Occupy Wall Street Is Part of a Major Shift in Ethical Behavior Among Young People

What's to come?
Nov. 8 2011 7:21 AM

Kids Today

Occupy Wall Street is part of a major shift in ethical behavior among young people.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

An Occupy Wall Street member works on her laptop in Zuccotti Park, New York City

AFP/Getty Images

For the most part, media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protest has been predictable. Stories are narrated according to the pro/con structure typical of—depending on whom you ask—balanced reporting or sensationalism. On the one hand, positive focus sympathetically explains why protesters have been demonstrating en masse since Sept. 17. These accounts place the activist mantra of “We are the 99%” in a historical and economic context that connects significant inequalities in wealth to violations of justice that should prompt people of conscience to demand rectification. On the other hand, negative reports argue against interpreting the protest as legitimate civil disobedience. Detractors’ opinions range from indictments of individual work ethic—contending that that problem at issue is poor individual decisions, not dysfunctional systems—to indignation over an unclear protest agenda that allows Dionysian energy to manifest in this millennium’s Woodstock.

Because we’re ethics instructors, people inevitably ask us to make sense of headline-grabbing protest stories. In most cases, we apply ethical theory to the circumstances at issue. For example, when protests occur over drone airstrikes, we direct attention to just war theory. However, when queried about Occupy Wall Street, we respond differently. Our attention turns to themes related to collective action. In problems of collective action, individuals who work solely for their own selfish interests can bring about tragic consequences for society as a whole. The only way for collective action problems to be solved is to create coordinated collaborations that unite social and individual interests. The “collective” element is paramount because even one "defector" (someone who acts selfishly, like those who stand accused of criminal acts at Occupy Wall Street camps) has the power to ruin everything by leading others to defect as well.


Occupy Wall Street is an especially interesting collective action movement because it embodies a distinctive and pervasive shift in ethical orientation. The long-simmering forces that gave rise to the protests also have profoundly altered how students today view their place in society. Although we teach at different universities, recently developed information and communication technology allowed us to create an innovative cross-university model of education that jointly immerses our classes in games that present collective action problems. Before saying more about the games, it will be helpful to explore the parallels uniting streets and classroom.

The economic formulae that dominated the “bubble” economies of the last two decades embodied lamentable values. Regardless of asset class (Internet stocks, fiber optics, fuel cells, corn ethanol, Ponzi schemes, or housing), bubble speculators could succeed only by advancing their own positions at the expense of the greater sucker whom they imagine will buy at even more inflated prices. Bubble speculation is a case of greedy people attempting to take advantage of people they think are even greedier. The resulting misallocation of capital is long-lasting, deleterious social consequences with handsome profits for the prescient few that got out of the game early or could skim exaggerated commissions from well-timed transactions.

The housing bubble—the biggest of them all—has touched nearly all Americans in some personal way, carrying with it an undeniable sense of complicity. There were the bankers who intentionally invented mortgage-backed securities and derivatives that could not be priced to market; the ratings agencies that rated new financial engineering instruments as top-quality rather than the junk that they were; and homeowners who falsely stated incomes and took no-doc, no-principal, floating interest rate mortgages they couldn’t possibly afford. Government officials not only encouraged the housing bubble with monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policies; they also downplayed the crisis until it was so far out of control that emergency powers were used to attempt to avoid a complete economic collapse.

The days of individualistic egocentrism, which characterized the long economic boom following the savings-and-loan crisis of the early 1990s, are over. They have been supplanted by the moral principle of the greater good. We’ve gone from Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” to John Nash declaring in A Beautiful Mind, “Adam Smith was wrong!”

Significant ethical transformation, especially at a large scale, is rare. The new ethical orientation brought into relief by Occupy Wall Street didn’t arise because media coverage of the busted bubble brought injustice to society’s attention. Instead, catastrophic consequences touched people personally, and emotionally intense experiences centering on loss, political despair, and outrage over the lack of shared sacrifice, fostered a new solidarity that manifested in a new identity (“We are the 99%”). Much as we might like to believe that citizens agitate for moral change as soon as they become aware of injustice, the fact is that they often don’t. This is especially the case if agitation requires more than token gestures, such as signing petitions, making small donations, using political bumper stickers, or “liking” Facebook pages. Back in ancient Greece, Socrates claimed that to know the good is to do the good. Alas, he was wrong—as are those who follow in his footsteps and believe that a well-informed citizenry is inherently a morally responsible populace.

In traditional ethics instruction, students learn to separate right from wrong, virtuous from vicious character, and a host of meta-ethical theories (deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, etc.) by reasoning through examples of moral failures. Through inferences, analogies, and imaginative considerations, students identify personal duties and professional ethical expectations. But we have found this entrenched pedagogical method causes two problems: 1) Students become quick to label others who commit morally questionable actions as bad apples in what would otherwise be a good barrel of humanity; and 2) they overestimate their own moral fortitude. They see themselves as capable of rising above the temptations that sent the bad apples astray.

In 2005 we set out to correct these problems by introducing experimental exercises that ask students to put their moral commitments to the test through action. With subsequent funding from the National Science Foundation, we developed games that require students to grapple with some of the problems of neoclassical economics that relate to sustainability. Each game places students in game-theoretic situations (e.g., the classic prisoner’s dilemma) that require them to consider what extent they are willing to advance their own position in the game at the expense of their classmates.