Social Class and Unethical Behaviour

Hating the rich comes pretty naturally to a lot of people. And so it’s not surprising that a widely-reported study apparently demonstrating that the rich are less ethical resulted in a combination of glee and eye-rolling proclamations that “we already knew that.”

There’s plenty to say about the study — lots of people (mostly in the comments accompanying various reports on the study) have pointed to what they say are methodological weaknesses related to sample size, how participants were chosen, what kinds of tests are taken as proxies for a lack of ethics, etc.

But if we take as given the conclusion that the rich do behave less ethically (by certain measures) this raises the question of what causes such behaviour on the part of the rich. To their credit, the study’s authors at least gesture at subtlety: “This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors.” But the authors do spend an awful lot of time discussing what they clearly take to be the key causal factor, namely greed. “Greed,” the authors write, “is a robust determinant of unethical behaviour.”

But the role that greed plays is in fact very far from obvious. The citations given by the authors are not entirely compelling, and as I’ve pointed out before, there’s considerable evidence (found primarily in the literature on criminology) that greed is not a key explanatory factor in much wrongdoing. Wrongdoing is more generally explained by the capacity for rationalization, for telling oneself compelling stories about why one’s own behaviour isn’t wrong after all.

It’s also worth pointing out the more general problem with establishing causal relationships. Note that the title of the study says only that “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviour” [emphasis added]. But the headline writers for various news outlets are not so careful: Wired, for example, tells us that “Wealth Could Make People Unethical” [emphasis added]. And the distinction is important. Owning an ashtray may predict increased tendency toward lung cancer, but we’re pretty sure that ashtrays don’t cause lung cancer. So is being rich making people unethical, or is being unethical a route to getting rich, or are both the result of some third factor, like ambition?

What’s the practical upshot of all this? That, too, depends on the direction of causation. If being rich makes less ethical, then you have a reason — perhaps not a compelling one — to worry about the effect that your own increasing wealth might have on your morals. And, given what I said above about the role of rationalization, you ought to watch yourself for signs that you’re telling yourself those comforting little stories that make you feel better about behaviour that you know, deep down, is unethical.

If, on the other hand, being less ethical is a route to riches — well, that points in a couple of different directions. For individuals, the dangerous and cynical conclusion is that you need to learn to bend the rules to get ahead. But from a systems point of view, the implication is quite different: how do we design institutions so that ethical, socially-constructive behaviour is rewarded, and that socially-destructive but individually-profitable behaviour is not?

The third possibility — that some third factor, like ambition is the crucial causal factor — has implications also. This possibility raises the question of social tradeoffs. What if a certain amount of anti-social behaviour is the quid pro quo of entrepreneurship and creativity? Is the amount of social good done by ambitious people sufficient to make us tolerate a certain amount of unethical behaviour? History is full of accounts of crummy human beings with the vaulting ambition to produce great works of art, literature, and science. Steve Jobs was, by all accounts, a difficult guy to say the least, and had a habit of treating people very, very badly throughout his career. But then, he also gave the world a lot of ‘insanely great,’ innovative products.

Of course, whether such trade-offs are worthwhile is a world-class philosophical problem, the answer to which is far from clear. But what’s much more clear is that individuals can’t rightly help themselves to the relevant justifications. We can’t excuse our own bad behaviour by pointing to our productivity. We are all far, far too likely to overestimate our own social contributions, and to underestimate our own foibles and peccadilloes. And that, it seems to me, is the root of a much more likely explanation of patterns of unethical behaviour than is the simplistic assumption — an assumption that all too often simply reaffirms a cynical worldview — that it all really boils down to greed.

5 comments so far

  1. jpbauer on

    Excellent blog post on the topic of social class and ethical behavior. I very much like the question you posed: “How do we design institutions so that ethical, socially-constructive behavior is rewarded and that socially-destructive but individually profitable behavior is not”?
    The task of coming up with such a design faces huge challenges so long as our current socio-economic system views realizing profits as being good and realizing bigger profits as being even better. Another question flowing from the previous one is are we up to the challenge of designing and implementing new systems while there is still time for change or will we continue with existing ones and continue to nose-dive?

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment. But what “nose dive” are you referring to?


  3. JamieOBE (@JamieOBE) on

    Interesting analysis Chris – thanks!
    I guess this must be the (self-loathing) “rich-hater” in me, but I have to say that this other bit of research also afforded me quite some glee and eye-rolling recently 🙂

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts…?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I’m not really qualified to evaluate the empirical claims as reported in the article, though this IS HuffPo we’re talking about, which immediately gives me pause. They’re not known for excellence in reporting on science.

      But let’s assume the finding is accurate; this just reinforces the case I often make for the conclusion that business ethics is not, and cannot be, a matter of individual character. It’s got to be about designing institutions that take humans as they are — good and bad — and turn out the best outcomes available.

  4. andreabcreative on

    And again, I agree with many of your points. People need to be accountable to ethical behavior and decisions, regardless of their income level. After all, rich or poor, we are all in this together.

    But money certainly can be a rift between the haves and the have-nots, making it seem like we’re all in this together—until I find out your income level, then I’ll be darned if I’m in this with you (shakes pointed finger).

    I wonder how often wealthy people with ethics are embarrassed of the ‘play boy’ behavior of those less ethically minded. If it were a business, many of them would be rendered obsolete through their “lack of direction and their unwillingness to change and adjust when necessary” (Arnett et al., 2008, pg. 176).

    However, many rich people aren’t businesses; they aren’t bound to the same code of ethics or principles that a consumer demands from its business. They may not have to justify their behavior. After all “business and professional communication ethics is not the same as our personal ethics. However, Just as personal ethics needs to protect the ethics of our own lives, the same adage rests in business and professional ethics—protect and promote to survive in this changing world” (Arnett et al., 2008, pg. 186).

    And maybe that is why celebrities, whose person and business is so delicately intertwined, must react to these statements—either with a devil-may-care attitude, to help make positive change in the world, or more commonly, just to save face in the public eye.

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