Saturday, March 14, 2009

What if Madoff Took an Ethics Class?

Here's what Michael Madoff said in court on Thursday:
"I knew what I was doing was wrong, indeed criminal. When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly and I would be able to extricate myself and my clients. As the years went by I realized this day, and my arrest, would inevitably come. I cannot adequately express how sorry I am for what I have done."
Would it have made a difference if he'd studied ethics in college or business school?

Not a bit!

Ethics courses don't create character. Madoff knew what was right but chose to do wrong. No course would have prevented that. I'm sure he'd heard Deuteronomy 30:19 many times in Sunday School and Synagogue:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life - if you and your offspring would live...
But if his family (his brother and two sons were in the business) and employees had studied ethics, that might have made a difference.

Madoff claims that he alone is responsible for the crimes he committed and that no one else was in on it. Even if we accept that implausible claim, it's hard to believe that no one ever felt a quiver of uneasiness over the years. That's where ethics class could have helped.

In medical ethics teaching, most time is spent on teasing out the pros and cons of complex ethical conundrums. But in real life recognizing and acknowledging that there is a conundrum that requires contemplation is as important as the way we reason about it. Concluding that we should question the status quo is the starting point for ethical wisdom. Questioning isn't a wishy-washy academic exercise - recall that the Athenians put Socrates to death for prodding its youth to do just that.

I've been trying to pay more attention to this "pre-analytic" phase of ethical self-management my section of the required first year class on "Medical Ethics and Professionalism" at Harvard Medical School. In the class we try to identify our "gut feelings" about the topics we discuss, not because they are infallible moral intuitions - they're not - but because things we feel, even subliminally, are like divining rods pointing us towards something requiring our attention. We recurrently try to identify the emotions that are stirred by the issues we discuss and then to ask - "what values are behind this reaction?" When we identify the values driving the emotions we can ask - "do we endorse these values or do we want to modify or reject them?"

Even if we take Madoff's implausible claim that he alone "knew" about the Ponzi scheme at face value, there's no way that his family and employees could not have felt glimmerings like "something seems funny here," or, more personally, "Dad seems preoccupied - something's bothering him." It's not unreasonable to hope that a person who did not share Madoff's criminal intent would take feelings like this as a signal to dig deeper, and that digging deeper would have brought the scheme to light earlier.

Our only partly verbalized feelings sometimes mean nothing very special, sometimes give us information about ourselves, but sometimes, as in the history of Madoff's swindle, should have triggered inquiry on the part of an employee or family member. This is what we try to model and practice in the ethics class.

If I were to learn in the future that one of my students had done the equivalent of working for Madoff without getting agitated and active, I'd give myself an F- as a teacher!

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