Monday, May 19, 2008

Getting an ethics fix

This week’s blog is a bit late. Sorry, but there is an excuse: Crane and Matten have recently been introduced to the TV series ‘The Wire’ and, though we are somewhat behind the rest of the civilized world in this, have been avidly watching the third season on DVD. This stuff is so addictive that one of us even managed to watch all 12 episodes in 2 ½ days. Well, sometimes you need to stop writing, and just starting watching…

The Wire is set in Baltimore and introduces us to the world of drugs, smuggling, crime, dodgy police and sleazy backroom local politics. As far as we’re concerned it’s probably one of the best TV serials ever made. The storylines are gripping, the plot credible and the acting is just superb. Each series operates between two ‘camps’. ‘The Law’ is basically the police, prosecutors, lawyers and local politicians. On the other side, there is the ‘The Street’: the local drug trade, constituted by various rivaling gangs.

There are many reasons for the popularity of the show, one of which is the apparent amorality with which the two camps are displayed. Unlike in many standard cop shows, the ‘good guys’ are actually not quite that good. And the ‘bad guys’ are even at times fairly decent: despite the drug dealing and murdering, there are strict rules, very clear notions of fairness and an honor code among the gangsters. Most of all, nearly all characters are so likeable. If bad things happen, they are mostly the result of ‘the system’ – be it the police bureaucracy, politics or the power relations within and between gangs.

Now – some of you might be wondering by now what all this has to do with business ethics – or if it does, why Crane and Matten can’t even have the least bit of fun without bringing their ethics perspective into everything. Fair enough, so let us just say this much: ‘The Wire’ is absolutely superb if you want a lively laboratory of what we call ‘context related factors’ in ethical decision making (Chapter 4 of our business ethics book). The show gives a pretty vivid account of why it is that normal people end up doing some pretty bad things. This is what the Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment) calls the ‘Lucifer Effect’ in his latest book: how personal morality is fundamentally shaped by social context.

And, besides, the link to business here is by no means artificial either. Stringer Bell, one of the gang leaders in the Wire, is actually doing a business degree part-time in the show, and he brings to bear some of the lessons from the classroom to his business on the street. Mind you, we doubt that he’ll have spent much time in any ethics classes. But that’s a shame. Not only could he have learnt more about why ‘The Street’ and ‘The Law’ behave the way they do, but he could also have provided us with some knowledge in the other direction. As some of our European colleagues have discussed recently, we can learn a thing or two about CSR from the way that organized crime outfits like the Sicilian mafia offer very instrumentalized forms of philanthropy to survive and flourish in governance vacuums. Oh, yes, but that was another show…

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