Was the Grand Inquisitor right (about compliance)?

In Dostoevsky’s short story The Grand Inquisitor,  Jesus Christ returns to earth in Spain at the time of the Inquisition, only to be arrested by Church leaders. As explained by the Grand Inquisitor (courtesy of Wikipedia), “Jesus rejected [the Devil’s] three temptations in favor of freedom, but the Inquisitor thinks that Jesus has misjudged human nature. He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. The Inquisitor thus implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer.”

In a very thoughtful and useful post last week in the FCPA Blog, noted C&E practitioner and scholar Carsten Tams celebrates the recent award of the Nobel prize in economics to behavioral scientist Richard Thaler. Among other things, as Tams notes, “Thaler advocates for an alternative, less coercive method for influencing behavior [than the predominant model]: a Nudge. In a book by the same title that Thaler co-authored with the eminent legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, he defines a nudge as any aspect of a choice architecture that steers people’s behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. Unlike mandates or fines, nudges are specifically designed to preserve freedom of choice and avoid coercion. To qualify as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. The goal of nudges is to make desired behaviors easier, simpler, or safer for people.”

I agree with Tams that behavioral ethics information and ideas offer many promising possibilities for enhancing corporate compliance programs. (See this index of prior posts on “behavioral ethics and compliance” and also this webcast from Ethical Systems.) But I also worry that when it comes to C&E programs, the Grand Inquisitor’s view of human nature may be at least partly right.

I say this not as a matter of principle. On such ground I reject that view completely. Rather, my concern is one of experience, borne of more than a quarter of a century developing, implementing and assessing C&E programs.

In that time, I can’t recall learning of anything suggesting that the employees of client organizations wanted more choice when it comes to C&E-related matters. And, I have seen and heard much to the contrary, as countless interviewees have praised their employer organizations for providing clear instructions – backed up by strict enforcement measures – on how to act when faced with C&E challenges. As one C&E practitioner said about what employees at his company asked from him: “They want me to tell them what to do.”

A more concrete way of looking at this is to note that while people generally cherish freedom, the freedom to make a mistake that can get them sent to prison for a long period of time is likely viewed less favorably.

I should stress that I do not generally follow – in my role as family member, friend and citizen – what might be called a Grand Inquisitor type perspective. (Presumably Dostoevsky didn’t either – and the story should be read more as a provocation than a statement of principles.)  It also does not define – I hope – most of my work in the C&E field.

Rather, it is offered as  just one perspective for possible inclusion in the larger mix of information about human nature that – from a behavioral ethics (or other) perspective – can  help guide us in developing and implementing effective C&E programs.

For more on the possible limits to behavioral ethics and compliance, see this post.

One Comment
  1. Jason Lunday 1 month ago

    Terrific issue to raise, Jeff. I agree that this issue occupies much of the discussion in ethics–choice vs. guidance. As for business ethics–specifically, an organization’s ethics–I would agree that the organization should more heavily steer employees in the direction that leadership deems proper for the organization. The employee’s freedom is to choose from thousands of employers that exhibit a culture to that employee’s liking. The employee also has the choice to rationalize their planned conduct to a manager to see if it passes the test.

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