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Posts Tagged ‘Moral Luck’

Adeline’s True Age

Lionsgate have released a trailer for The Age of Adeline . The film ...After miraculously remaining 29 years old for nearly eight decades, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) has lived a solitary existence, never allowing herself to get close to anyone who might reveal her secret. But a chance encounter with charismatic philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) reignites her passion for life and romance. When a weekend with his parents (Harrison Ford) threatens to uncover reality, Adaline makes a decision that will change her life forever. This Kantian decision, to tell the truth always, irrespective of the consequences, ironically sets her free from the bondage and chains of time.

Monday Night Considerations

A recent Monday Night Football [MNF] matchup featured a suffocating Seattle Seahawk defensive performance (8 sacks in the first half) and a grinding second-half comeback by the Green Bay Packers. Unfortunately, a replayed disputed last-second touchdown reception dominated the national airwaves for the next five days. Fortunately, this football game can be redeemed by discussing the business ethics of officiating.

In moral-decision making, similar choices produce different consequences because of contextual considerations; some actions are termed morally lucky or unlucky. For instance, a drunk driver coming home from the football game scrapes the side of a tree while another runs over a pedestrian. The first driver is the beneficiary of moral luck and public disapproval; the second driver is morally unlucky and receives outrage and disgust. It does not matter that their act of swerving in the street is exactly the same and certain circumstances (an innocent bystander walking outside) remains out of their control.

Likewise, this alleged mistaken call during MNF not only results in a morally unlucky finish for the officials but also produces the perfect unethical storm because of its timing [end of game], exposure [a nationwide football audience on Monday night], and context [replacement officials replacing striking referees]. If this call took place in another quarter or at least not during the final drive, if the game was played along with many others on Sunday, and/or if the contest was officiated by a regular NFL crew, the moral outrage would be muted or at least not have risen to this level of hyperbole. That particular call was not the only error Monday evening. Pundits acknowledged a series of gaffes throughout the game on both sides that could have changed the outcome at any given point.

What this football game shows is that non-ethical considerations (i.e. timing, exposure, context) affect how we view the morality of a given act. We hardly ever judge actions on ethical merit alone.

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Consider the financial impact of this moral decision: US$ 300 million shifting from those who bet on the Packers to those wagering on the underdog Seahawks.

Disclosure: The Monday Morning Business Ethicist is a long-time fan of the Seattle Seahawks.

 

Structurally Unlucky

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-zczJXSxnw]

 

During a lecture hosted by our university’s engineering department, I was introduced to the Paradox of Design:

The lessons learned—from historically massive engineering failures such as steamships (Titanic) and suspensions bridges (Tacoma Narrows Bridge)—lead to success in future innovations; however, successful designs can evolve into eventual failures.

Dr. Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University

If the Titanic had not struck an iceberg, bigger ships with fewer lifeboats would have been built. If the Narrows Bridge’s retrofitted cables had not snapped, thinner and lighter bridges without trusses and stays would have spanned the world’s waters. According to Petroski, “When something just works, we may not know how close we stand next to failure.”

I see clear parallels between these engineering disasters and the collapse of the financial sector. Economic institutions incrementally moved from investing in sound traditional strategies toward speculations in creative derivatives; initial success invited additional risk exposure. Philosopher Bernard Williams coined a notion of ‘Moral Luck,’ where the same act can produce wildly different outcomes, and praise and blame are assigned for partially uncontrolled circumstances. In this lucky or unlucky world, the Titanic does not hit the iceberg; Tacoma still has their bridge; the housing bubble has not burst . . . disaster is momentarily delayed for a much larger breakdown.

Yet while continued success can pave the way for larger failures, I’m not a Luddite who opposes progress. Engineers and economists need to take creative and innovative steps in design and application. Of course, ethical foundations are often found lacking. Increased regulation always follows tragedy and failure, resulting in a better artifact, community, or corporate structure for the short term. Ultimately, a well-established prior corporate ethos (structure/character) frames the proper boundaries and appropriate risks in future decision making—especially in times of success.

Thanks to Professor Petroski for connecting the history of suspension arches to design theory; and to my father for showing his son the buildings and bridge(s) he helped design as a structural engineer.