David Brooks, in his New York Times editorial, "If it feels right" (Sept 12, 2011), reviews the issues raised by a study of 18-23 year olds in the recently published Lost in Transition: the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith, et. al.
The nationwide survey on which the book is based was conducted in 2008--during the unchecked-spending boom just before the big market crash. Brooks points out that the authors were "stunned that the interviewees were so completely untroubled by rabid consumerism" (prevalent at the time). He also notes that: "When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter."
Today's youth will be the business owners and decision makers of tomorrow. The ability to conceptualize what constitutes a moral dilemma is part of complex decision-making, particularly in a global world. In terms of the basic stages of moral development espoused by Lawrence Kohlberg, adults in a stable, conventional society are capable of functioning at stage four of the following (from Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, Wikipedia):
- Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
- Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?) (Paying for a benefit)
- Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms) (The good boy/good girl attitude)
- Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
- (Post-Conventional) Social contract orientation
- (Post-Conventional) Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
Short-term business operations function on a balanced debit=credit accounting system--typified by the "paying for a benefit" model exemplified by Stage Two in this list. An entity sells an item that is represented to be at a certain value; another entity is willing to pay that amount in exchange for the item. The equal exchange is made.
But what if the business owner has an opportunity to use inferior materials for a cheaper price, and make more money? Is it OK for a butcher to keep his thumb on the scale and get a little bit more for the meat if the customer says "OK" when he asks if the amount is acceptable? In the study reported in "Lost in Transition" young people reported that moral decision making was a matter of "personal taste," and "up to the individual" --not governed by social norms or a frame of reference. "Who am I to say?" was a typical response.
The authors of the study feel that the students' responses are reflective of changes in American culture, and that morality now emerges more from the self, rather than from social norms. If this is true, will this have implications for business dealings?
One of the dilemmas used by Kohlberg in his research was called, "Heinz Steals the Drug in Europe." Here is the story (originally from Kohlberg's Essays on Moral Development, Volume 1, and quoted in the Wikipedia article cited above):
"A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $ 1,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, "No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it." So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife."
1. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?
2. Answer the dilemma in the opposite way that you answered it in #1. Identify what stage or stages of moral development, based on Kohlberg's work would be operative for each of your answers, and state the justification that would exemplify each those stages.
3. How do you feel that business transactions are affected by individual and societal norms regarding morality and ethics? For example, if you weighed your meat at home and found out the butcher had overstated the weight...and it happened more than once, would that affect your buying behavior? Think of other examples.