Collective Self-Deceit

Collective self-deceit plays a significant role in facilitating unethical practices by corporate entities. A collective commitment by members of a corporation to maximizing profits might lead members to form false beliefs about the ethical propriety of the corporation’s practices. Gilbert (2005) suggests that such a commitment might lead executives and other members to “simply lose sight of moral constraints and values they previously held”.  This, of course,is trite. Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) argue that self-deceptive mechanisms play a pervasive role in what they call ‘ethical fading’, acting as a kind of ‘bleach’ that renders organizations blind to the ethical dimensions of their decisions. Such self-deceptive mechanisms must be recognized and actively resisted at the organizational level if unethical behavior is to be avoided.  Gilbert (2005) contends that collectively accepting that “certain moral constraints must rein in the pursuit of corporate profits” might shift corporate culture in such a way that efforts to respect these constraints are recognized as part of being a good corporate citizen. Understanding the specific nature of collective self-deception in greater detail is an important task.  A classic form we teach is called ‘groupthink’.

One of the most bent corporate operators I knew was fresh from an MSc.in Corporate Social Responsibility.  Some of my better students used to say, ‘look Arch, the more you teach us this stuff the more we can bend it’.  If someone paid me to write a bibliography on this subject, I’d need a couple of months, and that would be before I turned ‘dirty hands philosophy’ and ‘realism in business, institutions and politics’ to the task.  Knowledge in the hands of people prepared to be bent is very different than in those not so prepared.

Academic pontification on this is legion and bollox.  We can’t make progress until we can spot liars and lying with great reliability  Ignorance plays a massive role too.  We could make some progress if we stopped deceiving ourselves that we can spot lies and liars, and even that we are much good at argument rather than personal points scoring.  Our justice system relies heavily on credibility, the very problem it needs to avoid if judgements are to be based on evidence in the scientific sense.  Credibility is easy – once you can fake it people eat it up.  Blair was a recent classic and I’m afraid Cameroon and Clugg look the same.  Our collective gullibility to credibility probably prevents democracy in meaningful form.  There’s no hope of teaching everyone the literature.  Some re-run of QI has just finished on the lines of ‘once you can fake honesty you’ve got it made’.  The classic bastards who do this are psychopaths.

I wonder if we could disentangle the mess?  I’ve suspected for along time that we need counter intuitive solutions,like getting a more competitively motivated society by reducing competition as we have it.  There is evidence for this, weird as it may sound.  We’d have to make it fun too,which the above ain’t.

  • Gilbert, Margaret 2005, “Corporate Misbehavior and Collective Values,” Brooklyn Law Review, 70(4): 1369–80.
  • Tenbrusel, A.E. and D. M Messick, 2004, “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Social Justice Research, 7(2): 223–236.

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