Irrationality and ethics

I’ve just listened to a very interesting interview on Radio 4 with Dan Ariely, author of the book about behavioural economics Predictably / Irrational. The interview was in the context of the scandal about MP expenses here in the UK. For readers not located in the land of marmite and warm beer, Britain is immersed in a huge spat about expenses in the legislature, where members of parliament were caught claiming expenses for everything from porn to moats (yes, you read correctly, a moat, a ditch filled with water designed to protect one’s castle). The expense scandal has been met by the predictable sanctimonious and outraged tone that only the British press can manage; the British rags have a unique way of stoking the public into lynching-mob paroxysm.

The question at the heart of the interview is a simple one. What would you have done if you were an MP and were presented with a similar system? This is precisely what has been bothering me about the self-rigtheous commentary coming from the press and some sections of the public. Are we more moral than our elected representatives? Should we really expect MPs to behave differently than many of us would? If MPs are human beings (as opposed to space-lizards from the planet Zod come to harvest us and eat us with a nice glass of Chianti), then should we not expect them to behave in the same way that humans do?

This is where Ariely comes in. He has been conducting some fascinating research into cheating, and the internalised justifications for cheating, and has discovered that in an unregulated system most people will cheat a little bit. In fact, it seems like dishonesty is inherent to human nature, and every time it has been tested, it has been shown that people will not only “work the system”, they will justify it to themselves. When faced with ethical choices about expenses and claims, Ariely’s research hints that while there are indeed honest people out there, most people would actually choose to cheat a little, not to much as to arise suspicion, but just enough to gain some benefit, be it real or psychological. This would explain some of the more bizarre expenses that really do not amount to much money.

I really think that we should be honest when looking at news about corruption in government and in private enterprise. Ask yourself, would I do differently, and be honest about the answer. One of the things that I like about virtual worlds is that it allows me to test out ethical choices all the time. Perhaps this could be a good vetting process for political office, as in an online environment you have nowhere to hide, and all your choices are logged. If you are ethical in virtual worlds, chances are you are so too in real life.

Comments 4

  1. The scandal is not so much the detail of the expenses, but the MPs' efforts to conceal them in contravention of laws they approved and an order from the high court. They should be worldly enough to know the risks of petty corruption and what measures they should have taken to police themselves properly. Michael Martin is being booted out because of his failure to do so.

  2. I get that most people will try to subtly cheat an unregulated, or worse yet, an abusive system. However, I do ascribe to the notion that public officials are, in some sense, expected to be ethically above us, in the sense that they are obligated by the nature of their position to work for the best interests of the community, rather than themselves. The problem is, there's a disjoint between what we believe want from our elected officials (to place the community before themselves) and the economic system that allows these systems to function (capitalism, based on the pursuit of individualized self-interest).

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