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Why Doing Good Makes It Easier to Be Bad

Summary:
By Abbas Panjwani. He is a journalist at Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking charity. He has previously written for the Sunday Times.Adam Smith's "invisible hand" suggests that if you follow your own self interest, you will promote the interests of society. I have had some posts on this issue of being selfish vs. being altruistic and if they can actually be separated before. So those links are at the end.But this article says that if you work in a "socially responsible company" it makes you think that it is okay to do something immoral, that somehow you have earned that right.Excerpt: "Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish essayist and playwright, had a gift, among other things, for counterintuitive aphorisms. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an 1891 article, he wrote, “Charity

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By Abbas Panjwani. He is a journalist at Full Fact, the UK’s leading fact-checking charity. He has previously written for the Sunday Times.

Adam Smith's "invisible hand" suggests that if you follow your own self interest, you will promote the interests of society. I have had some posts on this issue of being selfish vs. being altruistic and if they can actually be separated before. So those links are at the end.

But this article says that if you work in a "socially responsible company" it makes you think that it is okay to do something immoral, that somehow you have earned that right.

Excerpt:

"Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish essayist and playwright, had a gift, among other things, for counterintuitive aphorisms. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an 1891 article, he wrote, “Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

So perhaps Wilde wouldn’t have been surprised to hear of a series of recent scandals in the U.K.: The all-male charity, the President’s Club, which raised money for causes including children’s hospitals through high-valued auctions, was forced to close after the Financial Times uncovered sexual assault and misogyny at its annual dinner; executives of Oxfam, a poverty eradication charity, visited prostitutes while delivering aid in earthquake-stricken Haiti, and were allowed to slink off to other charities, rather than being castigated for their actions; and ex-Save the Children executives Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth stepped down from their roles at other charities, after allegations of sexual harassment and bullying toward junior female colleagues resurfaced.

You might wonder how people who seem so good by occupation could be so bad in private. The theory of moral licensing could help explain why: When humans are good, it says, we give ourselves license to be bad.

In a recent paper, economists at the University of Chicago reported that working for a socially responsible company motivated employees to act immorally. In one experiment, people were hired to transcribe images of short German texts and paid 10 percent upfront, with the remaining payment being delivered if they completed the transcriptions, or if they declared the documents too illegible to transcribe. When they were told that, for every job completed or marked illegible, 5 percent of their wages would be donated to Unicef’s educational programs, the instances of cheating rose by 25 percent, compared to where no charitable donation was offered. Cheating manifested in both workers not completing jobs (taking the 10 percent upfront fee and running) and also workers saying that documents were too illegible to transcribe (and so receiving the full fee).

“The share of cheaters [was] highest when we frame corporate social responsibility as a prosocial act on behalf of workers,” the researchers, John A. List and Fatemeh Momeni, found. When the workers felt a greater sense that their own actions would lead to charitable donations, like Robin Hood, they in turn felt enough license to steal, essentially, from their employer to give to charity. “The ‘doing good’ nature of [corporate social responsibility] induces workers to misbehave on another dimension that hurts the firm,” List and Fatemeh concluded."


Related posts:

Is it a retailer’s job to keep shoppers from their vices? (or Adam Smith vs. CVS pharmacy)

Can You Find Virtue by Investing in Vice?

What if companies pledge to adhere to social and environmental accountability guidelines?

Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Virtue, Thorstein Veblen (and Adam Smith, too!) 

Data show that socially responsible investments can outperform the S&P 500 index
 
Is altruism a result of selfishness?

Do you have to be selfish to make more money?

Does collective self-deception mask selfish behavior?

For a humorous view of this issue see

A Snickers a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Why does CVS want to make my migraine cures hard to find? by Joseph C. Sternberg of the WSJ

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