Don’t hate the player, hate the game: moral separation and government regulation

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Recognizing moral separation, we see that humans generally act well toward one another when the consequences of our actions are immediately observable. As moral separation increases, consequences become more abstract, and humans tend to shift their attentions toward that which is more immediately observable. The unfortunate result of this phenomenon is that at high degrees of moral separation, humans appear amoral and self-interested. I argue, however, that it is the limited human capacity to perceive several steps beyond oneself–and not a few corrupt, greedy individuals–that is to blame for the apparent lack of ethics in business and politics.

I recently discussed the controversy surrounding Apple’s choice to contract with Foxconn factories in China. I demonstrated that this is a clear example of moral separation as evidenced both by the actions of Apple executives prioritizing profit and efficiency over ethical working conditions, and also by the actions of consumers–like you and I–who similarly overlook any ethical concerns in favor of technological self-indulgence.

What is to be done in this situation? So far I have hinted at two solutions: 1) concentrate human activities within the locus of low moral separation, and 2) restructure society to incentivize goodness and offer disincentives for harmful behaviors.

Restructured incentives are a natural consequence of changing the locus of human activity. However, since the latter is often unrealistic in the context of global markets, we are left to consider how we can create disincentives for harmful behaviors perpetuated by massive corporations.

The answer is government regulation. While an obvious band-aid solution that does nothing to address the underlying problem, regulation can offer powerful disincentives for companies who ignore ethical concerns. For example, an explosion of similar scale to the one experienced at the Foxconn factory in Chengdu last May occurred at a power plant in Connecticut in 2010. The difference? Negligence on the part of the companies involved in the Connecticut explosion led to $16.6 million in fines, but Foxconn? They were actually in compliance with relevant Chinese laws.

In an environment of high moral separation we need to expect companies to focus on profit while investing the bare minimum into peripheral concerns such as safety. And let’s not delude ourselves, you and I would probably steer those companies the same way if we were in charge. It’s not bad people running the show, it’s normal people who simply are not concretely apprehending the consequences of their choices.

The corporation as an entity, therefore, is completely and reliably selfish. Regulation has the power to make it within the corporation’s best interest to invest in safe, ethical practices. Not because they care about safety or ethics–those have disintegrated into abstraction–but because the fines that result from noncompliance offer a concrete disincentive.

The nuance here is this: people who sit around praying for a corporate moral awakening might as well be asking pro hockey players to stop checking each other, but I’m saying no pro player would get caught checking if each offense brought a penalty of -10 points to his team’s score. The task of our generation is not to figure out how to instill virtue in others. The task is to understand how people operate without interference, and then form social structures which motivate them to do good based on their own values.

SorenDon’t hate the player, hate the game: moral separation and government regulation

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