The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is "Practical Ethics" -- can we apply the great philosophical and spiritual- religious teachings of ethics to everyday problems in daily life and in the business world? With me is Dr. Michael Scriven, a multidisciplinary scholar, author of Primary Philosophy, founder of Evaluation News, and the first president of the Evaluation Network. For ten years Dr. Scriven served as the primary trainer in business ethics for government and business officials at the Executive Training Center in Berkeley. Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL SCRIVEN, Ph.D.: It's a pleasure to be here, Jeffrey.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you. You know, ethics is a funny thing in our lives. Some people think of ethics as a little window dressing -- you know, the Machiavellian point of view, which is you want to appear ethical without necessarily being ethical; you want to get away with as much as you can. And then there are other individuals who suggest that truly, to be fully human means to struggle with ethics as being one of the fundamental core issues in our life.

SCRIVEN: Yes, I think it's true that our entire educational system and the media condition us, very successfully for nearly all of us, to believe that ethics is a kind of imposition on the rational -- which is the selfish and egotistical -- way to run your life. Consequently in business, for example, the game becomes a game of how near can we sail to the wind, while not actually losing money in the process.

MISHLOVE: I think you see this time and time and again in the news, year in and year out. People are always preaching about how we must be more ethical, and yet people in high positions are continually violating ethical principles, as if to say that it never sank in and it never will.

SCRIVEN: And I think that that's a very serious mistake. It's a misconception of what ethics is. It's not an imposition from without; it's simply a long-term survival strategy for humanity, and anybody working against ethics is simply working against everybody else. And so the basis for ethics is that we have to transcend self-interest in order to succeed as a group. When you see in the army that the commands must be obeyed even at the cost of your life, you're seeing something which isn't an arbitrary imposition on the survival of soldiers, it's what's necessary for the survival of the army. There must be self-sacrifice in that sense, and the same is true in practical life.

MISHLOVE: Of course the example that you've just given, of military discipline, implies some kind of trust in authority in the first place.

SCRIVEN: Yes. And so in the general citizen's situation, that has to come from peer support for ethical principles, from childhood training in them, and from general media support for them, instead of coming from a sort of belief that on Sundays you're going to be inspired to do it right, and if the inspiration runs out on Tuesday night and you take a bribe on Wednesday, well, that's the way it is; that's the natural man.

MISHLOVE: Well, I would think that the greatest challenge to the position that you're taking in ethics is sort of the cultural relativism notion -- that is, ethics are just sort of quaint cultural ideas that have grown up. Different cultures have different ethical standards; anyway, there is no such thing as real absolute ethics, and I'm going to do what I do.

SCRIVEN: And you see how strong that is once an American firm gets into business overseas, where bribes are the normal course of routine, and they start doing the same thing and arguing that that's the local practice, what would you want us to do? I mean, you don't want to just tell these people that their silly local customs aren't right. They're just as right as ours in our own country. Now, that relativism goes very deep, and in fact you find it in downtown San Francisco, where people say, well, the culture of the firm, or the culture of Wall Street, is one thing, and ethics is another thing.

MISHLOVE: And it even goes, I think, with kind of a positive ethical value, which is that we should be tolerant.

SCRIVEN: Yes, that's right. It's seen as being in fact good to be not good, in the appropriate circumstances. Now, what we don't do is to examine how very costly this is as a strategy for people that follow it. Let me give you an example that's really quite an interesting one. If you study the history of high-tech firms, the Silicon Valley type of firm, you find time and again the following pattern emerging. The firm begins small with a quality product which does very well on the market. It expands, it gets into trouble financially, it brings in the sharp-pencil gang to start managing the company the way that Harvard Business School taught them to, and we start looking at short-term profits, we don't improve the product, and three years later we're dead. Now, all the big guys -- not the little guys, but all the big guys of the past -- have crashed doing just that. Thinking that they were being pragmatic, they killed themselves, and everybody went down with them -- VisiCalc, the inventors of the spread sheet; MicroPro in San Rafael with WordStar, the great word processor for many years, refused to improve, and these days when it has improved it, nobody will go back.

MISHLOVE: In other words, you're saying that we can consider ethics as being akin to quality control.

SCRIVEN: Yes, it's the long-term quality control by the society, and it represents the interests of all involved, consumers as well as the investors. And if you don't take account of this, in the long run it costs you very severely -- quite rightly, because you're just flouting everybody else's interests, and they in the end are the people that have to support you.

MISHLOVE: I think one of the difficulties that people may have with your position, which seems rational, is that we're accustomed, we're raised to think of ethics as being associated with the great religious teachings, for which people are prepared at least in story to sacrifice their lives. And today, when people throw off the oppression of some of these religious teachings, or otherwise rebel against the religions under which they were raised, they tend to let go of the ethical aspects at the same time.

SCRIVEN: Absolutely. It is the first great insight to realize that many of the most ethical people in the last three thousand years of our culture had no religious affiliations at all; to realize that the Buddhists are atheists; to realize that the humanists are often completely dedicated, unselfish people. It's really important to realize that, because otherwise the baby goes out with the bath water. Now, religion is a source of great strength for many people. It's the foundation for ethical behavior for many people, but it's not at all necessary. And if you start thinking that it's absolutely necessary, then when you lose religious values you begin to lose your connection to ethics. But ethics is absolutely independent of that. Otherwise, how could we argue that God was good? It must be the case that we had independent standards of good before we started to talk about God being good or Christ being good or the great leaders being good. We have independent standards of ethical behavior, because societies don't survive without them.

MISHLOVE: Well, I don't want to get into too many of the philosophical arguments here, but rather look at the psychology of this, because you have some very, very rational arguments for why we should all consider ethics to be one of the major things that we're doing. I'm impressed with the Stoic philosophers who suggested that the whole purpose of philosophy was to develop virtue. Yet psychologically, if I'm living a hedonistic or even an Epicurean lifestyle, why should I change? Or even stronger, what would make me change, even if I were convinced temporarily by listening to you that it was a good idea? I'd probably forget about it a half hour later.

SCRIVEN: There's two really important reasons. One is the terrible cost the society exacts if you do get found out in the unethical behavior. We're looking at Senators, Vice Presidents of the country, being sent to jail or put into legal courts and sentenced time and again. That means the end of being able to hold up your head. It's a very severe cost, and a very substantial number of people are being picked up. So the first thing is, remember what it really does mean -- the end of your career, of your social respect, and so on; what about your wife and family, or husband and family? These are very serious costs. People underestimate them severely. Secondly, in the case of the business world, it means the end of the income which you were being unethical in order to protect. These are serious costs. And then the other thing is a very much deeper question. It's this: in selecting hedonism, did you look seriously at the alternatives? Can you argue that hedonism as normally conceived is really a more enjoyable form of life than a form of life in which you commit to respect for others? There's just absolutely no evidence that the life of the hedonist is more fun. One sort of thinks it must be, but if you look at the life of the people committed to service you don't find miserable people disliking their existence, not respecting themselves. You find people who respect themselves, enjoy life, and feel very good about it. So it may be just as simple as a fundamental error in the choice of the axioms.

MISHLOVE: In other words, what you seem to be saying is that if a person really pursued their self-interest, that ethics would fall out of that, would be a ramification of that.

SCRIVEN: If you're really serious about that, you must look at the alternative basic values that are open to you, and if what you want is gratification of those values, then you must ask yourself, could I shift those values? I mean, take the person who gives up drink. There's somebody who gives up a fundamental source of value for themselves, and in doing so is liberated and has a life which is worthwhile instead of terrible. So the hardest-nosed pragmatist of all of us must face the possibility that they made a slip at point one, in not looking at the alternatives, in assuming that somehow wining and dining, which I greatly favor, is something which you can't have alternatives to -- that there can't be wining and dining if you commit to respecting the rights of others, for example. Of course there can. The person that commits to an ethical form of behavior is not thereby giving up all pleasures. They have redefined pleasure, and they still retain many of the old pleasures, but they have eliminated the risks. There is never anybody that's going to shoot them down because they were nice to other people and thought about other people, and that's a pretty major consideration, and there seems to be no loss of enjoyment of life.

MISHLOVE: I suppose what you are additionally suggesting here is that for people who are in positions of power, in government, in business, it's to their advantage to build into their structure various penalties for unethical behavior, because we can't assume that people are going to always respond rationally.

SCRIVEN: This is the great bootstrap phenomenon. We must train our children to be ethical because it gives them a better form of life, and in doing so we must set a good role model for them, and thus we bootstrap ourselves into being ethical. I may not be willing to give ten percent of my income to charity just like that, but I may be willing to fight very hard for legislation which taxes people ten percent for charity, because the indirect method is often the best method of self-control. And similarly with ethics; we try to encourage the media to push for it, the schools to push for it, the general attitude of business to push for it. And of course they will push us too, and in doing so we upgrade ourselves. It's a good system.

MISHLOVE: One of the difficulties that people have when they get serious about ethics in this manner is they begin asking themselves the question which has a long philosophical tradition: what does it mean to be ethical? What are the rules? Does it mean following the Ten Commandments?

SCRIVEN: Well, the basic rule is extremely simple, and it's common to every ethical system, and it is the rule of treating everybody as having prima facie equal rights -- that is, equal rights in the first place, although in a particular case there may be a supervening principle based on the principle of equal rights which means that you differentiate. So for example, if somebody has a very large investment in a company, it's not inappropriate or unethical that they should have a bit more of a say in what it does. So that is the fundamental principle. The rest is all spin-offs from that, by adding factual premises and combining the two. So you get differences between the sects, of course, because if you believe there is a god of a certain type who doesn't think that drinking alcohol is appropriate, then you'll build that into your ethical system. If you don't have that extra belief, you won't have that in your system.

MISHLOVE: You lost me there somewhere.

SCRIVEN: Well, the differences that you see all the time between religious ethical codes are due to differences in the factual beliefs of that particular religion. But they still retain the fundamental principle, and they work up the details from that plus the facts as they see it.

MISHLOVE: What you're saying is it all boils down to the principle that's stated in our own American heritage: "All men are created equal."

SCRIVEN: Yes, although I think we might put women in there too.

MISHLOVE: All men and women, all human beings, are created with some kind of inalienable --

SCRIVEN: That's the metaphor, but the basic fact is that in a society that commitment is a survival strategy, and societies that don't have it will do much worse, because their expectation of survival goes down. That's a simple mathematical theorem, so there is a sort of foundation for all this in mathematics.

MISHLOVE: If I'm a selfish, unethical person, then, I might say, "Well, I don't care about the survival of the human race."

SCRIVEN: No, but you do care about your own survival, and so we'll push very hard to make it not worth your while to continue in that strategy. If we haven't set up the penalty system, the surveillance system, and the education system, then the payoff to you will not be in the direction of ethics, and we will be to blame for not having you behave ethically. This is a very reciprocal arrangement, and so the society has tended to think that somehow religion was going to give them a free path to ethical behavior. Now that they're beginning to have doubts about that, they haven't got an alternative, and what I'm saying is, look hard at this; look at it in terms of game theory, decision theory strategies, and you see that underlying the ethical approach, there is something very simple. It's a commitment to a winning strategy in the survival game.

MISHLOVE: You know, as we're talking it strikes me that a traditional religious perspective might say that if you are very religious, then you will be ethical, so that what you should do is become very pious, very religious. And what I think I hear you saying is almost the converse, which is you can give up religion if you are very ethical. It seems to me that you're being led back to a kind of genuine spirituality.

SCRIVEN: Yes, I think you are, because if your problem with having to go the religious route is that you have to accept these other allegedly factual claims about the divinity of this being and so on, the eternity of life after death and so on, which you may well find unacceptable and which I find simply as lacking evidence -- then it's got to come back to the ultimate commitment by you. You've got to transcend the religious crutch if you possibly can. The problem with the religious crutch is it brings in all sorts of things, doctrines, which become the basis for wars. So it's not a very attractive alternative. It's an expedient one sometimes, but it shouldn't be the ideal one for us.

MISHLOVE: In other words, really if we want to be ethical, we have to think this out. In psychology there's the famous Kohlberg work dealing with levels of moral development. He suggests that it starts from a simple level, which is following instructions, to a level where people are really able to think for themselves and reason out ethical problems.

SCRIVEN: And act that way, the altruistic level. And that is the top level, and my interpretation of this is that as you mature and you come to think about this more and you become interactive with society more, you come to see that the ethical system has to be its own motivation; that is, you have to change your fundamental values. That is a survival strategy for you as well as the society. If you have not switched your fundamental values, ethics is an imposition on you. And we should all combine to make it an imposition on you -- that you should switch your fundamental values, at which point it ceases to be an imposition.

MISHLOVE: Dealing with practical problems in the world of work, the world of business, do you think that the guideline that you've just expressed about the basic equality of rights is a sufficient guideline to handle the kinds of problems that occur in business?

SCRIVEN: No, it's like the axioms of Euclid. You've got to spell out the details of the applications. You've got to get down and look at the affirmative-action legislation and your own hiring practices and see what exactly this means. What we've done is to treat affirmative- action legislation as if it's an imposition from without, just like ethics, and not put our heart into it. I listen all the time in these seminars to people explaining how the quality of labor has gone down because we now have to appoint these wretched people whom Uncle Sam is pushing. Now of course that's a very superficial reaction. The question you have to ask yourself is, what's job relevant? If you're dealing with the public, and the public comprises twenty percent blacks and twenty-five percent Chicanos, then it's really not very smart of you to constantly produce only white people who can't speak Spanish to deal with them. You just don't get a good police force in Atlanta, Georgia when it's all white. So the move to integrating the police force in Atlanta was not an imposition by Uncle Sam, it was a move towards getting an effective police force. It was no longer Whitey's police force; you couldn't use that excuse if you were a black. And that was a big step forward in efficiency. Affirmative action is not a sort of dumb imposition of some politically motivated requirement; it's in fact thought out properly, an intelligent use of human resources.

MISHLOVE: But isn't it a little naive, Michael, to think that in every case being more ethical is actually going to lead to greater efficiency?

SCRIVEN: Of course, because this is only a probability. It's only a strategy. So it's like paying insurance on your house. Of course you may go through your life having paid insurance, huge quantities of insurance, and never collected anything. Does that make you silly? Not all. You do it on the expectancies. The same with the ethics. So there are times when you take a licking for it, and there are times when you don't. All we can do for you is to point out that it's much the best strategy, but it won't always win.

MISHLOVE: Now, you've discussed the situation where an American corporation might go to a foreign country where customs are different, and where what we call bribery is considered a way of life. What about here, in our own culture, where it seems as if our mores and values are somehow in conflict with ethical principles? In fact that seems to be continually the case.

SCRIVEN: You mean our practices? And we do in fact use bribes here, and have for thirty years of major business cases, for examples. Yes, I mean, they clearly are. So you must ask yourself, why was it that it seemed important for these senior executives to go that way, and the answer they give you, of course, is, "We wouldn't have gotten the contracts without it; the pressure was on us to get the contracts; that was what our job was worth." And you've got to be able to answer in their terms, and in their terms you must be able to say that at that point you must go for either public support or peer support, and you must say no. And if you can't go to public support or peer support, you must go to another job. There is no cheap way out of this. You can't in the end win everything by following all the rules. In the end you have to decide which set of rules to follow.

MISHLOVE: Is there some kind of relationship here between ethical behavior and avoiding behavior that you need to keep secret? I often tend to think that when people feel that they have to hide what they're doing, that almost inevitably implies that something unethical is going on.

SCRIVEN: Perhaps, or else something that they feel others will see as unethical, though it isn't -- for example, some interest or hobby or commitment.

MISHLOVE: National security.

SCRIVEN: National security, gun legislation, whatever it is. But often that's the case. I mean, living with yourself is one of the things that ethics helps with a good deal. I think, though, that the thing that you're pointing to -- the problem of our American way of life leading to these dominant, major role models behaving unethically -- is something we must take much more seriously. We must ask ourselves, what was the game strategy that -- well, let me tell you how unseriously we take it. If I ask you this question, what can you say: Do you know of a resource which consists of a short history of all the really significant cases of leading executives and politicans in America in the last twenty-five years who behaved unethically and got caught for it? Could you put your hands on that? Could anybody, thinking about whether to use bribery, take a quick look at some resource like that and get jolted very heavily? I mean, we don't even bother to put it together.

MISHLOVE: No, but I suppose a computer search of any newspaper would call it up.

SCRIVEN: Oh, sure.

MISHLOVE: But it's always in the background.

SCRIVEN: In the background. It's easy to forget the background when the crunch comes in.

MISHLOVE: And is it not the case that Machiavelli, who wrote his whole system, The Prince, in which he suggested that it's good to appear to be very ethical and very liberal without necessarily being that way, was actually and is still today admired by philosophers as being a very rational man, an enlightened thinker?

SCRIVEN: He was halfway enlightened. I mean, he was willing to be very rational about everything except the first premise. Why was it that he found it rewarding to break the ethical rules? Answer: because he worshiped money and power so much that it was worth the risk. But why worship money and power so much? Why not examine your own commitment to those values, along with all this critical examination of the emptiness of the mores?

MISHLOVE: Because it's often the case, I think, that when people have made a commitment, let's say, to drug dealing, what difference does it make that we give a death sentence to drug dealers when they're risking their life every day on the street? They've already made the commitment that they're going to seek the thrill, even if it costs them their life.

SCRIVEN: The thrill, or perhaps just the payoffs. So you don't get a solution by giving them an admonition or ten years in jail. I was working in San Quentin. One of the cons I became pretty friendly with; he was one of the few that was about to get out, and I asked him what he was going to do, and he said, "I'm going to drug deal." I said, "Well, why are you going to do that? That's what got you in here." And he said, "Well, A, there's nothing else I can do; and B, it pays very well." I said, "Well, how are you going to reestablish your contacts? You've been in here." He said, "I'll use the prisons as a source. I'll get the drugs from San Quentin." An interesting thought -- that San Quentin becomes the supplier to the ex-cons going out. Now, you can't solve that guy's problem by saying, "Gee, that's very naughty," or, "We'll put you in jail," or something. You've got to find an alternative for him. We don't bother with that. We just think that the barriers and the penalties will create the alternatives.

MISHLOVE: Do you have an answer for that dilemma?

SCRIVEN: Oh, of course. I mean, this is a man that had a great capacity for managing a quite heavy business, with danger involved, and large sums of money involved. There's all sorts of ways in which somebody could do that in an appropriate context, where you're going to make sure that they're not going to sign all the checks.

MISHLOVE: I'm not quite sure I see. It sounds like you're saying put this guy in the National Security Agency, or something.

SCRIVEN: No, just put this guy into a business where there isn't a security problem, because he will be rewarded by good pay, and --

MISHLOVE: In other words, it seems like it's a question of social engineering -- that we've created a situation where the available options for a large segment of our population point them in a direction which is unethical.

SCRIVEN: Exactly, and we don't bother to go that second level in looking at what we're doing. We say, build up the enforcement of the drug laws, build up the enforcement of whatever, and that isn't enough.

MISHLOVE: Michael Scriven, it's been a pleasure thinking through some very thorny issues with you today. Thanks so much for being with me.

SCRIVEN: It's a pleasure to be here, Jeffrey.


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