Considering Professional Ethics: April 2024

Ethical Risks of Self-Reinforcing Groupthink; the Elite and Prestigious are Not Immune

Comments from David Goldman (FASPE Chair) 

FASPE examines professionals who behave(d) badly; and asks why? We see normal people whose familiar motivations can lead to what seems obviously unethical to the casual observer. Money, status, competition, success, solving problems—and on and on. But, let’s here consider what may be even more insidious and alluring: the power, the draw, of the group. Consider the following:

We regularly see professionals within the world’s prestigious institutions engage in clearly unethical activities. 

Not Bernie Madoff in his self-made robbery, but lawyers at the great law firms issuing tax opinions and designing structures that reek of the unethical; editors at the most revered news organizations who willingly ignore the most basic tenets of ethical journalism; engineers and algorithmists at the most innovative tech companies who ignore the most obvious of future unintended consequences; doctors at our most renowned research hospitals whose research methods scream ethical failure; consultants at the most recognized consulting firms who define success without regard to ethical consequences; senior officers at America’s most honored military units whose actions are inexplicable by any measure; the great accounting firms, trusted businesses, and on and on—where senior executives violate any known ethical smell test.

Why? How do we explain this? No, the answer is not that elite institutions are constitutionally or inherently unethical or that they breed bad people. In many respects it is to the contrary.

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 Can it, instead, be the ethical risk that comes with a tradition, even history, of exemplary behavior?

  • Over the years, we have spoken with many young professionals at these great institutions who willingly admit that they defer the ethical questions to their seniors—on the theory that senior people at prestigious organizations must know the ethically right answers, that to have risen within such an organization speaks to their ethical reliability. 
  • Perhaps even more prevalent is the risk of the arrogance of the elite. Because of their status, is there an unstated internal implication that they are entitled to pronounce what is ethical? If they do it, it must be ok. If the leadership, if the policies, at [pick a name] condone [pick an ethically questionable act/behavior], then, well, it must be fine. Sometimes the consequences are tragic—think of those well publicized failures of members of the Navy Seals or Green Beret; sometimes the consequences are existential to the institution—think of Arthur Andersen; sometimes the consequences are reputationally disastrous. Worse, though, consider what unethical actions we do not know about because they were shielded by the reputation of the organization.

Sometimes these ethical risks arise not within existing, even elite, institutions, but instead in environments of our own making, where within our small groups we create our own ethical constructs in service to the group and without regard to otherwise obvious ethical constraints. 

  • Do we even unintentionally or subconsciously ignore ethical boundaries in support of our family unit? Isn’t that the case in the most blatant situations involving compromises that we have seen parents make to “assist” their children gain entry to elite universities?
  • How often do lawyers or other service providers design their own self-serving, self-reinforcing ethical structures in the micro-environment between service provider + client? In the extreme, does that define the interactions between lawyers or consulting firms and pharmaceutical companies or tobacco companies that were major contributors to the opioid crisis and cigarette-caused cancer?
  • Don’t we know of situations where the special relationship between journalist and source or doctor and patient devolve into the unethical not out of ill-intent, but because of the importance of the relationship and the distinction of the project?

Otherwise normal and well-meaning people are vulnerable to act unethically. Not intentionally, perhaps not consciously, even not out of personal (or selfish) motivations. But, rather, because of the allure of the group. Even the group that forms a justifiable and well-earned elite, even the groups that we establish ourselves with the best of intentions.

The lesson: ethical behavior requires self-awareness and constant vigilance. Professionals: question your ethics. 

"Considering Professional Ethics" is a monthly essay shared in the FASPE e-newsletter.
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