The Language of Moral Education in Business: a NYTimes Moment in Time

Yesterday, May 2, the New York Times initiated an interesting global experiment: asking huge numbers of people, all around the planet, to take a single photograph—all at precisely the same time, 15:00 GMT. Read more about it here

A cool experiment? Indeed. Imagine the impression of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of photos, all of precisely the same moment in human history. I can’t wait to see it.

But that’s not what I want to point out. Because the way in which the Times announced the contest tells us about how to develop a sense of morality, a shared sense of ethics, in a large group: in this case, a world population.

Here’s that link again:

If you read it, you’ll be struck by the language, as were many of the early commenters on the article. Here is some sample language:

Do I have to take my picture at exactly 15:00?
No. We don’t expect atomic-clock precision. And we’d rather you send a good picture taken one minute after the hour than a mediocre picture taken exactly on the hour.

What if I cheat?
Come on. Why would you?

Look, we trust you. Besides, there aren’t enough cups of coffee in New York to keep our tiny staff awake for the time it would take to peruse the metadata in every single JPEG we receive. So we’re relying on you to understand that any significant departure from the benchmark hour only subverts the communal enterprise.

Of course, if we’re presented with evidence that your entry wasn’t taken close to 15:00, we’ll remove it from the gallery.

What about adding or subtracting or combining elements?
Again, don’t…

And if I do so anyway?
Really, why would you? We’re not going to pore over submissions looking for fakery and fraud. But we will remove any photographs that are demonstrably manipulated. Please, just spare us.

The Language of Moral (Business) Education

The Times is attempting to deal with a group. In this case, a remarkably global, diverse, and very loosely connected group. If even small numbers of people behave badly, they have the power to subvert the project.

I suggest this is a typical situation for moral education. What do you do to encourage members of a group to behave in a way that encourages the greater good for all?

  • You could simply depend on the free market of ideas, believing that if the photography idea is a good one, it will survive the market; and it doesn’t survive the free market, then it was a bad idea that didn’t deserve to live in the first place.
  • You could define a set of incentives to encourage the right group behavior, define metrics to measure the right group behavior, then tune the incentives to maximize it. 
  • Alternatively, you could enact a set of regulations about the contest. You could then have a government agency enforce them.

Or–you could choose the tools of moral education.

You acknowledge your powerlessness to compel the behavior of others. Instead, you appeal to their conscience.

What about cheating? You go directly to the potential cheater and say, ‘Really, why would you?’ What’s to keep someone from cheating? Again, make it personal: say, ‘Look, we trust you…We rely on you…to not subvert the communal enterprise…Please, just spare us.’

This is the language of moral education. Appeal directly to the individuals. Appeal to their innate sense of community. Acknowledge the absence of your power to compel their compliance. Indeed, acknowledge your dependence on their willingness to comply.

That’s the language of moral education. It’s disarmingly honest, transparent, and vulnerable. It acknowledges an individual conscience.

And it works.

Amazing, isn’t it, how infrequently we think of applying it to our challenging business situations.
 

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