In this episode of World of Ideas, ethicist Michael Josephson discussed society’s emphasis on success and how it may influence people to sacrifice their values.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Fatherhood changed everything for Michael Josephson. He taught law school for twenty years in Los Angeles and ran a successful bar review business, but as he watched his son grow up, he began to think less about the letter of the law and more about the spirit of it. He left the classroom, sold his business and started the Josephson Institute for the Study and Teaching of Ethical Choices. Josephson and his staff now publish a magazine on ethics and run workshops for mayors, lawyers, corporate executives and sometimes for journalists.
[interviewing] All of a sudden, just about everywhere we turn, people are talking about ethics, especially about the teaching of ethics, the teaching of values. How do you explain this?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, of course, the news has been full of so many instances where people have not acted ethically that it’s natural for others to look and say, “What caused this?” and “What can we do about it?” and I think one of the logical things to look at is people and why they’re behaving the way they are and what we could have done perhaps differently to have them behave differently.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that America has lost its moral bearings?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Oh no, but I think there’s been slippage. You know, I think the fact of the matter is we go through pendulums of idealistic periods and less idealistic periods. I think the last ten years, as a people, we haven’t distinguished ourselves for our willingness to be candid, to be caring, to be honest as much as we’re capable. I don’t think we’re right now the symbol of all the good things we used to be and I’m optimistic we’ll get back to that.
BILL MOYERS: Has something happened in particular? Because actually America has never been as good as it wanted to be or as good as it remembered it being.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, that’s true.
BILL MOYERS: Has something happened in this particular time?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, I think historically you get these movements, I mean, certainly I came out of the ’60s, you know, where there was an awful lot of talk about ethics and sometimes some of the people who then got in positions didn’t act any more ethically than the people they were protesting against. But there was at that period a movement toward that. And then, with assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy, and the whole Vietnam War, an enormous cynicism set in. And then the next movement was this kind of self-actualization, me-first-ism and why you have to take care of yourself first. And then the economy became a huge problem, and when the economy becomes a huge problem, people start thinking of their pocketbook and making things better for themselves. So I think these grand movements have moved to focus people’s attention on certain ways of evaluating themselves and, at least most recently, people haven’t been evaluating themselves as much on how good they are, whether they’re meeting their highest aspirations as people.
BILL MOYERS: Success is how successful I am.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: That’s right and, of course, success can be defined so many different ways but right now it is defined in a kind of how high is your position, how many people work for you, how high is your salary. And when you get into that kind of yuppie version of success, you’re going to sacrifice things along the way. There’s not enough commitment to the ground rules of civil virtue, if you will.
BILL MOYERS: And yet, the people who have been most conspicuous in the news as violating ethical imperatives have not been yuppies. They have been successful Wall Street brokers, they’ve been career military officers, they’ve been the establishment of a political party moving to the White House with the president. These have not been yuppies.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: But they’re sort of the creature of the yuppies. You know, the yuppie is — like the constituency which makes it okay. I mean, they’re people who applaud the success, when Ivan Boesky at one time can say greed is good and not be hooted down from a stage but be applauded, where people can write books about how to win by intimidation and find that they get on every TV show to teach people how to do that. I think this yuppie mentality is not really people, it’s an approach, it’s a philosophy.
BILL MOYERS: Which is?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: The philosophy of saying that how we measure our life is what we get, what we acquire, who we know. It’s a very shallow kind of life and I think people know that and they find that out in time, but during the period of time when that flourishes, we make a lot of sacrifices of people in doing that. And our children. I’m worried about the next generation.
BILL MOYERS: It’s certainly true that the rules of American life today are determined not by the church on Main Street but by the moneychangers on Wall Street. That’s been a significant change because, at one time, there was a common American vocabulary, ethical vocabulary that grew essentially out of the Bible, for both Jews and Christians, and out of a kind of civic discourse, an idea of the republic that informed our common language.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: I think that’s true and yet I find the same kind of creeping corruption — and I use corruption in a broad sense, a corruption of ideals, not corruption just on money is based on a kind of self-righteous notion of the need to win and our focus on being right and having the right to have what we want rather than just having the right to have an even playing field. Many politicians, for example, treat getting reelected as if it were a moral imperative, and once you do that you will sacrifice other moral values. So it isn’t just money, it’s this kind of need to win and need to be clever and need to be successful in other people’s eyes that are causing people sometimes to sacrifice the fundamental ideals that motivated them to the enterprise in the first place. Politics is a very noble enterprise.
BILL MOYERS: Are the people who are teaching us ethics generally more ethical than the rest of us?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, first of all, the real people that are teaching us ethics aren’t even thinking about ethics, ’cause we learn ethics not from people who sermonize or moralize or try to preach to us about ethics. We learn ethics from the people who we admire, who we respect, who have power over us. They’re the real teachers of ethics. Those who purport to teach ethics, whether they be in the churches or in higher education, generally are no better people.
BILL MOYERS: There have been formal studies, serious subjects, studies which have suggested that moral instruction doesn’t really have much effect on ethical behavior, that children who are interviewed who say they know what it means to not lie nonetheless want to lie and do lie.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: That’s right. With children, the most you can do is orient them. They think very, very specifically. They don’t think abstractly. They don’t think about the future. They tend to be ethical, if at all, only because it pleases someone they care about. They don’t adopt ethics as a real standard. When you get older, you begin to make decisions for yourself. In fact, the most significant period of ethical development is actually early adulthood, between the 20s and 30s —
BILL MOYERS: Between the 20s and 30s.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: — and the reason for that is, until that time, people don’t have to test their ethics. They don’t have to put their money where their mouth is. It’s when you first have to decide how important it is for you to keep this job that you decide how much the truth means to you. And our stress is that it’s decision making that’s critical, not merely character.
BILL MOYERS: What you’re saying is that ethical behavior grows out of the crises of life, the challenges of life, and not out of some ideological or theoretical or hypothetical situation.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: I think that’s true. I think, clearly, we can prepare people to be more ethical. We should train our children, we should train our people in college to be aware of the kinds of challenges they’re going to face, help them work out, from a problem solving point of view, those things and reinforce the values. But, in the last analysis, what a person does when they’re in the trenches is a question of how they prioritize those values. But we have a lot to say about that. If I’m an employer, I can create an atmosphere in my company where a person would not lie because it is so inconsistent with what is approved of in that organization that they can’t succeed and lie.
BILL MOYERS: So that’s why we hold our political leaders to such a high standard, not because we expect them to be perfect but because we know there has to be — there has to be an image projected, an expectation aroused, a standard raised.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: You’re absolutely right and it’s not only politicians, it’s our athletes, it’s anyone who has both the fortune and misfortune to be important enough that people care how they behave. Because they’re role models, they have a responsibility. This society has become so rights-oriented that we’ve forgotten our responsibilities —
BILL MOYERS: I have a right to this, I have a right to that.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: That’s right. And that’s a wonderful thing about this country but there are responsibilities. And it’s led to a kind of legal minimalism, for instance, for people —
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, as long as it’s lawful, it’s ethical. That they look at the lowest common standard of ethics and they tend to approach life and laws as if everything was the Internal Revenue Code. Everyone wants to avoid paying taxes so finding loopholes, evading those taxes is legitimate. Unfortunately, we find people in business, in politics, in journalism. Look at the libel laws and the way some journalists approach those laws.
BILL MOYERS: You’re encroaching now.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Good, I hope so. I want to make you uncomfortable, ’cause growth will only come out of a little level of discomfort.
BILL MOYERS: You went to law school. What did you learn in law school about ethics?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: I didn’t learn a thing about ethics. I learned that, well, you don’t lie if you’re an attorney but that wasn’t put merely on ethics, it was because that’s what a professional does. It reminds me of the notion that honesty is the best policy or good ethics is good business. I think both of those things are very negative messages because it may be the best policy and it may be good business but then it’s business and it’s not ethics. The reason we ought to be ethical is ’cause it’s the right thing to do.
BILL MOYERS: Who says?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Every culture, every society-history, theology and philosophy will show that enlightened civilizations have had a sense of right and wrong and the need to try to distinguish it. Now, we may disagree over time as to what is right and wrong and, as individuals, we may disagree but there has never been a disagreement in any philosophy that it is important to know the difference. The things that are right are the things that help people, society. There are things like compassion, honesty, fairness, accountability. Those are absolute, universal ethical values.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find that they exist apart from divine revelation?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Yes, I do. I think religion can be an enormous and important source of these ethical beliefs but you will find secular philosophers have come to the same conclusion. The Golden Rule occurred in the Greek and it occurred in the Chinese thou-sands of years before Christ articulated his version —
BILL MOYERS: Because the essence of ethical behavior is to ask the question, “How would I want to be treated if I’m in that situation?”
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Yes, and you only ask that question ’cause you care about other people. That’s why the essence of ethics is some level of caring.
BILL MOYERS: Who taught you this? Who taught you about ethics? I don’t mean in a public sense. I mean, who made you what you are by giving you the examples for your ethical choices?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: I learned a lot from my parents in terms of love, about family — I had a large family — but some of what I learned, I reverse-reacted. I didn’t like everything my father did. He came from a New York business background that offended me in many regards so, in some cases, I decided not to behave the way my parents behaved. To me, the most moving moment was having a child. Now, maybe that’s because I come from a large family. I was teaching law and I was assigned to teach the course of ethics, first time. See, after Watergate, it became a mandatory course. Before then, it wasn’t required in law schools and, like most people, I had not studied it myself in law, ’cause that wasn’t what I specialized in. I taught that ethics the first year like I would teach a tax code: how to avoid it, how to evade it, how to see the ambiguities. After all, rules are just restrictions, limitations. We’ve got to avoid them. Well, that same year, I had my child, and what was interesting is when I compared how I was approaching teaching ethics to the law students with how I wanted to teach my son ethics and what I wanted him to be. It made me see an enormous inconsistency, ’cause it wasn’t a value-based enterprise I was engaged in when I was teaching ethics. I want to teach my son values, the value of caring, the value of being trustworthy, the value of trying hard, the value of accountability.
BILL MOYERS: But couldn’t you have taught your son to be a good person while continuing to teach lawyers how to be successful attorneys, without contradicting yourself!
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Yes, but I’d have to teach them very differently than I was teaching them. I do not believe ethics is inconsistent with success in being an attorney. I do believe it was inconsistent with the particular approach I was taking to being a good attorney.
BILL MOYERS: Which was to?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: To be competitive, to win. There’s a simple story of a lawyer who goes on a camping trip with a non-lawyer and they both have their backpacks on their back and they see a cougar about twenty yards away. And the lawyer starts to take off his backpack and the friend says, “What are you going to do?” And the lawyer says, “I’m going to run for it.” And the friend says, “You can’t outrun a cougar.” And the lawyer says, “I don’t have to outrun the cougar. I just have to outrun you.”
BILL MOYERS: Now, what gives rise to these stories?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: The funny thing is, almost all of these jokes you can just put another profession’s name in and there will be many who nod. The fact is that within the professions we have an enormous capacity to affect thousands, millions of people and if the professionals would be just more sensitive, more thoughtful to what they’re trying to achieve and make more refined distinctions, I just think we’d change our behavior just one or two degrees and we could change the impact enormously. Every time I do a workshop and people tell me what you have to do to win and it’s such a shortsighted view and it’s not analytical. All I do is ask them a question: take that solution you just said you have to do and now make it impossible, for whatever reason. Do you now give up? Do you die? Is the world over? Or you figure out something else. And we tell people unless you have three alternatives to every major problem, you haven’t thought hard enough. And as soon as you have three, you can find one of them that’s ethical.
BILL MOYERS: But sometimes those three alternatives involve shades of ethical judgment.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: All may be right but one may be more appropriately right than the other.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: You know, that’s perfect. The first thing you’ve got to do is understand there are two levels of decisions in ethical decision-making. The first is to distinguish the clearly unethical decisions from the ethical ones. It’s usually unethical to lie, it’s unethical to steal, to injure others. There’s a second level of decision where you’re choosing between ethical values — truth and fairness, truth and loyalty — where no one answer is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Here, you just have to analyze it as clearly as possible and be sensitive to what your values are. And you’re right, you’re dealing with shades of gray. The thing that I find, though, is too many people have adopted a kind of utilitarian view toward ethics where they no longer balance as to whether they’re dealing with an ethical value or a non-ethical value. For example, it’s one thing to sacrifice truth for fairness. It’s another thing to sacrifice truth for money to be successful in a profession. And what we think that people need to do a great deal more is to be aware of the facts. We face simple decisions of self-interest versus doing the right
thing. That’s the reality. And do we have the strength to do the right thing even when we know it’s right? Or do we start a rationalizing process that says, “Well, this is really for my family,” or “This is really for someone else,” or “If I don’t make this money, then nobody will have any jobs.” And we start getting into a whole process of rationalization.
BILL MOYERS: Well, let me come back to your, what, 12-year-old son?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What if he comes to you, Michael, and says, “Dad, if I’m ethical, would I get what I want in life?”
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: If you want the right things and if you have a good set of values as to what’s important, sure you will. In fact, it’s the only way you get what you want. In fact, to me, that’s the ultimate test. What is it? What could you possibly want? People want happiness, and they look at money as a way to get happiness. They look at prestige and power for happiness. I want that — I like money, I like power, I like prestige — but what does it cost you? The ultimate cost is what’s critical and when you feel good about yourself and you make other people feel good, that’s just a pretty good way to be.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but in other circumstances, you have said that we tend to decide our ethical behavior on the perception of our stake in society, on our reading of society. So if you’re a member of one of these gangs that has received so much notoriety in Los Angeles, wouldn’t you say, “Well, my stake in society means not playing the game ethically but going for all that I can get, no matter how I have to get it”?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Sure. That’s the problem of subcultures, you know, when you get involved in a subculture that seems to benefit from having a whole different value system than the culture as a whole. Chicago politics, four years ago —
BILL MOYERS: You have a subculture because you can’t get into the culture and play it by its game because it’s not open, it’s not accessible.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, you’re right and I don’t want to be glib about this. And, in fact, we have our magazine, we call it Easier Said Than Done, and —
BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask you that. Why the title Easier Said Than Done?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Because the implication that you get everything you want when you are ethical is wrong. Everything you’re saying is true. There’s some sacrifice involved to being ethical. Occasionally, if you lied, you wouldn’t have to confront a difficult situation which you would have to confront if you told the truth. The value of being ethical isn’t simply that every day you get every single thing you want but, on the long haul, you feel better about it and you’ve created a better society because the cumulative impact of you or I being selfish is a terribly selfish society where we don’t know what to expect from people anymore. If we translate the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” into “do unto others as you think they will do unto you,” or “do unto others as they have done unto you,” which are variations and excuses, we have an awful society that I don’t want to raise my child in. And I’ve got to do my part to change that.
BILL MOYERS: But for many people -the gangs, the chronically unemployed, the underclassed — it’s not an ethical society, it’s not a good society and they’re in the condition they’re in, very often not — and I don’t want to excuse them for responsibility — not because of something they have done but for the way the society is run, and regulated and ruled.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: And that’s often true, and yet the question is does the solution that they have come upon even address the problem or does it make it worse?
BILL MOYERS: You see them with the large sums of money that they’ve gotten from gangs that they couldn’t get working for a corporation or working for-being a television journalist, and they say, “Look, I’ve played the game the way the society plays it and I’m winning.”
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, it’s how they define winning and they might be, and if that’s all they want in their life is to get the money, if that’s all you or I want, we would be doing different things than we’re both doing.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I was a beneficiary of the way the game is played. I was a beneficiary of the rules that were devised, that I could fit into as white male growing up in the post-war era of the economy carrying me buoyantly upward and of patrons who plucked me out and gave me scholarships and sent me to school and backed me and befriended me.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, then let’s look at it from the other side. Maybe we’ll have to acknowledge there are some people who, because of the unfortunate circumstances they’re in, we can’t expect to be as ethical as we’d like them to be and it’s our responsibility to fix that. It’s our responsibility to make conditions fairer, more open. If there were, in fact, systemic reasons why that occurred, you and I, as ethical people say, “I’m not treating them the way I wanted to be treated.” But each of us has accountability. The person who sells drugs is accountable and I’m not going to buy into their excuses, I just can’t, you know, that that’s okay.
BILL MOYERS: But it does seem like a cliché, but it seems to me true, that we can’t really stand tall without standing together and that there’s something implicit about a caring and generous society that is missing at the moment.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Yes. Caring and generosity. From those things, honesty will come, fairness will come, accountability will come. And we will make dozens of decisions differently but there are always going to be those people who view-who admire Ivan Boesky to this day, you know, as to what he did and what he accomplished. The fact of the matter is that you have to present your children, your employees with different models, and you reward the model that you believe in and at least let’s start a counter-movement. We’re not going to change the whole world. There are going to be plenty of bad people and villains and rogues and there always will be and there always were. Let’s just have some more heroes, you know, let’s try to be a hero just a little bit every day ourselves.
BILL MOYERS: Oliver North was a hero to many people, still is. He’s been out here in Los Angeles campaigning enthusiastically for conservative Republicans for Congress. He’s considered a hero even though he shredded documents, lied to Congress, lied to the media, lied to his peers, may have lied to the president he served, even though he with-held vital information. He became a hero.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: And that’s a fascinating thing. That’s one of those toughest issues for me to analyze ethically because, unlike most of these cases where people were acting out of self-indulgence or self-protection, which are obvious motives, he was acting out of a different kind of motive, a supposedly and, I think, a noble motive. And people judge him only on his motives. But self-righteousness can be as much a cause of unethical conduct as anything else.
BILL MOYERS: So Oliver North’s ethical transgression, as you analyze it -not as you damn it, but as you analyze it — was?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: It was that he violated the law and, in doing so, he did it in order to impose his view of the world on everyone else —
BILL MOYERS: Politically, he was —
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: — and he denied people their input.
BILL MOYERS: Including the Congress —
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: — because, politically, he nullified congressional mandates by ignoring them, simply by ignoring them.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: You know, that’s one of the worst things about lying people don’t think about, even little white lies; they deny people their autonomy. They deny you the ability to decide for yourself on the basis of the true facts. Lies are a means of coercion.
BILL MOYERS: What kind example generally, do you think, for ethical study, are the political leaders of our time setting? Let me just take Congress, for example. Congress, as you know, exempted itself from the Government in Ethics Act of 1978. It said, ”’It applies to everybody else but it doesn’t apply to us.”
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: And there are two problem with that. One, they never should have called it the Ethics Act ’cause it has nothing to do with ethics. The rules are basically extended rules of bribery and they’re establishing minimal standards of conduct. And second of all, they have been hypocritical. The Congress has been embarrassingly, unjustifiably and, unfortunately, without shame, hypocritical about —
BILL MOYERS: It doesn’t hold —
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: — about applying its own standards to itself.
BILL MOYERS: It doesn’t hold itself responsible for the same affirmative action programs it requires of everyone else in society.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: You’ll find the same in the state legislators. But the worst part is, you know, they’re not losing their offices.
BILL MOYERS: What does this say to you?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: It says to me that the people aren’t asking enough, they’re not demanding enough.
BILL MOYERS: That we, as constituents, are more interested in our districts than we are in the welfare of the —
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, two things. One, a lot of people are being alienated. We have the lowest voting rate ever and so a lot of people are just saying, “I don’t want any part of this. ” The people who might be more accountable, the people that are voting are voting on self interest and they say, “As long as this guy gets me my piece of the pie, a little bigger than maybe I’m otherwise entitled, I’m putting him back in office.”
BILL MOYERS: Is there, in your judgment, an ethical stake in the large sums of money that are being spent on politics, on political campaigns?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Oh, sure. There’s no reason to spend it except that people hope they’ll distort the process. So, you have two very cynical movements going on. The politicians who are taking this huge sum of money on the theory they need it to buy votes because they can’t win the elections without a lot of money, and the lobbyists who claim that they only want access and are paying huge sums of money to get an edge, a competitive edge. It’s very cynical and it’s not part of the real theme of democracy that we ought to have. We ought to be putting our people in power because we trust their judgment to act on our behalf on some issues when it’s appropriate and as neutral judges on most other issues when they’re speaking for the nation. And it’s a pity that we’ve got into this
cycle of money driving politics.
BILL MOYERS: But unless everybody plays by the same rules, someone will always get a competitive edge in our society.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: We need to understand that there are two levels of things and, being a law professor for almost twenty years, I certainly understand the law and the rules and one of the things I understand is you can’t write a law that I can’t get around. So, the first thing is we need to write laws to try to establish at least minimal consensus standards. The bribery rules are certainly essential — nobody ought to take a bribe and they should know better — but in addition to the rules, we have to have people that say, “The underlying purpose of this rule is a social statement that we’re trying to accomplish something for society. I’m going to buy into that. I’m going to help.”
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the mandate for an ethical person in this?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: The mandate is that an ethical person ought to do more than he’s required to do and less than he’s allowed to do because that’s when he’s exercising judgment, self restraint, conscience. Otherwise, we have a minimalist society where everybody’s lawyering everybody else. Everybody’s pushing the world to the limit, they’re bending the rules and they’re twisting it. Is that the way you want your son to behave? It’s not the way I want my son to behave. That’s why we need to tell people we can do better and if it costs us a little bit, so it costs us. It’s worth it.
BILL MOYERS: What’s at stake in all of this for America, the America your son Justin will one day be a citizen in?
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Well, things have momentum. If we don’t change the momentum which is, in my view, a momentum that is denigrating ethics — almost as if ethics is for wimps, ethics is for losers, ethics is something that you can only have if you’re rich and afford — if we don’t change that, society’s going to get a great deal worse and it’s going to be a dog-eat-dog society where that little story about the cougars is how we represent people. If, on the other hand, we can start, even with minorities, I believe ethics is a minority movement, it always will be — but a strong minority can change the tenor of this society in a meaningful enough way. And if a minority of people will speak up and, in just their own lives, demand more of themselves and others, we’ll fight that, we’ll turn the pendulum around and it’ll begin to swing back to the days of where we could be really proud of the kind of people we are because of what we contribute to each other and to society.
BILL MOYERS: Easier said than done.
MICHAEL JOSEPHSON: Much easier said than done but it’s worth doing.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From Los Angeles, this has been a conversation with Michael Josephson. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on May 20, 2015.