Monday, October 6, 2008

BITH: The Financial Crisis and Action Ambiguity

Behavior in the Headlines: The stock market is down, credit flow is paralyzed, and Americans are expressing fervent outrage at “Wall Street fat cats and greed.” Constituents are demanding that any “bailout” package include stiff punishment for the financial insiders who “got rich on the path to getting us into this mess.” In the framework of the Moral Luck/Scapegoat discussion, we have a bad outcome along with a strong associated judgment that the actions of financial insiders were unethical and a high willingness to punish. Which of the two theories, Moral Luck or Scapegoat, does a better job of explaining the current situation? Our financial crisis has a unique attribute that may provide insight into these two effects – action ambiguity. In this case at least, it seems that Scapegoat prevails.

While the market was going up (good outcome) Americans had very little interest in the activities of the masters of the universe in high finance. We are all rapidly learning more about our dire economic straights but I believe most still have very little knowledge of the specific actions undertaken by the financial insiders at which Americans are now so angered. This is a case of ethical acts in a black box. With a bad outcome people are willing to judge activity as unethical even before they understand who made what actions. Moral Luck suggests an action will look less ethical in light of a bad outcome. Here we have bad outcomes generating a desire to judge Wall Street actors as unethical before we have even identified what specific actions we are judging.

The financial crisis is a messy real world example and not truly an action black box. Obviously some people, including key thought leaders, know more about the specific questionable actions of Wall Street insiders. However, perhaps a similar black box experimental design could be constructed. Introduce a bad outcome. Next ask subjects if someone should be responsible for the outcome. Then introduce an actor who can be logically associated with the outcome. Minimize the description of the action so that is has very little detail and phrase it in a statement that control subjects would find ethically neutral in a vacuum. “The chef mixed the cake.” I predict that given the right kind of bad outcome (one without culturally predetermined judgments of blame or innocence) subjects will assume that someone must be responsible and further be willing to assign some ethical responsibility to whatever logically connectable subject actor is introduced.

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