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What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments

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What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, by Robert H. Frank

What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, by Robert H. Frank

It’s commonly thought that people are more strongly motivated by selfishness than by altruism. This position is especially popular among economists and is believed to be based upon a realistic appraisal of human action as it evolved over the millennia. It may not, however, be entirely accurate — indeed, there is good reason to think that this position itself warps the perspectives and actions of economists themselves.

Summary

Title: What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments
Author: Robert H. Frank
Publisher: Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691124019

Pro:
• Solid, understandable explanations of scientific studies of human behavior

Con:
• None

Description:
• Analysis of whether “rational choice” theory and the presumption of selfishness is true
• Argues that humans incline more towards cooperation and altruism than economics assumes
• Argues that economics actually causes problems for people’s understanding of behavior

Book Review

Robert Frank, professor of Economics at Cornell University's Johnson School of Management, believes that a wealth of data from economics, psychology, and biology provide a cohesive picture of humans as being far more altruistic and cooperative than the traditional economic depiction would have us believe. He gathers the evidence together in his book What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments and his case is very persuasive.

The question of whether people are by nature more selfish or more altruistic has important implications for America today because of the large numbers of business scandals that have occurred recently. All these scandals appear to be an aberration and thus raise the question of whether people are getting worse or if they are simply taking advantage of increased opportunities to express bad natures which have always existed.

Frank argues that neither is entirely true. There are perhaps increased opportunities for business leaders to express unethical natures, but it’s not because they have always been bad. Instead, there has been an increase in the numbers of people bending the rules, cheating, and attempting to get away with violating ethical standards in pursuit of the bottom line. Frank regards this as a “contagion” in that bad behavior is contagious: as more people bend the rules, the perceived limits of ethical conduct stretch and standards are defined increasingly downward.

It does not have to be this way because, contrary to what many have traditionally assumed, people don’t behave ethically and generously only when forced to by strict rules. What is needed is an environment which encourages good behavior and which encourages people to express their better natures. Unfortunately, people’s education in economics and business actually appears to counter that: Frank’s own research shows that the more training a person has in economics (a basic subject in any good business education), the less likely they are to cooperate in social dilemmas and are less likely they are to give to charities.

What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, by Robert H. Frank

What Price the Moral High Ground? Ethical Dilemmas in Competitive Environments, by Robert H. Frank

Ideas matter, and it appears that the rational-choice model of human behavior which limits human motivations to self-interest is not only wrong, but in fact has a negative impact on the behavior of those who most study and believe it. Far from being explanatory tools, it would appear that many of the assumptions traditionally used by economists to understand humanity has only led them down a dark alley of their own creation, one inhabited primarily by other economists.

It’s not at all clear to what degree these attitudes might have contributed to the recent spate of business scandals in America, but it’s implausible that it didn’t have any impact at all. Most “solutions” to these scandals unfortunately adopt the same faulty assumptions that are contributing to the problem and propose that ethics can be improved by strengthening the rules. A more interesting and perhaps productive approach would involve more accurate teachings about human motivation, as well as improved social contexts that might allow people to behave better without feeling pressured to continually bend the rules simply to get by, much less to get ahead.

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