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The cost-benefits of raising ethical issues

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Summary

A simple way to maximize benefits while keeping the costs to a minimum is to take issues which have a mass appeal but in which people in your immediate circle are not under any blame. The issue concerns something at a non-personal level, which could be societal, ideological, legal, political, international etc. On the other hand, if you find an unethical act at your own institution, the costs of protests are large and the benefits are small.

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The debate on “ethical responsibilities of academicians” needs to focus on what is unique to academicians. Otherwise, they are citizens just as much as anyone else is in the country and they have the right to express their views, protest or support on any social, political or academic issue within the democratic norms. I don’t think there could be two opinions about this. The question whether students should restrict themselves to their studies and not be politically active looks artificial and unwarranted. Whatever applies to any citizen applies to them. Nevertheless, academicians have an added responsibility, which we may not expect from rest of the people.

Social and political realities are complex, but they often take a naïve, oversimplified and rhetoric form in public opinion. While this may be inevitable for the simple minded, often uneducated or partly informed people, we expect the academicians to take a realistic and analytical viewpoint. While common people might see things in black and white, academicians need to show the ability to perceive all shades of grey. Ample precedence of balanced views exists in Indian politics. In the pre-independence and early post-independence leadership, academic scholarship was conspicuously present. Leaders were scholars in history, law, social science, literature or philosophy and they contributed to the logical and philosophical foundations of social and political movements. While fighting against the British rule leaders and thinkers like Dadabhai Naoroji and Lokmanya Tilak also admitted that the British brought certain benefits to India. While writing this, they were more analysts than promulgators of their political stand.  This scholarly tradition has almost disappeared now. There are exceptionally few political analysts that write realistic and analytical accounts, and there are hardly any readers who view it that way. We are all in a hurry to brand everything as pro-something or anti-something. We label every thought, every expression and even every individual to be either on this side or that side.

While to some extent this is inevitable on mass media and in the general public, I expect the academicians to view things differently, look beyond the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ classification, show sufficient maturity to analyse things, reveal the pros and cons and predict the subtle effects of any incident, decision or stand on the future of the society. The analysis itself can change the sociopolitical trajectory to a substantial extent by propagating views that are more balanced and by providing more reliable source of information for the public. I would like to exemplify what I mean by being analytical, by focusing on a lesser-known aspect of social political dynamics.

Optimizing cost-benefits is an evolved innate tendency that has been shown to operate in a wide diversity of life forms, including the ones that are not believed to be highly intelligent. Humans are also known to take decisions based on cost-benefit optimization, which is calculated at a subconscious level (Rahnev & Denison 2018). The actors are more often than not unaware that they are doing an optimization operation behind any decision. After taking a decision, we often rationalize it by inventing reasons that others are more likely to agree and appreciate. This is a well-known psychological phenomenon and there is substantial literature on it (reviewed by Cushman, F. 2020). These principles certainly apply to raising concerns and voices about ethical issues.

Although precise quantitative analysis of cost-benefit may not be possible (because measuring social and psychological costs or benefits objectively is difficult), certain qualitative predictions are possible. Raising an ethical issue has individual benefits including establishment of one’s identity, moral standards, conformity, attention seeking and subtle social hierarchical gains among others. However, at the same time one can lose friends, have strained relations (personally or professionally), get the day-to-day work affected and so on. When and whether one raises voices of protests over ethical issues depends upon our subconscious cost-benefit calculations.

A simple way to maximize benefits while keeping the costs to a minimum is to take issues which have a mass appeal but in which people in your immediate circle are not under any blame. The issue concerns something at a non-personal level, which could be societal, ideological, legal, political, international etc. It would be something that will not irk your immediate boss or co-workers but, at the same time, it would appeal to emotions of the masses. This is a perfect situation for going highly vocal about ethical standards.

On the other hand, if you find an unethical act at your own institution, the costs of protests are large and the benefits are small. Costs are large because you might hurt the institute authorities, your boss or your colleagues, it may affect your funding, career or cooperation from administration etc. On the other hand, the issue is likely to be more local and therefore does not have a mass appeal. Therefore, the costs and benefits are least likely to be favourable.  The actual costs also depend upon your standing / position at your organization. Therefore, apart from the ideology that you subscribe to, whether you are vocal about an ethical issue is largely guided by your own cost-benefits.

Now specifically for academicians, in a democratic country, criticizing the government, a political party or any community is an easy affair. The potential benefits are high, the cost typically low. As opposed to this, if it is an issue within the institute and the institute authorities have committed an unethical act, the costs of raising the issue are high while the benefits are marginal. Therefore, under such a scenario, academicians are least likely to protest. They will pretend that they are not aware of the unethical act or will convince themselves that it is not their concern.

There is no need to call this as ‘hypocrisy’ or anything to that effect. This is how human behaviour has evolved and we all behave this way most of the times. There is nothing sarcastic, bitter, disruptive or negative in what I wrote.  This is my analysis of reality as a student of evolution of behaviour. However, I do not believe in behavioural determinism. This is not to deny that humans also have a genuine concern for morality. I am fully aware that sometimes, some individuals are capable of transcending their own cost-benefit calculations and perform a completely selfless act. But this needs effort. Such individuals are rare and such instances typically happen at a low frequency.

The specific responsibility of academicians, in my view is to ask oneself where he/she stands along this behavioural dimension. Am I ready to take a clear ethical stand irrespective of my costs? Am I one of the masses who instinctively take an individually beneficial decision or am I different? Do I remember having taken a stand in a case where the unethical actors were my own superiors, mentors or colleagues? This is a subject of introspection, not of declaration.

Analysis and introspection on such lines is what I would specifically expect from academicians. On all other grounds they are not different from other citizens, so what applies to everyone in a democratic country should also apply to them.

References

Rahnev, D., Denison, R.N. (2018) Suboptimality in perceptual decision making.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 41, e223: 1–66.

Cushman, F. (2020). Rationalization is rational. Forthcoming in Behavioral and Brain

Sciences, 1–69. doi:10.1017/s0140525x19001730

 

Milind Watve is an Evolutionary Biologist. Views expressed are personal

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