Can the government make us more ethical?

An always important and interesting question!

In Preferences Change & Behavioral Ethics: In Can States Create Ethical People?  Yuval Feldman and Yotam Kaplan (no relation) of Bar-Ilan University write:

“Law and economics scholarship suggests that, in appropriate cases, the law can improve people’s behavior by changing their preferences. For instance, the law can curb discriminatory hiring practices by providing employers with information that might change their preferences towards discriminatory hiring. Supposedly, if employers no longer prefer one class of employees to another, they will simply stop discriminating, with no need for further legal intervention. The current paper adds some depth to this familiar analysis by introducing the insights of behavioral ethics into the law and economics literature on preference change. Behavioral ethics research shows that wrongdoing often originates with semi-deliberative or non-deliberative cognitive processes. These findings suggest that the process of preference change, through the use of the law, is markedly more complicated and nuanced than previously appreciated. Thus, for instance, even if an employer’s explicit discriminatory stance is changed, and the employer no longer consciously prefers one class of employees over another, discriminatory behavior might still surface if it originates with semi-conscious, habitual necessitate a close engagement with people’s level of moral awareness. “

They further write:

“Organizations, such as schools and workplaces, can be more effective than the law and the state in inducing ethical awareness and in changing people’s implicit attitudes. Such organizations offer intense social frameworks, in which people spend a significant amount of time in close proximity to guiding rules and supervisory authorities. Such organizations are also allowed to engage in practices of habit-formation that we might not tolerate when it comes to states. This means the law can change ethical preferences more effectively not by trying to engage with people’s awareness directly, but by creating requirements that will change relevant organizations, and incentivize those organizations, in turn, to engage directly with people’s preferences and awareness. Thus, the law might sanction organizations when they discriminate, in the hope that those organizations will then act to improve ethical awareness among decision-makers.”

I agree with this (and the other major aspects of the paper).  Indeed, with the promulgation of detailed compliance program evaluation standards over the past few years by the Department of Justice, we see what is probably  a more compelling use than ever before of sanctions to promote businesses to take the type of  intense engagements described above.

I also agree that it is important to consider – as the authors have done – how ethical forces in one sphere of activity can impact the ethicality of others. For instance, here is a post  which considers whether  working from home reduces ethical risk.

Finally,  in considering government’s role in promoting ethical thought and deed, it is worth recalling that  Justice Louis Brandeis famously said: “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” While Brandeis was speaking about violations of law the point seems just as applicable to ethics.

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