Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Selected TED/TEDx talks on the ethics of right and wrong

Traditional discussions of morality have often focused on dichotomies of good and bad, virtuous and evil, right and wrong.  This polarized thinking simplifies the world into opposing absolutes.  In this view, all people and all conduct stand on one side or other of an imaginary line.  Bad people are responsible for all evil actions and wrong decisions, whereas good people should always be expected to behave in a virtuous manner and to make the right choices.  This views resigns any hope of someone who is judged “bad” making positive contributions to the world or being expected to have integrity; these people must be controlled against, excluded, and blamed when events take the wrong turn.  Good people, on the other hand, are subject to straying from their presumably natural interest in behaving with integrity and must be prevented from doing so and punished if this ever happens, followed by being re-judged as bad if they do not respond to punitive and remedial treatment.

The limiting and unrealistic expectations of such a system are clear.  In practice, this retrograde view can have chilling effect on a truly progressive understanding of organizational integrity and dynamics or any true restorative justice for individuals.  Unfortunately, rules-based systems tend to produce these polarized, inflexible views.  Mandatory compliance with its roles and responsibilities and reliance on policies and procedures can have such an outcome.  Of course, the law, internal requirements, and regulatory expectations often do follow a bright line and so adherence to these expectations is as straightforward as a yes or a no.  However, this strict structure must be supported by a more dynamic and realistic system of values and principles.  Only then can the culture of compliance reflect the true nature of people and their choices and actions, which are all much more complex than a choice between two contrasting modes.Is Right and Wrong Always Black and White? (Juan Enriquez) – As discussed above, judgments about right and wrong, and the opinions about what is moral that follows them, are often limited to yes or no answers. In reality, people’s attitudes and actions can be heavily dependent upon contexts that limit their choices, pressure them to behave a certain way, or predispose them to certain opinions and options.  Looking back, people too often take the view of hindsight, where all the decisions and possible outcomes are neatly lined up and can be reviewed and compared in an unemotional and objective state.  However, real life is nearly never in such vacuum and so compassion is a necessary element in making these considerations between right and wrong less dichotomous and more realistic.  It is easy to stray into moral relativism, where people’s actions are judged by different standards and based upon subjective expectations.  However, perhaps short of that, and more instructive overall, comes moral discretion, to apply some understanding and reason to interpreting people’s moral decisions, the conditions in which they are made, and the consequences that arise from them.

  • Uncomfortable “truth” between right and wrong (Chris Rhyss Edwards) – Similar to the previous talk, Chris Rhyss Edwards focuses his viewpoint on the difficult decisions people need to make under exceptional circumstances. Like Juan Enriquez, Edwards does not suggest that a weighted view of a person’s worth through the filter of moral relativism is the right approach.  However, Edwards does urge people to look beyond the sum of an individual’s actions in making moral judgements about intentions in and reasons for behavior.  As a former soldier, Edwards has a novel perspective on his ethical quandary of choice – is it ever moral for a person to kill another?  For Edwards, in order to answer this question we must blend two perspectives.  One, there could be reasons why it seems necessary to kill, due to defense or duty for example.  But two, humans should contribute to reduction of violence in society overall to make a more peaceful world where people will not have to make choices about killing.  Edwards refers to this as an attitude of “appreciate enquiry,” suggesting this is as a lens through which to view complicated factors of motivation and choice.

  • Why we are wrong when we think we are right (Chaehan So) – The influence of impressions can have an intense impact on judgment of right and wrong. Confirmation bias plays heavily into people’s assessments and can easily cloud the real situation.  Much of judgment involves making quick predictions about outcomes and relying on overt or unconscious biases to guide expectations without really doing a true, substantive investigation into the truth of the situation.  Therefore, people often mistake right for wrong or vice versa.  Changing instinctive ideas is very challenging as these preconceptions are deeply-rooted; however, understanding that these instincts exist and affect our judgment is crucial in working toward better decision-making.


  • Moral luck (Neilandri Sinhababu) – Neilandri Sinhababu introduces the paradoxical and even confounding concept of moral luck.  Sinhababu challenges the dual assignments of good and moral, validly questioning whether an action that is one is somehow inherently the other all of the time.  The difference in judgement may hinge upon the importance of ultimate consequences in determining “good” action versus the emphasis on initial intentions in “moral” action.  In an approach which seeks to solve an ethical dilemma – and one that would be most appropriate for corporate compliance programs, incidentally – one must consider both intentions and consequences to reach for the best available result.  Therefore hoping to get “lucky” with results that match earnest intentions would not be as necessary because the compatibility with possible outcomes would have already been considered and taken into account when making the risks of any of the choices.

  • Moral behavior in animals (Frans de Waal) – Finally, for something entirely different, check out this talk from Frans de Waal on the surprising moral traits that humans and animals seem to share. While morality and ethics are not universal because they are heavily tied to many varying factors and beliefs that come from people’s different social and cultural backgrounds, there are some behaviors with moral implications or subtexts which seem to be natural or innate.  It is interesting to consider these traits that seem distinctly human, but can also be exhibited by animals, in light of advancements in technology and the narrowing gap between natural (human) learning and artificial (machine) learning.  If the morality of animals is any indication, human consciousness and moral codes may be challenged and surprised by the ethics machines are taught or adopt.

Despite the questionable application of these views on “right” versus “wrong,” so many social and cultural norms and expectations are based upon this that it is impractical to ignore them.  Instead, these preconceptions need to be contemplated and challenged, to understand what is universal and useful, and to parse that from that which is unrepresentative and unhelpful.

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