Practical Morality

Unless we were victims of Bernard Madoff, the AIG bonus flap was the tipping point. Greed is out and morality is in. As our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to our relationships with others, our moral indignation rises when we feel we’ve been taken advantage of.

The latest discoveries of brain science call attention to the role emotion plays in our moral judgements. David Brooks sees our moral judgements as based on “rapid intuitive decisions [involving] the emotion-processing parts of the brain,” rather than our reasoning. Steven Pinker has demonstrated how easy it is for us to use our reason to justify our behavior as moral and that of others as immoral.

Evolution drives us to judge caring for our family as moral, even at the expense of others, since they share our genes. The AIG executives could certainly view their negotiated bonuses in that light. So how should we determine what’s moral?

Perhaps by recognizing that morality is practical because it ensures the good relationships with others we depend on to survive. Scientists see our oversized brains as having evolved to manage those relationships. One of the things they excel at is empathy.

We can certainly view ourselves as deserving the bonus we agreed on, even though the company is on federal life support, but our empathy should alert us that others won’t share our view.

Accepting the bonuses wasn’t immoral, but failing to empathize and anticipate how others would view the bonuses was both immoral and impractical. AIG is unlikely to get more federal money without triggering even more massive public indignation.

Executives need to consciously empathize with those they depend on to buy their products, to invest in their stock, and to come to their aid when they’re in trouble. When considering any action, they should ask how it will play in Peoria. It’s impractical not to.

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