What were we thinking?

Ben Teehankee

April 10, 2014

The View from Taft


Now that the Ombudsman has found probable cause to charge Senators and others with plunder in connection with the so-called PDAF Scam, I’m hopeful that the wheels of justice will turn fast enough to reveal the truth to the satisfaction of the people. After all, a nation defines itself not from the laws it writes – of which we have plenty -- but the extent it is willing to go to enforce these laws in support of the principles behind them. Is public office a public trust as the Constitution asserts? If so, then the public must demand accountability from its public officials especially for how tax money is spent. Is every citizen guaranteed due process? If so, then let the charges be filed and the trials begin.

But even as the legal processes take their due course, the Senate blue ribbon committee is working on investigating other dubious NGOs outside the Napoles network. In addition, fresh allegations of scams continue to surface in the media and in Senate investigative hearings involving yet other government and private individuals. When the dust clears, it’s difficult to imagine who will be left unscathed.

When official wrongdoing comes to light and the people involved are dragged through the painful process of accountability, I often wonder, what were they thinking? But what about the people close to these individuals who knew what was going on? What were they thinking? We often hope that wiser people would prevail over the misguided and set the latter straight. After all, checks and balances and various levels of governance are supposed to be the inherent controls that prevent self-serving abuses of authority. Do these controls work?

Last November, De La Salle University and the Management Association of the Philippines invited Andrew Fastow, former CFO of the energy giant Enron Corporation, to speak about his role in the company’s collapse. Enron went bankrupt in 2001, causing investments of countless people, including employees, to evaporate. Fastow had been released from jail in 2012 and was more than glad to give talks to business leaders and students pro bono to caution them against what he did, which was to use loopholes in the rules to mislead the public and get the financial results he wanted for the company.

Surprisingly, Fastow explained that the board was fine with the financial strategies which eventually brought the company down. The Chairman of the Enron board’s audit committee was the former Dean of Stanford Business School and a professor and author in accounting. Also in the board was the then Dean of the University of Texas School of Law. If Deans of a business school and a law school couldn’t make a difference, what could have? What were they thinking?

We can only speculate about why those who should know better would tolerate the harmful behavior of others. Are they malicious, unthinking or merely compliant? Behavioral scientists and other scholars have been working on this problem for some time and their findings can give us a handle on this disturbing phenomenon. The German-American political theorist Hanna Arendt referred to this as the banality of evil when she wrote about Nazi Officer Adolf Eichmann’s role in the mass murder of Jews during World War 2.

Arendt essentially argued that there are people who, like Eichmann, simply act as “good soldiers” and comply with orders which are seen as clearly horrible only in hindsight. Arendt implied that there was a potential Eichmann in each of us. Later experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram confirmed that ordinary people can obey orders from authority figures even to the extent of harming others – in this case, through electric shocks.

In addition to unjustified obedience, psychologists have pointed to social conformity as a major source of moral weakness. Experiments by Solomon Asch and others have shown that people will often go against their own well-informed thinking when faced with the disagreement of many others. This could explain the common observation that “good people can be swallowed by the system”.

Brain research has recently revealed a possible critical reason why people tend to surrender their will to the malpractice of others. Gregory Berns and his colleagues conducted experiments using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to peek inside the brains of people to see what happens when they have to stand up alone to people they disagree with on a question involving matching two objects. They found that, similar to previous experiments, subjects who knew the right answer to the question tended to agree with the wrong opinion of the majority. Based on the MRI data, the subjects’ perception of the objects being matched tended to change in favor of the others’ wrong opinion. It appears that people’s need to conform can be so strong that even the brain changes what it “sees” in a situation!

That people tend to surrender their better judgment to authority and to social pressure raises the question: Should the wrongdoer be excused? The short answer is “No”. People can choose to go against wrongful views of authority or peers. Eichmann was hanged in 1962 for his role in the Jewish genocide.

In the case of the massive corruption that is now being officially revealed in our country, an even more basic question is how so much wrongdoing can happen without the consent of people like you and me. What were we thinking?