2012-02-28

Is It Wealth And Status, Or Is It A Philosophical Crisis?

Janice Wood of PsychCentral reports:
Those in the upper class are more likely to lie and cheat, cut people off when driving, and endorse unethical behavior in the workplace, according to new research from seven separate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
It has all the makings of a sensational class warfare study. Those readers more inclined to class dynamics discussions are already wiping the Pavlovian saliva off their chins. But of course, the real story is seldom contained in the first two paragraphs of a news story, but instead in the last two. This story is no different.
It turned out that even those participants not in the upper class were just as likely to report a willingness to engage in unethical behavior as the upper-class participants once they had been primed to see the benefits of greed, researchers said. 
“These findings have very clear implications for how increased wealth and status in society shapes patterns of ethical behavior, and suggest that the different social values among the haves and the have-nots help drive these tendencies,” Piff said.
That is to say that, despite the researchers' best efforts, they could not actually demonstrate that rich people are cheaters and poor people are honest. Instead, they settled for the weaker conclusion that wealth and status "drive tendencies" toward unethical behavior.

Glaringly absent from the researchers' analysis is any discussion of the underlying creed (or lack thereof) held by the study's subjects. They boil the question down to the extremely biased and borderline-dangerous belief that wealth and power spawns unethical behavior.

The problem I have with this idea is not its empirical accuracy, but rather the fact that it fundamentally skirts the whole issue. It's sort of like saying, "People who eat at Joe's Restaurant empirically cause more car accidents than people who eat at Juanita's Restaurant," while omitting the fact that Joe's is licensed to serve alcohol while Juanita's is not.

This kind of fundamental clinical error is the kind of thing I have blogged about before under the category heading "Scientific Method." The study does not say what it purports to say. It omits the most important indicators and then draws conclusions among weaker correlational factors.

Above all, I want to note that the sad, slow destruction of society's moral compass is a real problem. I would never suggest that the study participants did not behave exactly as the researchers observed them to behave. But rather than blaming these behaviors on income statistics, I want to know more about why people are losing their sense of ethics.

Is it merely a coincidence, for example, that those with higher incomes tend to be better-educated, and therefore have experienced the soul-crushing mishmash of value relativism present in modern college philosophy courses? Is income the guilty factor here, or has post-modern education beaten moral objectivity out of people?

Is it merely a coincidence that those with lower incomes tend to have a larger stake in scientific research in which they participate because the financial compensation they receive means more to them than it does for a rich person? In other words, do rich participants simply not take the study itself very seriously? Are they "just having some fun" with something in which they have no real stake? And if so, how did the researchers control for this eventuality? Is this the same thing as "cheating?"

Again and again I have pointed out that society needs ethics. Return to the 18th Century, and you will find yourself in a world in which ethical systems were basically provided by the upper class, or by religion. The closest thing you could find to lower-class ethics might be something like Poor Richard's Almanac, which itself was written by a member of the American upper class.

That values and ethics are deteriorating for any class of people is a real tragedy and a real danger. The solution to this problem is not to blame the rich (or anyone else as a categorical group). The solution is to instill in people a prevailing sense of ethics, a creed.

This blog is my attempt to do so. What is yours?