So enough of the philosophical musing about what is ethics and the handwringing about what we should do when faced with massively unethical behavior from a client. Let’s bring this full circle and focus on the practical: In what way will ethics play a part in your MBA applications? Essay Questions First and foremost, we…
Again related to our recent post about an ethical situation we found ourselves in (you don’t need to start with that post but you can if you wish).
After weeks of pondering, the simplest description of the whole category of ethics for us is, “Can I trust you?”
This came about from reading merely the introduction to the book Skin in the Game* by controversial thinker Nassem Nicholas Taleb. (You can read the intro for free in the online preview, which is worthwhile no matter what.)
We’ve come across so many instances of ethics in the real world since considering this incident (in case you are sick of this discussion and wish we’d talk about something else by now… sorry/not sorry. this is interesting for us and we feel wholly relevant to an individual’s existence in the modern era).
The reason why ethics matters is that it helps you make decisions — for yourself, and also decisions on who you want to involve yourself with.
If a company offered you a job with a salary higher than you’ve ever earned, are you going to accept it regardless?
Or are you going to think about what that company does, and consider the value that it brings into the world?
Here’s one piece of seriously disturbing data from a survey of programmers that the site StackExchange conducted :
Perhaps respondents misread the question or were moving too quickly through the survey to think it through. As phrased, it sounds like the question says, “You have already identified that it’s unethical. What do you do?” If you’ve DECIDED that it’s unethical, then that right there is your decision. Isn’t it? You should not be involved in building software — or contributing to any task at work — if you’ve decided that it’s unethical. Yet 36.6% sounded like they were waffling. That maybe they’d go ahead and build it.
Yes we agree, there are a gazillion grey areas, but in this case it’s saying that you’ve DECIDED what the ethics are. Why is the answer then, “It depends”?
The main angle we can see in those 36.6% is that they are being honest and acknowledging that perhaps they might do it anyway. It’s actually likely that a good chunk of the 58.5% saying they would not build it actually would. In the real world, there are tremendous pressures and influences, and dealing with a hypothetical, it’s very easy to claim moralistic purity. If not building the software out of your convictions would cost you your job, we can totally see why it would be hard to stand up and speak out. There’s also the problem of power dynamics. If you’re just one guy (or gal) on the team, and your boss and all your teammates are going along with this, and you understand it to be greenlit and approved from above, then you’re inclined to assume that others have thought through the ethics and have determined that it’s OK to do it. Most people want to assume that they work with others who also are ethical. If you’re the only one perceiving an ethical problem and everyone else is all gung-ho and excited to blast forward with it, it would be very easy to second-guess your own worries and stay silent.
But those are exactly the situations where being brave and speaking up are so important.
Sometimes there is all this momentum in an organization and nobody stops and takes a step back. Everyone assigns the responsibility for moral policing to the overall group, assuming that everyone else has handled that task — yet it’s possible no one has done it. It’s so easy to get blinders on.
It’s like the H&M hoodie ad that came out in January with a picture of an African American boy in a sweatshirt that was just — no. That was so obviously insensitive that some people even assumed it must have been intentional as a way to generate attention for the brand. Because who could have seen that and not noticed how bad it was?
If you’re sitting in a meeting with thoughts of, “Am I crazy? Is nobody else noticing this THING that is wrong here?” then you NEED TO SPEAK OUT.
And you need to put some thought to big questions like this in advance. So that you are prepared and ready to take action if (when) the time comes for such action.
If the first time you’ve ever thought about these difficult situations is in the moment when you’re faced with one for the first time, then it’s likely you will fail to act, out of self-doubt or nervousness or not wanting to be wrong, and lacking confidence to stand up for your ideas. These things matter.
There was a thing on RadioLab about new types of media editing technology that are a little bit freaky in terms of their potential to do harm — but what was even freakier was the completely laissez faire attitude of one of the developers. Here’s direct access to the RadioLab stream if you are interested in hearing the whole piece:
Here’s a demo of an Adobe voice editing app that definitely raises concerns:
It’s basically PhotoShop but for audio.
But the chilling part in the RadioLab segment was where they talked about this technology:
And they interviewed one of the developers in this field, a CS professor at University of Washington named Ira Kemelmacher-Schlizerman (starts around 11:15). And the interviewer was basically asking, “Aren’t you freaked out about what this technology can do?” and the technologist woman answered with a virtual shrug of her shoulders. She said her job is a technologist. That’s it. She was fully unbothered — or she just had never considered the questions or her part in it before. (this specific exchange is around 20:05)
Brave Supplicant, please don’t be like that. In any context of your life, anywhere. That just hurts to hear.
Though honestly, her position of “I’m just a technologist” is probably not unethical.
These are the things that the real intellectuals are debating. It’s where Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg clash (the ethics of AI and how much trouble we’re gonna be in if constraints aren’t put into place, but hey Elon, even if they are, there will be people like this technologist who don’t see it as part of their job to worry about such trivial things as, like, how the tech they’re building can do harm.)
It all just makes the head hurt.
And in the end, we come full circle.
Are all ethical decisions completely personal? Is ethics defined by the individual only?
The technologist with the capacity-to-do-harm software is clearly not bothered. Her ethics say it’s OK.
Granted, there are BIG cultural implications in all of this; what is considered “unethical” varies TREMENDOUSLY based on what part of the world you’re from.
We’re not accusing the technologist of being unethical. We’re looking at stuff.
Any further thoughts coming from all you BSers on these topics? (If not, don’t worry – we’ll be moving along to other things very soon!!!)
*In the first draft of this post, we wrote the title as Sin in the Game which is sort of funny as a Freudian slip. Also: That link has a referral code, if you click it we get like a penny or something if you go on to buy. If you don’t want to make Mr Bezos pay us a penny that way, please just go direct to Amazon and search for the title yourself. You know how it works.
You know how when you learn a new word, then all of a sudden, you hear it everywhere?
Yeah, our experience deliberating on what to do in an ethical issue seemed to summon all sorts of relevant information onto the radar screen of experience. All of the below is related to our recent story about being faced with an ethical issue with a BSer. This is a place for us to capture what are essentially footnotes and references to the deliberation process, so you can see what we considered and a few of the ideas that are forming our views. You’re welcome to also post your own relevant or interesting links and articles that might further the conversation or add a new dimension to our thinking!
The items in this post are all separate and the order is not meant to signify relationship nor importance to each other nor to us. It’s just a bunch ‘o stuff.
The thing that disappoints me is not that people make mistakes — we have all made mistakes, we all live with them. I'm disappointed by a person with a platform and influence preemptively saying "It is not my job to care."
— your friend Helen (@hels) January 25, 2018
(That tweet is the final comment in a lengthy tweetstorm from a restaurant critic responding to other critics who say that a chef or restauranteur’s behavior should not be considered as part of a restaurant review; the entire thread is worth reading.)
So as a ‘Snark with a platform, what is our duty or responsibility?
Academic integrity policy. pic.twitter.com/uWxP1KuUNx
— Academia ɐɹnɔsqO (@AcademiaObscura) February 3, 2018
Long – but fascinating, if you’re into minutiae of government and the crazy things people will do to milk the system! – report from the US ethics office on how a staff planner at the Veterans Administration tried to finagle the system to go along with the VA Director’s request to have the government pay for his wife’s travel so they could attend Wimbledon together.
The New York Times has a Q&A section written by an ethicist; a recent column covered a parallel situation:
“Should I tell on my cheating classmates?” In this case, it was a couple of middle school students cheating on an exam when the teacher was out of the room. One of their friends thought it was wrong and debated whether to say something later, such as to the prestigious high school where these students were admitted. The ethicist put a lot of emphasis on the cost to the whistleblower, and on what type of change to the system might come from telling on the cheaters.
What about you?
Have you read anything recently (or ever) that really struck a chord? Anything that’s stuck with you, about how to live a right life?
We’re eager* to know!!
Update: This conversation on ethics has been continued HERE!
*Some people may have said “dying to know” there — but that’s not a phrase we care for! Please don’t be “dying” for anything — not till you have to, of course!!! Life is about living!
Boy we’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this! Some of you saw our tweet a few months back: https://twitter.com/EssaySnark/status/955934886040281088 And you saw the post that followed where we shared part of our response to the person in question. And you expressed support, and an interest in knowing what happened: https://twitter.com/MissVivienWu/status/955953433730867201 https://twitter.com/arkanian86/status/956291898200686593 And… We…
(Trigger Warning: We’re talking about ETHICS again today. If that just turns your stomach, click away now.) We’ve walked through our stance on ethics and applying in a school’s binding Early Decision round plenty o’ times before on the blahg. (Which isn’t really “our stance.” It’s more like, “This is how a person of honor…
Freeskiing. You know, that thing with skis in the halfpipe where they get major air and do all the flips and corkscrews?
Here’s the video if you missed it.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 20, 2018
We’ll start by saying THANK YOU! to reader buffalo who offered some comments from first-hand perspective as a long-time skier:
And we totally agree!
This woman has moxie. She’s apparently not a big fan of doing it the way that you’re supposed to do it.
“She’s very motivated, and did very well,” [a professor she RA’ed for] said.
“Motivated” could certainly be one word used to describe Swaney. She ran for governor as a 19-year-old; tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleading team; and previously mounted a push to reach the Olympics as a skeleton racer for her mother’s native Venezuela. She started skiing just eight years ago, and only became serious about it after the skeleton thing didn’t take.
(Plus, she got into Harvard!)
Mostly the word that comes to mind about the freeskiing thing is “audacity” – this type of thing would not have happened even 5 or 10 years ago, it seems. Our theory is that it’s the Age of the Individual — where self-promotion is the game on social media and selfies have taken over our lives — that has created the fertile ground for this. It’s not that people have not tried to subvert the system before. It just seems like it’s more socially permissible somehow today.
How about if we back up and look at this through a larger lens?
This American woman was successful in getting a spot at the Olympics through her Hungarian ancestry.
And based on that Globe article, she had tried to do so in skeleton as a Venezuelan.
Knowing this information, does it change your perspective on whether she acted ethically to get into the 2018 Olympics?
Again, comments are open! We would love to know what you think!!