority figure and tattle? Immorality offends everyone, I suppose. But when you’re older, you come to realise tattling isn’t always the wisest course of action because Messengers do get Shot. There are no easy answers once you truly understand the questions.Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

        @blaisep , when I say ethics-class problems, I am referring to problems where the choices look like this:
        1. Sort-of-bad choice that has negative outcomes for one group
        2. Other sort-of-bad choice that has negative outcomes for some other group

        I would suggest (though I have no evidence) that most of our real-world ethical problems are more like this:
        1. choice that is good for me but bad for others
        2. choice that is good for others but not as good for me

        The second type of problem rarely shows up in ethics classes because the right answer is obvious when you’re not actually in the situation. The first type of problem makes for nice debates that can take up the whole class period.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        The second type of problem rarely shows up in ethics classes because the right answer is obvious when you’re not actually in the situation.

        Not so obvious once you learn a bit more though, yeah? That’s why those types of questions actually are addressed in ethics classes.Report

  4. Avatar Kazzy says:

    But should my boss consider those questions? What do we say of someone who, when charged with leading an institution, ignores morality and ethics and instead focuses solely on the bottom line? I suppose this really means there are some “first” questions we need to answer… largely, what is the purpose of the institution in question?

    If someone ran a company and ignored the bottom line entirely, focusing solely on taking moral or ethical actions, and ran the company into the ground, we’d like criticize them. But if someone does the inverse, then what?

    I suppose what I’m getting is… what questions do we want people who make decisions to answer before making those decisions? These seem necessarily to be context specific. Or maybe not?Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      It’s a board of director’s mandate to focus on the bottom line for shareholders, not to focus on morals, no? This is their fiduciary duty, a legal duty, and requires not that corporations be moral, but that what they do be legal.

      It’s the rule of law, not morals, that determine what that corporation can and cannot do; and so your boss should consider morals and moral outrage in terms of potential impact on his or her shareholders; and one hopes that the rule of law incorporates morality. But our government does not enforce morality, it enforces law; at least when it’s not circumventing law to the benefit of the few over the many.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        Further, it’s my understand that not all business are corporations so obliged and corporation charters and statements can and do include provisions about public interest motives or other things not directly related to profit.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        The first half of my comment went missing. It basically did that not all businesses are corporations with shareholders to answer to.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Will, even sole proprietor corporations have a share holder, the sole owner.

        But this rather misses the point: morals fluctuate with individuals, and the only stable underpinning is the rule of law.

        There are not many folk serving jail time for the economic collapse, even though it was brought about by shady and what I’d consider to be immoral actions. But they were not illegal actions.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I think relying on the law as the underpinning of right and wrong is highly problematic. It is essentially a position that says that which is wrong should be illegal.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        While problematic, it’s not necessarily wrong. But it would almost certainly apply to people as well as companies, if true.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        Ultimately, I think the notion that corporations have an obligation to be solely profit-motivated is something of a cop-out. I see the claim made by liberal critics of corporations as well as conservative/libertarian defenders of them (and occasionally liberal defenders of them and conservative critics of them). It may functionally work out that way – heaven knows, corporations do a lot of highly immoral things to line their own pockets – but I think it lets them off the hook to say that they are obligated to be amoral, or that they should not be criticized as such because of the obligation to the shareholders. Shareholders can demand morality in addition to profits.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        It’s only one example of “X gets to be a scumbag because he’s not being selfish, he’s looking out for Y”. Another is the public statements lawyers like Mark O’Mara make, justified by the fact that their clients deserve vigorous representation.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        If it’s just an issue where this group has these interests and that group has those interests, you’re stuck with a couple of groups with competing interests.

        The only way to really turn that into something interesting is to say that it’s not competing interests, it’s actually a moral argument. This side is good, fighting for something that is good, in service to something that is good. That side, charitably, has interests. Uncharitably? They’re bad, fighting for something that is bad, in service to something that is bad.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I think you know that I agree with you; that legal is not a stand-in for moral. But how do you enforce ‘moral’ when what you perceive as immoral is legal?

        I don’t shop at WalMart; I think they’re immoral. But I’ve been told many times here that my failure to shop there is of no account; it will not make a difference. The tools to enforce morality include the court of public opinion; WalMart receives tons of bad press. Yet its still amongst the largest corporations in the world, its primary shareholders — the Walton Family — amongst the richest people in the world. My morals here are a personal preference; legal preference as expressed by our legal code is what matters. I’d be delighted to see a minimum wage and health-insurance requirements placed on WalMart that substantially shrank the company; I don’t think its growing dominance as The Marketplace healthy on a host of levels.

        But WalMart is a for-profit company, and its board accountable to its shareholders. For the last year, my husband worked at a private school (he opted not to renew his contract, and will not be there next year.) This is a non-profit corporation; so not subject to the same rules that public schools have. They can throw students out at will; the student does not have the rights of legal recourse or the rights of having their academic needs met available to any student in public schools. Personally, I find the notion of treating students as disposable commodities — get rid of them if they don’t perform to your standards (in place of evaluating your standards to see if you meet the students needs) immoral. But it’s not illegal, not in the private school setting. Again, you can turn to market solutions; don’t send your kids to private school; but this will not change the immoral behavior of a private school that expels difficult children.

        It’s ambiguous — two things are true. One truth is that immoral behavior is wrong; but as long as it’s legal behavior, what we can do about the immoral behavior is limited to where we spend our money and the market of ideas about right and wrong. At the same time, outside of some very basic evils (murder, theft, rape), it’s futile to legislate morality; people will do what they do, and they will work to change legislation both to end evils and for personal gain that may very well be immoral.

        Which leads me to thinking it’s the process; the conversation, and the arc of change from tradition to establishing new tradition that matters.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      >But should my boss consider those questions?

      Yes. But I think your boss probably isn’t at all confused as to what the answer is.

      > What do we say of someone who, when charged with leading an institution, ignores morality and ethics and instead focuses solely on the bottom line?

      My recommendation is to figure out how to best subvert such actions. Or, if you’re in a position to influence the decision maker directly, find an angle to do that.

      If someone ran a company and ignored the bottom line entirely, focusing solely on taking moral or ethical actions, and ran the company into the ground, we’d like criticize them. But if someone does the inverse, then what?

      In the former case, I’d say we should temper our criticism. It’s really hard to attribute a business failure to single causes. It can be difficult to know whether we could have done better.
      In the latter case, I suggest subversion if you work for the company or highlighting the difference if you work for a competitor. If you are a third party, you could boycott.

      what questions do we want people who make decisions to answer before making those decisions?

      Questions imply curiosity. And I am guessing your boss isn’t curious. She* probably knows exactly what she is doing. Or at least she thinks she knows exactly what she is doing. It’s possible there is some other blog out there where she is asking these questions, which would be wonderful. I am not optimistic though.

      * I have semi-randomly assigned Kazzy’s boss a gender for convenience.Report

    • Avatar roger says:

      But personally, if a corporation did what was legal, but which was seedy, I would try to avoid them as a customer, employee or client. Is this what you are getting at Kazzy?

      What would we do with a corporate version of Congressman Weiner?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Celebrate it, so long as it’s profitable or seems so. Enron got glowing reviews from the business press until the bottom fell out.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Haliburton just got busted for shredding evidence, which was probably a wise – even if seedy – move on their part.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I plan to ask every single business i interact with if they do any business with Halliburton. That is the kind of thing i expect the person making my burrito or checking me out at some store to know. If they do business with Hburton then i’ll definitely not buy anything from that store anymore. That should really show them a thing or two about a thing or two. My plan seems completely practical to me. What could go wrong?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I guess what I’m getting at (and fully conceding I’ve waded into far deeper waters than I ought to be in) is a more meta analysis of “business ethics”.

        Do business ethics exist? Or, more specifically, should they exist?

        Every independent school I’ve ever worked in has had a mission statement. Does the school and its leaders have any obligation other than fulfilling the mission as they interpret it? Should they act in a way that does not fulfill the mission or subvert fulfillment of the mission by others, are they acting “wrongly”? Unethically? Immorally?

        Sidenote: Do other institutions tend to have missions? If so, are they typically made public? Most schools plaster them right on the website.Report

      • Avatar roger says:

        Don’t get me started on mission statements. This is IMHO the biggest piece of mamby pamby silliness in the corporation. If you want to ID the biggest loser in a corporate office, just find the guy or gal responsible for forming the firm’s updated mission statement. Usually updated every five years or so, especially with advent of new CEO.

        Yes large companies have mission statements. And yes they publicize these by handing out little doodads with the mission statement written on them to every employee during the mandatory propaganda meeting. They also have them proudly displayed everywhere.

        Most mission statements are pablum about the companies commitment to customers, communities, employees and “stakeholders” (corporate speak for greedy capitalist pigs).

        They pretty much say something like “We are committed to creatively fulfilling our responsibilities to our customers, communities, employees and stakeholders by seeking to always deliver the finest value in [insert product or service here], blah, blah blah [ with blah replaced my newest empty corporate buzzwords]

        I always thought nothing belonged in a mission statement unless its opposite made sense. Unless a company would publicly display it could care less about its customers, why in the heck would anyone pretend saying you do care has any meaning? If there ever is a good mission statement, it would identify and clarify that which made a firm unique from everyone else. If they think caring about customer service makes them special, then they are naive.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    We must cultivate our gardens.Report