Professionals and moral judgement

Professionals and moral judgment (March 3, 2008)

By Ben Teehankee

Green Light, Manila Standard Today

The need to promote a culture of morality and ethics in our country has been highlighted by the ongoing NBN-ZTE Senate investigation. Of course, such calls for moral regeneration have been made many times in the past, not only by Church groups and educators but even by politicians and business leaders. Social scientists have pointed out that societies cannot develop to its full potential without achieving a sufficient level of social capital or societal trust based on a commonly-held understanding of acceptable and mutually beneficial behavior.

But moral social engineering is easier said than done. Most people who call for moral revolution would balk at the work that such an undertaking would entail. Quick-fix solutions are tempting: “Let’s throw a few people in jail and this should put the fear of God in those who dare to do wrong.” Unfortunately, the experience of nations has shown that the building of a country’s moral fiber is not an overnight task but one that spans generations.

Although all citizens will need to be involved in the moral development of a nation, one group of people will be critically important: the professionals. In simple terms, a professional is a person who is certified for technical competence and is a member of a self-regulating group of fellow professionals who commit themselves to public service and are guided by a code of ethics. It is not enough to have a certification to be a true professional. A professional must possess competence and character; the ingredients of trustworthiness.

What does the trustworthiness of professionals mean for everyday life? When a doctor prescribes medicine, we trust that the medicine is necessary and effective for our health. We do not worry that he or she prescribes it because a pharmaceutical company sponsored his or her latest overseas junket or golf sessions. When we cross a bridge, we trust that the engineer who approved its design ensured its soundness and safety. We do not worry that he or she got 20% of the contract price to approve the design. Such is our trust of professionals and we scarcely have a choice. We depend on their adherence to a moral code as well as their technical expertise. Daily life would grind to a halt if we assumed otherwise.

But the ZTE-NBN case has shown that the above rosy picture is not to be taken for granted. Professionals will often find themselves in compromising situations where their judgment will be put to the test and their sense of conscience stretched to the limit. And many, unfortunately, will falter. By his own admission, Engr. Jun Lozada has compromised his judgment on a number of occasions. After saying his mea culpas, he asserts his intention to seek redemption through his current role as state witness.

Irrespective of how Lozada’s avowed campaign for procurement reform progresses, it is important to understand the process of how highly educated and even idealistic professionals can become the implementers of elaborate corruption schemes, often under the influence and patronage of powerful superiors. Why would such talented individuals, often alumni of the most prestigious Catholic schools, allow themselves to be the technical foot soldiers for malfeasance?

One reason is what management researchers call “cognitive scripting”. Professionals who need to process a great deal of technical information as part of their work often resort to “rules of thumb” or “mental shortcuts” to facilitate their decision-making. When confronted with apparent unethical situations, these individuals may resort to rationalizations to cope with pressure and to be able to move on with their work. Lozada’s testimony has now made the phrase “permissible zone of corruption” part of every Filipino’s vocabulary. By using such self-talk, a professional could rationalize to himself that the questionable act he is collaborating in is alright. After a while, the cognitive script becomes deeply embedded and the tolerance for malfeasance becomes second nature.

Sociologists who have studied white-collar crime have pinpointed group learning as a key source of learned misbehaviour. In particular, they found that an individual’s tendency to commit ethical lapses depends on the amount of contact with others who encourage or reject ethical behavior. This is nothing more than a formalization of the “good apples in a bad barrel” saying. Clearly, a person’s need for social acceptance in a workplace can tempt him to surrender even personally cherished values, especially if one happens to join a group where flouting ethical guidelines is an established norm.

Psychologists point to expectations of outcomes as an explanation for ethical lapses among professionals. This may take two forms: expectations of financial rewards attached to the unethical behavior versus expectations of being caught and ruining one’s career. In an increasingly material society, the attraction of financial rewards can make unethical behavior irresistibly attractive. Coupled with a low probability of detection or a general sense of impunity, the promise of quick money and the comforts it brings becomes too tempting for many well-intentioned professionals. Sadly, they become quickly accustomed to the lifestyle and slowly embrace a life of corruption.

Despite the many factors which can lead professionals astray, many do not. These strong-willed individuals hold on to their values and accept moderate lifestyles and occasionally stunted careers for not being “team players”. They religiously give their best professional opinion irrespective of pressure and refuse to sign (or do so only with extensive qualifications) any questionable proposal. They silently initiate reforms where they can within the organization and try their best to steer clear of questionable practices. But every now and then, some of them reach their breaking point and they resort to whistle-blowing in a very public way. Unfortunately, the backlash for public whistle-blowers is notoriously strong and career suicide is almost a guaranteed result.

A nation that is serious about moral regeneration must be more conscious about the preparation of professionals and the reward systems that will support their principled practices. Professionals are often the first, and may be the only, line of defense against corruption within organizations and ultimately within a nation.