Do You Have To Be Unethical To Succeed?

A blog about business and economics.
July 10 2012 9:33 AM

Do You Have To Be Unethical To Succeed?

According to a recent survey, many finance professionals think you do:

In a survey of 500 senior executives in the United States and the UK, 26 percent of respondents said they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, while 24 percent said they believed financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful.
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I note that this sort of belief interacts in unfortunate ways with the vogue for believing that the "social responsibility of business is to increase its profits."

In daily life, one reason to avoid committing crimes is that you might get caught and be punished. But another reason is simply that it's wrong to steal, and if you have a self-conception of yourself as a good person (as most of us do), this will weigh on you. I was in Starbucks the other day typing away on my laptop and the woman sitting next to me asked if I'd keep an eye on her laptop while she used to restroom. I said that I would, and I did. I promise you, however, that if I'd really wanted to steal an old MacBook Pro, I could have. But I didn't. Because it would be wrong. And daily life is full of occurences like that. And it's a good thing too. If everyone was operating in Maximum Ripoff Mode all the time, then the resources of the formal legal system would be swamped, and everyone would waste hours a day taking countermeasures against everyone else's frauds and petty scams.

But when you get it into people's heads that in their business life they have a moral obligation to not leave any money on the table, that web of norms that holds society together starts to fray. Instead of thinking that getting rich through honest business dealings is a sign of virtue, you get the attitude that getting rich by any means necessary is a sign of virtue. And if everybody's doing it, you have no choice but to fight fire with fire.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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