Sunday, November 29, 2009

How much is too much?

They say that a sinking ship exposes the rats on board. Likewise, it takes a crisis to expose fraudsters and unethical entities who thrive on a system while it flourishes. So the Madoffs, Rajus, Kenneth Lays and Thains of the world come into the open only when the system is drained of all the water that had been providing refuge to their unethical activities for so long. Almost all of us know what ethics are all about. Soon after the financial crisis began, people raised a finger against B schools, saying that a code of ethics is missing amongst the current breed of profit-seeking, dollar-hungry set of B school products. And so, most big B schools embarked on a mission to rethink their offerings to prevent unethical entities from entering the system.

Yes, schools do have a role to play in shaping individuals. That is why we had penalties in school for cheating on an exam. That is why we had harsh punishments for cheating in sport at school. But all humans are presumed rational, and we all know the distinction between right and wrong. A school can give us a code of ethics but internalizing it and making the distinction between what is acceptable and what is not, is a confluence of the ethics code and our own ethical appetite. We all wenr in arms when we heard about the fraud committed by Ramalinga Raju. We all watched with disgust as the crookedness of Bernie Madoff came into the open. We exclaimed how brazenly unethical their acts were as the swindled millions and millions of dollars. These were huge transgressions. But think of this. You break a traffic signal, and the cop stops you. How many times have you given a bribe just to get out of the situation fast? Why? Isn't bribery a form of corruption? And isn't corruption unethical? But then, this was a minor transgression, and a small bribe never killed or hurt anybody, right?

But who is to decide what is major and what is minor? And how difficult is it to make the move from good to bad, like the transformation of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader? Another point to ponder is that what am I to do if everyone around me is involved in an unethical practice, to book gains? By being ethical, I clearly end up losing. So, should I adopt the rational approach of maximizing my economic value or should I revert to the conscientious approach and believe in a cosmic justice and be satisfied with my being able to sleep peacefully at night, my losses notwithstanding?

I definitely do not have the right or wrong answers to these points. Because actually these are all decisions steeped in shades of gray. At the end of the day, it is a weighted average of your basket of priorities and only you are the judge of the weights to be accorded to each priority to come to a decision metric. The only argument I have is that quick gains are seldom ever sustainable and for me personally a spiky chart is worth much less than a steady level of success and satisfaction.

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