Our days are built upon countless choices that can change the course of our lives. Shall I turn left or right? Shall I click on the first or second link? Shall I give or take?
On the grand scheme of things, many of the choices that we make won’t change the world however the combination of everybody’s choices do shape our world. It would be fair to say that our choices aren’t made in a vacuum and are very often influenced by our environment, our partner, our friends or co-workers.
This morning I was on breakfast duty (like most mornings) and my partner and I usually enjoy an indulgent fruity porridge topped with a generous portion of peanut butter. Now my partner has recently made the choice to embark on a health journey and reduce her calorie intakes. While I very much enjoy my porridge with peanut butter, I decided not to add any for the both of us. My choice was influenced by hers but it felt as though I made the right one for our relationship. It felt ethically right. In reality, my peanut butter dilemma isn’t going to rock anybody’s world except for mine and my partner’s but it shows how influential peer pressure can be when having to make a decision.
Now what would happen if my choices could have greater impacts on people? What makes them ethically correct? And does peer pressure blur the lines between ethical and unethical choices?
Social media giants are now regularly making the front page of our newspapers for the wrong reasons. It is often argued that social media features have been designed to manipulate us or keep us peeled for longer or purchase more. (Note that I am not even going into the mental health issues related to social media addiction). These companies would usually explain that such features have been designed to “enhance the user experience”. Their goal is to put users’ needs at the forefront and solve their problems. Sounds like an ethical thing to do right?
Yet we have become increasingly aware of the time spent on these platforms and for many, reducing their social media usage seems to be the way forward. As a result, a good user experience that may however result in addictive behaviour can’t possibly be described as ethically correct. Or can it?
In October 2018, Facebook was fined £500,000 for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal but most importantly this case raised a lot of concerns around data privacy and the way social media corporations handle this information. In response to his critics, Mark Zuckerberg attempted to shift the blame onto the government by stating that “we need a more active role for governments and regulators” and “by updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it”. In other words, the founder and CEO of Facebook associates ethics with lawfulness and from his perspective if a decision is lawful, it is ethically correct to pursue it.
This scandal has shown that Facebook suffers from a case of ethical fading, a phenomenon that Simon Sinek describes brilliantly in his book The Infinite Game.
Ethical fading is a condition in a culture that allows people to act in unethical ways in order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others, while falsely believing that they have not compromised their own moral principles.
In other words, many organisations could justify their actions by stating that their primary purpose is to serve their customers and give them what they want. And for that reason they have the right to break their ethical boundaries but more on that later…
Our society is governed by the law which theoretically helps us define what’s right and what’s wrong. However the Facebook case shows that lawful decisions aren’t always ethical.
Organisations are governed by internal laws. They are not legislated but more commonly compiled into a handbook. Again it should (in theory) help us define the behaviour that’s right or wrong. But in reality building processes to dictate behaviours or fix problems isn’t always the right approach. What’s right for us won’t necessarily be right for them. So organisations create cultures, set of beliefs and values that define who they are as a group. Now how do I know if a culture values ethics?
It has become increasingly hard to know whether the work that we do is ethically correct. Why? Because we are constantly influenced by the industry standards and the pressure we feel from our co-workers to do “what everyone else does”. Ethical fading often starts with small, seemingly innocuous transgressions that, when left unchecked, continue to grow and compound.
For instance, the Internet has seen the emergence of dark patterns which have been defined by Harry Brignull as:
A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.
Dark patterns haven’t been created in a vacuum or neither by a team of ill-intended designers plotting evil crimes in a lab. Instead, I would argue that they are the results of poor decisions made by teams working in organisations where the culture suffers from ethical fading. Organisations that would use any means possible to hit their financial targets, bonuses and penalise those who act with integrity but miss their targets.
The good samaritan study shows that even the best-intentioned people would succumb to unethical choices when environmental pressure is put upon them. Under those conditions, it is easy to lose perspective and rationalise our ethical transgressions, “everyone does it anyway”, “I need to protect my reputation”. We try to mitigate the sense of guilt or responsibility we may feel. Every time we cross the line and tolerate those wrongdoings, we pave the way for more and bigger ethical transgressions. Gradually, we change the standards inside a culture of what is acceptable behaviour. The snowball grows until it takes over the whole organisation and in some cases, it can lead teams to believe that it is acceptable to design interfaces that can manipulate users.
Mark Zuckerberg blamed the system for not telling him what were the right things to do on the Internet. Other companies would blame the consumers for buying their products when they don’t have to buy them.
Gambling companies have made it easier than ever to use their services online or through their apps. Within seconds I can bet on any football teams or even on Kim Kardashian’s next husband’s name. There is no wonder why Denise Coates, founder of Bet365 Group, earned a staggering £469 million salary last year.
Yet we all know the dangers associated with online gambling and the addiction it can cause to their consumers. Those organisations are clearly aware too since they are required by law to present the risks of betting to their consumers. But when questioned about their responsibility for the negative effects of their products, they would say that “we give the consumers what they want”. Ethical boundaries are blurred.
Consumer choice is indeed an important factor but our needs would arguably be influenced by the choices those organisations make. The gambler is responsible for his choice yet the gambling company is still involved in the chain. Equally companies believe that they are free from responsibility once a consumer click on a box to accept their terms and conditions. Legally speaking, that may be true but does that make it an ethical behaviour?