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Podcast: What Is the Path to Leading an Ethical Life?

Podcast: What Is the Path to Leading an Ethical Life?

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Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

and Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D, J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Many people try to lead an ethical life and do the “right thing” in every situation. But taking the right action based on one’s ethics and making decisions isn’t always easy or straightforward.

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Understanding ethics and the logic people use to guide them in decision-making is extremely complicated. In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer interviews Dr. Gary Deel about how to better understand the circumstances and challenges that surround ethics. Listen to learn more about how ethical standards have changed over time, how ethical standards may differ in a person’s professional and personal life, and why adages like the “golden rule” cannot always provide the basis for reliability.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Dr. Gary Deel, Faculty Director in the School of Business.

And today, we’re talking about the complexities of business ethics. Welcome, Gary.

Dr. Gary Deel: Thanks for having me, Bjorn. It’s nice to be here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And just to jump into it — really excited about this — you’re launching your own podcast channel here at APUS. Can you give everyone an overview of what it’ll look like?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, that’s right. I’m really excited about it and grateful to have the opportunity, and thanks for the opportunity to talk about it here. So the podcast working title that we’re developing is called Intellectible, which is sort of one of those urban dictionary terms that means able to be deduced or parsed through the intellect reasoning rather than intuition. And I think that really speaks to the heart of the podcast’s aim.

We are targeting a launch hopefully in late June or early July, and the focus will be really diverse and interdisciplinary. We certainly will have components of business, which is my background, law, which is also another life of mine.

Space studies, of course, I went through the program here at APUS for undergrad and graduate degrees in aerospace. So we’ll be including a guest of that nature, but really we’re looking for anybody and everybody who has an expertise or a pioneering thought perspective in their various disciplines.

So we hope to be talking about art and culture and medicine and science and philosophy, religion, and to really bring in different viewpoints to gain insights into public discourse. So I’m really looking forward to it. And again, thank you for letting me introduce it here on your podcast.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That sounds absolutely wonderful. I really loved your series on the Indian space program, and so I think there’s a huge thirst for knowledge. It sounds funny saying that, but one of the wonderful things about podcasts is that people can be introduced to topics that they just don’t know anything about. And so I think your podcast will be wonderful.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. I’m hoping it’ll be interesting to many, so we’ll find out soon.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. Of course, today we’re talking about the complexities of business ethics. And so let’s jump right into my first question. How can people lead an ethical life?

Dr. Gary Deel: In 10 seconds or less?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: In however long you want it. Ethics is challenging. It means many things to many people.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So go ahead and yeah, go for it.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely. Well, I’ll take a stab at it, and I’ll certainly say that this requires a lot of unpacking. You’ve got to define terms in terms of what ethics and morality means, but I think if I could prescribe one takeaway from an investigation into ethics is that one really needs to be adaptable to different circumstances and different challenges that will be faced. A classic example of that that is often cited in public discourse and conversation is that people like to live by what they define as the golden rule.

And you may derive this golden rule from religious belief or from philosophical undertaking, but essentially this golden rule is the idea that we ought to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And that lasts and holds true and has some ethical reliability to a point, but I’m reminded of an essay that was written by a hero of mine, Dr. Carl Sagan. This is back in the 20th century.

He died in the ‘90s, unfortunately, but he wrote an essay about the limited usefulness of these ethical rules and I ended up adapting some of that work into an article here for APUS.

What he pointed out is that, look, there are rules from the golden rule to the silver rule, bronze, tin, iron and so on and so forth, and I don’t know how much of those we want to unpack today. But essentially there’s different prescriptions for how to respond to stimuli in your life, what the appropriate or morally right thing to do is.

And we could argue a point, so I might be tempted to think that the golden rule is always an adequate approach. It’s always acceptable, and it always gets you into the end zone of whatever goal you’re trying to achieve for righteousness.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but the classic example that is used to sort of undermine this and where that house of cards collapses. As you think about an example where you’re being threatened by violence, your very survival is in jeopardy from the outside. I often use the example — when I talk about this— of World War II.

You could arguably use any ferocious dictator that really needs to be put in check, but you can think about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and their aim for Lebensraum, to control the world, conquer everyone who didn’t agree with their philosophical beliefs.

Well, if the Allied powers in that circumstance adopted a perspective of golden rule, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, we would never have fought back. We would never have brought violence against the Nazis or the Axis powers.

We recognized, however, that it was necessary to the survival of the free and peaceful world that we did engage in violence with the Nazis to defend that world from the corruption of the Third Reich. And so this was ultimately again, a necessary evil, and you can find examples where that is in fact morally the prudent thing to do, despite the fact that it flies in the face of the golden rule.

That’s more an example of, you might say, the silver rule rather than bronze rule, do unto others as they do on to you, right? An eye for an eye, so to speak, the Hammurabi Code.

But again, that doesn’t always hold weight in every situation either. So reliance on one sort of slogan that you can fit on a bumper sticker on the back of your car is probably not an ethically safe way to lead your life. Because every circumstance will dictate a different analysis of the facts and circumstances that need to be analyzed when you’re deciding how to act.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, like you said, there’s a lot to unpack there. One of the things I really like what you said was how people act because of their religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs. Now, do you think people understand the difference between what it means to be ethical and what it means to be moral?

Dr. Gary Deel: I think on the whole, I think people tend to blur those concepts and merge them in the sense of their own mind. It’s kind of like — if I can use an analogy to the idea of common sense — the words, common sense, come out of people’s mouths on a daily basis.

Universally, everybody cites this as the natural obvious path forward for any decision. It’s just common sense.

But we know from social sciences research that common sense is not common. The perspectives that we share are different, they’re very diverse from one individual to the next. They’re a product of your upbringing, your genealogy, first of all, before you ever entered the world.

Then every experience you’ve ever had on this planet up to the moment that you’re faced with that decision at hand. And so people say, we’ll just use your common sense or the staple sort of adage, the old wisdom of “just do what’s right.” Do what you feel is right.

Well, the problem is what is naturally or inherently or intuitively right to you may not be naturally or inherently or intuitively right to me. And so you find examples of this. I explained to people and I use the World War II example as another point of reference.

I say to people, “Look, most modern people who have some sense of history and look at the Nazi German perspective on the world and the Holocaust and these ideals as evil, then they would look at Adolf Hitler as the spearhead of those who espoused those beliefs as an evil person with an evil agenda.” But the question is, if you talked to Hitler, if you could ask Hitler at that moment — “Do you think you’re evil? Do you believe that what you’re espousing, what you believe in, and what you’re trying to thrust forth onto the world is evil?” — I’d bet everything I have that the answer would be no.

So virtually everyone in this world, save for the most abject psychopaths, act in a way that they believe is appropriate under the circumstances. Whether it’s self-interest or it’s interest in others is sort of a sub-route off of that, but most people act in a way that they believe is the appropriate conduct. The problem is, that that conduct becomes twisted by their own worldview.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like that you brought up Nazis. They’re [a] wonderful example of what a lot of people think of as the embodiment of evil, but I also liked the fact that you brought up, if you were talking to a Nazi back then, would they say, “Hey, yeah, I’m evil”?

No, of course they wouldn’t. And so ethics is very malleable and especially malleable over time, but what are your thoughts about how ethics have changed from say, generation to generation?

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. I think the ethics have to evolve in the course of societal understanding of the world and the causes and conditions of wellbeing. And I think that that’s primarily the guiding light behind that evolution.

Dr. Sam Harris, who runs a podcast himself called “Making Sense” as it would humorously go with my last points about this idea of common sense. But he is a neuroscientist and a philosopher and an author who’s done a lot of podcasts, and he did several TED talks.

One of which I believe back in 2010, 2011, timeframe was entitled “Science Can Answer Moral Questions” or something to that effect. I may not be doing it justice, but the main idea behind this TED talk, which I really enjoyed, was the idea that our understanding of the world, the causes and conditions of human well-being and welfare inform our sense of morality. And there is an objective morality, and people are somewhat resistant or reluctant to admit this about morality.

We’re tempted to say that there’s really no truths to be known that are objective about morality. That just comes down to subjective perspective and that’s it. And in his TED talk, Harris basically breaks down how you can take any example you want, and there are always going to be caveats where you can say, well, there’s more than one way to suffer, and there’s more than one way to prosper in life.

But there are truths to be known about things that are objectively immoral and objectively moral in this world, when it comes to murder and rape and poison and arson. And the kinds of things where we can all agree that there are no set of circumstances under which certain conduct could be justified.

Although we may agree or disagree about how we move forward toward a more moral society, there are certain things we can cross off the list as a foundation to say, “Look, there is objective morality and there are truths to be known here.” So I think that really goes toward the evolution of societal values in the context of the difference if you were to look from a thousand years ago to the world today, we’ve changed irreconcilably in some ways, in terms of the way that our society operates in the modern world.

And it’s because, for the most part by my assessment, we’ve established what things work for society, what things lead to a more prosperous society, where more people experience better levels of well-being, better levels of healthcare, more likely to be able to get access to food, not suffering unnecessarily. And we’ve abandoned certain things that we believe that we’ve established at this point are no longer conducive to those kinds of circumstances.

So you could pick those at random, but you could say, stoning people for their beliefs is probably not conducive to well-being. Using leeching for diseases and people suffering from medical conditions.

We’ve well established that that kind of bloodletting situation does not help the circumstances. So whether it be in medical science — or again, public affairs and public policy — we’ve learned over time through the methods of critical thinking and the scientific method at that. We understand through experiment what works and what doesn’t, and we’’ve kept the things that work.

And we’ve abandoned those that don’t, and it’s all for the better. It’s still a work in progress, but that’s really been responsible for the evolution of our ethical prescriptions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like that you said things changed over a thousand years, and it makes me think of in the past where a certain culture would have some sort of sacrifice to the gods or even worse, some sort of child sacrifice to the gods and how today, that of course is important. From an ethical perspective, how do you think the past came to that — I guess we can say conclusion — that this was right to do?

Dr. Gary Deel: I think that for the most part, the religious conscriptions that called for behavior that we would identify today as ludicrous were arguments from ignorance made out of fear, out of desperation and the comfort of not knowing or not being able to explain something. It’s funny you mentioned the sacrifice element, because I think that was, if I recall correctly, that was a point that Harris made in his TED talk.

If not there, then in one of his books I’ve read about the fact that people in certain civilizations would sacrifice children and bury their corpses beneath the post holes of buildings in the belief that the sacrifice would appease the gods and prevent the gods from destroying their buildings with earthquakes or fires, or what have you. And again, most modern rational people today would look at that as abhorrent, intolerable behavior that we’re ashamed to even have in our genetic lineage.

How did we even get there in the first place? It’s sort of the question that you’re asking. And I think it’s part of the human condition that we’re uncomfortable.

And again, at this point, I should admit, I’m borrowing a quote from Dr. Neil Tyson who’s an astronomer and an author, but I believe this is a direct quote from him. “We are uncomfortable steeped in ignorance.” We are uncomfortable with the idea of not knowing something. This is where again, by my assessment, most religious beliefs, including the belief in a deity or deities, depending on your religious conscriptions, where they derive them from.

Essentially, it’s the idea that “Look, I can’t explain this phenomenon. It scares me that I can’t explain it.” And that’s understandable because again, evolutionarily, we’re wired to fear what we don’t understand. And that has implications of all of the conflict we’ve had in society over the generations, whether it be based on race or civilizations and the conquering of peoples that are different from us.

So that’s part of our evolutionary hardwiring, but then you look to how does that apply itself to things that there’s no boogeyman to attack. If you think about the European world conquering the Americas 5(00)-600 years ago, there was a scapegoat there, and that was the native people. You know, it was that we needed to subdue them and control them and take our rightful place as the owners of this new land, when it comes to questions of “how did we get here and what happens after we die?”

And you know, all these really big-scale, large-scale questions, we find that there’s no one to place our anger with. There’s no one to point that finger as being responsible for our frustration, with not knowing the answers to those questions.

So where do we go with that? We’re left with answers that we don’t have. And so again, we revert naturally understandably so to a comforting what Dr. Sagan would refer to as a comforting fable, right?

The idea that it reassures us, whether it’s true or not is yet to be determined in most cases, but it gives us some sense of comfort that we’re not completely blind going into this situation. And we don’t have an explanation for the great things and the horrible things, right? That happened in the world that there’s some sense of order to the world.

So when great things happen, we can attribute that to our God or our gods or our belief system. When terrible things happen, we can attribute that to mystery.

And this is part of the problem with the logic of many modern belief systems, is that it tries to have it both ways in that sense. But what you also run into in those circumstances is what’s commonly referred to as a “God of the gaps” theory, which is the issue is when we do understand those phenomena, that at the time you did not, you question again, that house of cards that you’ve built your belief systems on.

So today, we’re not tempted to sacrifice people or animals in most of the modern world, I should say, in service to deities over things like storms or droughts or earthquakes. There was a time of course, when we didn’t understand those phenomena at all. And so because we didn’t understand them and they were frightening, we contrived stories that allowed us to understand them through the lens of worshiping a higher power that controls these forces. It never worked, but that was our theory and it gave us some comfort at the time.

Now in the 21st century, we understand what causes these things, weather and climate and geological forces, and so there’s no longer a need for the imposition of some deity there, or some belief system. And so as Dr. Neil Tyson says this God of the gaps theory holds that your belief system becomes this ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, where we don’t understand this yet.

Today, it’s where did life arise? How does life begin? And we’ve not yet in the labs been able to reproduce where the first life sprang up.

And so religious people are still quite happy clinging to the idea that it’s Genesis. “God did it, and I’m okay with that.”

Until we have an answer that of course is better than that, that until it explains scientifically how this phenomena arose, where did the universe come from? We have our Big Bang theory, but there’s still questions to be answered there. What happened before the Big Bang? There’s more research going on there.

And so, as long as folks who are clinging to religious beliefs in that context are not obstructing those in the scientific field who are looking for answers. I have no quarrel with it, but as Dr. Tyson has said in many a lecture, “Be prepared for that moment, as has come time and time and time again, over the centuries, when those things we formally did not have answers to suddenly have answers and then we’re left in this space where you have to question everything you’ve believed in and why, because those things you ascribed to either your God or your belief system in general are now suspect.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So how can people lead an ethically professional life? And so I think for many people, their personal life has some kind of concrete, ethical guidelines and some moral guidelines too, which comes from their religion or their own philosophical approach to life. But when it comes to their professional life, is it sometimes a little more flexible?

Dr. Gary Deel: I think it certainly can be. I think it depends on the individual and their own moral and ethical compasses. I think in the professional world, we are motivated by extrinsic factors that are absent in other moral questions in our lives that we don’t necessarily have operating on our decision-making systems.

So in a capitalist environment such as the United States, and I should caveat by saying that I’m not here to criticize capitalism. I think it works well for its purposes. It’s not perfect, but it is a system that has brought us a lot of economic prosperity over the years.

Nonetheless, it creates an incentive for people to do things that are arguably unethical in the interest of economic prosperity, whether it be profitability or improvement of their own quality of life. And so then you have to ask yourself, well, where does that come from? And how do we fix it?

Part of the work that I do outside of my work at American Public University is as an expert witness. And so I testify regularly in court cases that involve injuries and accidents and unethical conduct of a criminal nature.

So I’ve been involved in sexual assault and theft and robbery cases, and testified on a lot of these things. And you learn in the discourse of this kind of work, what motivates people.

A lot of times, it’s just desperation. It’s not a self-perspective of being evil. It’s a perspective of having no other way out and being forced into a difficult choice. And who can’t empathize with that?

I mean, we’ve all been desperate at different times in our lives. It doesn’t mean it justifies the conduct, but again, people who engage in unethical behavior, whether that unethical behavior rises to the level of criminal conduct or not, will often attempt to justify their behavior in a variety of ways.

Again, that could be “I’m desperate and I have no other choice.” It could be loyalty to a person or to an organization, a sense of obligation to perhaps the company that you work for, if your loyalty lies with them, because they’ve been good to you.

And you’re in charge of, say, financial reporting. And you feel like a little bit of dishonesty or perhaps deception in the financial reporting of your company is justified on the grounds that you owe them that, right?

So there’s a lot of different ways to parse that. And I’m not condoning any of that behavior, but I’m saying once again, repeating my premise that people will justify professional unethical behavior in a way that I think they don’t have the leverage to in their personal lives, because there aren’t all these extrinsic factors on that decision-making system.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is absolutely spot on. It makes me think of, it’s almost like countless examples in the business world of unethical behaviors where the origins of, say the unethical practices or the behaviors, were probably very small. An example when VW got in trouble for, I guess what’s the proper thing, misreporting.

Dr. Gary Deel: Cheating, the EPA regulations.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. Changing the EPA regulations. And it probably started in a boring meeting where one engineer said, “Hey, it’s not as good as possible.”

And then maybe the director of that said, “Well, let’s just fudge this a little because I want to keep my bonus.” I’m being — maybe I’m totally guessing here — but it wasn’t some big scheme originally. And then years and years go by and then the lie becomes so ingrained that somebody eventually has to be the whistleblower. And whoever does that is going to lose their job.

Dr. Gary Deel: Right. I think agency plays a big part in that as well. And that’s where we sort of run into the analogy of the Milgram experiments, which if listeners are not aware, were done in the mid-20th century as an attempt to understand what people are and are not willing to do based on authority from someone else taking responsibility for their actions.

And so again, this has implications that goes back to the Nazis. And really anything that anyone has ever done in the name of someone else on someone else’s order.

And so, Milgram connected people to what they believed were electrodes. And they questioned people and made people believe that they were actually torturing other human beings in the interest of science.

And what we learned from that experience was two things. One is that people will do extremely horrible things because someone else tells them to, as long as they don’t have to take personal accountability for their actions.

And number two, that we really can’t do that research anymore, at least in the way that, that it was done there because you end up causing people severe, psychological and emotional harm, even after you tell them that the whole thing was a ruse, that it was not real. So I think that your VW example has strong implications. Because if it was an executive — and I didn’t trace that investigation down to the source — but if it was one individual, maybe on the board of directors or one manager who said “This is the direction we’re going to take,” everyone else who’s carrying out that order on the marching line, so to speak, argues in their own head to rationalize this conduct.

I didn’t make this decision. I’m just an employee. I’m just a cog in this machine. This was not my idea and therefore I have no authorship or responsibility for the unethical nature or lack thereof with respect to what we’re doing.” And so people will often do that. They abdicate responsibility because it wasn’t they who started it in the first place.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly, and that was my premise there just guessing that it probably started from a boring meeting somewhere in VW versus everybody’s scheming to break the rules. And it really makes me think, and I’m glad, of course, you brought up the Nazis because it was a good example.

And one of the things that I think today, movies, media stories does an injustice is they always view and portray Nazis as evil, but they weren’t. Germans were not evil, of course. Germans were just regular Germans, but the decisions of individual people were so horrific and then everybody went along with it.

And just like you said, individuals basically said, “Well, this is my job. I’m not doing this and I’m not directly contributing to the hordes.” And I know during post-World War II, there’s a lot of reporting where the Germans said, “Well, we didn’t know that was going on.”

Well, I’m sure a lot of people did know what was going on, but it wasn’t to them and at the time there’d be so much fear that what would be the benefit. And so everybody’s own personal ethics would have to be malleable. And then also if you want to describe like the corporate ethics of the Nazis at the time were just horrible, but they were also going in a way in which they thought was right.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, it’s a passive acquiescence, and I can almost empathize with people at the time who declined to speak up or rebel, for fear that obviously they would be silenced in the worst ways. And so they reasoned with themselves, you know, “What good does this do for anybody other than my own self-sacrifice in the name of moral conviction? But I’m not going to help, I’m certainly not going to be able to stop this movement on my own. I’m just going to basically sign my own death warrant by speaking out, and again, I wasn’t the one who authored this.” But I’m reminded of the — I’m going to butcher it, but the Spiderman adage there — that those with power to do something have responsibility to do something.

So there’s a bit of that in play there that I think the accountability was missing. And when you look at the number of trials and the recordings of those who were sentenced and they maintain their innocence on the grounds, even those who were administering the Holocaust concentration camps, the death camps, maintain their innocence on the grounds that it was not their idea. They were following orders from the right.

Again, the jury was unsympathetic for obvious reasons. But in their own minds, they had convinced themselves that they had zero accountability for this kind of situation. But it’s interesting that we can talk about the Nazis in that context, and I often will put my students in my classrooms back on their heels by talking about Hitler in flattering ways that are unexpected. And so I will talk about Hitler to the extent that he was a brilliant orator for his time.

And my students will often recoil and say, “How can you say anything nice about him?!” And I say, “Look, I’m no fan of the guy’s philosophy or psychology. I think he was a horrible human being and I think we can all agree on that, but with respect to his ability to persuade people from the time before he rose to power as the Fuhrer, if you understand, and you read Mein Kompf enough to understand his rise to power and what was responsible for that, he was a brilliant speaker.”

And so I often talk about Martin Luther King in my class. And then I talk about him as an example of how that persuasion can be twisted to convince people to do horrible things.

And I say to my classes often when I’m speaking and lecturing in class, I say, “Consider how persuasive I would be, how charismatic I would have to be, to convince you all that the right thing to do, the moral right thing for us to do is to go to the next classroom and kill everyone inside because they’re different than us.”

They all look at me like I have five heads. And then I say, “Consider that this is what happened on the scale of a continent in Europe, where people got behind this ideology over time, because it slowly infested in their brains and someone really talented at selling that idea was behind the microphone.” And so there’s a lot in play there.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, there is. It would be, I think, better, better education if we talked about that time period in a much more realistic way. And for our blockbuster Nazis is always bad, of course.

It helped create an absolute evil, which is very easy from a storytelling device, but the reality is very, very different. It is very, very messy.

Dr. Gary Deel: You know, it’s funny. I was just talking about this with a few colleagues of mine, and we were all fans of the Marvel cinematic universe and the movies that have come out.

And so we were all hyped up to see the “Avengers: Endgame” movie last year, which I thought was phenomenal. I saw it several times in theaters.

But one of the things that, when we were discussing, why did we think the movie was so powerful? Why did we think the overarching story of, in this case, the villain, being Thanos, was so captivating?

And I don’t know if you’ve followed the Marvel universe or seen the movies or not, but essentially what we noticed in this discussion was that it’s not an absolute evil for evil’s sake, right? Most villains are kind of simple in the sense that it’s almost insulting how bad their motives are. It’s just, “I’m going to conquer the world because I feel like it.”

And in this case, in the Marvel cinematic universe, I think what made it so compelling is that, from a certain point of view, you can almost empathize with what Thanos was trying to accomplish. He wanted to achieve balance in the universe and his whole idea, for anyone who doesn’t follow Marvel, was to eliminate half of all life in the universe.

Not because he was a murderous psychopath, but because he wanted the other half to have the freedom and the resources to be able to live prosperous, happy lives. That was the whole end goal for him. And that this in his mind, in his twisted mind, was the only way to accomplish that.

So that was where he erred. But insofar as the goal of achieving happiness for half of the universe is concerned, you kind of look at it and then you go, “Yeah, I can empathize with that and I understand where he’s coming from.”

And that made him such a more profound character to identify with in the movie. Even though he’s still the bad guy, we looked at that as well, so much more compelling than the average run of the mill “I just kill people because I’m evil.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, it’s true. I think if you look at Justice League with the bad guy of the Justice League.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Typical bad guy, really. No motivation besides “I’m going to take over everything.”

Dr. Gary Deel: Right. Exactly.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: From a cinematic or just a pure storytelling perspective, you’re not doing anybody any good by writing such….

Dr. Gary Deel: It’s kind of lazy.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. It’s completely lazy. And people much like the Marvel universe, and the Marvel universe I think is successful because of the writing, honestly.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: They put a lot of time into the writing and it’s something where DC, I think, is severely lacking for whatever intentions they originally had. But an ethical challenge also I think about recently was Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” where a lot of people have attacked that for some of the data being old, but also because in that documentary and some of the people talking were talking about, well, the problem here is really there’s too many humans on the planet. And so then people automatically thought, “Oh, well, this documentary is saying there should be less humans.”

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Which is in line Thanos.

Dr. Gary Deel: Right, yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Potentially to have a more, let’s say, prosperous or successful or happy or existence resources should not be as limited, but also one thing about that documentary is that it doesn’t go full Thanos.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah. Well, I think the difference, I mean, in the Marvel universe, people have criticized the storyline and sort of the incongruencies in Thanos is thinking because if the rules of the Infinity Gauntlet are as they purport them to be, why doesn’t he just double the resources and not kill anybody?

So we on Earth don’t have the luxury of that kind of decision making, which would make the more moral answer so much more obvious. But everything that I’ve seen from a scientific perspective leads me to believe that the Earth is capable of supporting as many as we have in terms of the human population and far more, if we only operate in such a way that we maintain our resources in a responsible way, that we leverage ingenuity from science and technology, that we don’t pollute our environment and make it uninhabitable for the next generations.

But it seems to me — at least in the modern time — we’re seeing a resurgence of this that worries me. We are inextricably tied. We are prisoners to our emotional reptilian brain. That amygdala component that we just can’t escape and get past it to a more — if I can use the term “Dr. Spock-like,” whoever gets it — rationalize the world in a more clear and objective way.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t relish our emotions and enjoy the feelings we have, but they often work against us when it comes to making good decisions. Because there’s so much infighting today around this team versus that team versus this country, that country, this political party, that political party.

And we lose sight of the fact that we are all passengers on this planet through the universe. And we have to make smart decisions, not based on foolish intuition, but based on, again, the methods of critical thinking and science that have led us to survive and evolve and develop our civilization to what it is today.

And if we abandon those now, particularly in light of the fact that we are harboring these weapons of mass destruction, that we cannot uninvent. I think that we are creating a recipe for disaster by abandoning our logic and our reasoning at a time when we really need it the most.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, that’s very well put. The ethical direction, I guess you could say of the United States after World War II, for [the] most part was pretty commendable. There’s a lot of caveats there.

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: But in the direction of individual liberty, the ability to have a good life for hopefully most people, it was very good. And it also allowed that the individual was not the most important person and it was more of the collective. And that’s where we can go on about political ethics and how our current political system is — I won’t say broken because obviously it’s not broken — but it’s very fractured.

Dr. Gary Deel: I agree. And I wrote a four-or five-part series for one of the APUS publications on my thoughts on reforming American democracy for the better. It is a very tough question because I think we have a good system.

We don’t have a great system. There are a lot of issues that in a lot of ways in which we could improve it, but there’s so many moving parts that, if you pull out one piece of that Jenga puzzle, other things start to collapse.

And so it becomes a real quagmire to figure out how to make it better. And then of course you need support of people who you have no chance of aligning with in this movement.

So it becomes really difficult. I enjoyed on — I think it’s on Netflix, there’s Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States.” I think it’s something to that respect is the title.

Basically, it goes through the history, most of the 20th century and into the 21st century, of our foreign policy, our domestic policy, and without any lens of patriotism or fidelity to one’s nation. And I appreciated that because I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud of our country.

But to your point earlier, we’ve certainly made some mistakes. I don’t think we’ve made more mistakes than good moves, but I think we’ve made some mistakes that some people are as yet still reluctant to acknowledge.

And that documentary series was a really great way of just kind of shining the light on some things that we’ve swept under the rug. Vietnam, that was just kind of a thing that nobody wants to talk about any more in terms of why we were there and what we were doing.

But it was a really big deal if you’re someone who lives in Vietnam and remembers that era in time as the imperialist occupation of your country. So it all comes from the perspective that you saw that time period in.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. I think for so many people, they need to be able to have an honest conversation about American exceptionalism, as it’s stated, and also ways to improve and to acknowledge the past, the treatment of indigenous tribes in the US and the history of that.

Something that of course has to be talked about, the ethical implications of that, of course, slavery, of course, the ethical implications of that. There’s just so much that we could talk about when it comes to ethics and the changing ethics throughout the years.

Dr. Gary Deel: Absolutely.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: For the last question: How do you apply ethics to your teaching?

Dr. Gary Deel: Well, insofar as teaching ethics is concerned, my goal as an instructor, as a teacher, is to open the minds of my students to different perspectives that inevitably will help you to grow in analyzing future ethical situations in your own life. So I often advise and counsel my students, if you really want to understand the world as best you can, right? And there’s no objective lens for that, but if you really want to broaden your perspective, find people who disagree with you on issues, but can do so respectfully.

And I think that that’s a really key thing because we’re losing that in society. And I hope we see a resurgence of this, but we are losing the ability to sit down at a table with someone and disagree on religious perspectives or political perspectives or any hot-button issue, and then be able to get up from the table, shake hands with that individual and remain friends.

And so I often encourage my students, if you’re progressive liberal Democrat, find conservative Republican friends who you can have respectful conversations with. And if you are a conservative Republican, do the opposite.

Look, the reality is that unfortunately, some people are incapable of doing that. And so if your friends or family are not the kind of people who are capable of having a conversation, sitting down at the table, being respectful, not creating ad hominems and calling names and animosity.

If those are the people in your circle, find other people, because those conversations won’t be productive. But if you can find people who can focus on the issue and not the person and seek to learn, not to win an argument, but to learn, then I think you can really grow your moral compass.

So this is what we in my management ethics class — for example, MGMT618 — hear at APUS. I redesigned the course a few years ago. And we focus really on those different ethical principles, the different moral rules that people attempt to live by.

Again — as I mentioned earlier in the podcast — the Sagan rules that are broken down from the metals, the golden, the silver, the bronze, the tin, the iron and so on. And you begin to see, through examples, how these things break down. They are not stalwarts of perfect moral guidance.

Eventually at some point, they will fail. And then you need to be adaptable enough to realize when they’re no longer useful and move on to the next tool in your kit. So I think my main goal as a teacher of ethics insofar as my curriculum, concerns, ethics, and morality is to encourage people to think outside the box of the ways that they may have been brought up or their religious belief system may guide them.

Because people end up in this tunnel where they’re only seeing what they’ve always seen. And they look for this confirmation bias everywhere.

There’s a comedian, Bill Burr, who I enjoy. And he says, “People in politics or in religion, they live in this circle where they see something on TV, and then they go to the internet and they go to imright.com.” Whatever they get is just an echo chamber of what they already thought was true, and it really exists.

I’m not demonizing one side of the political or religious spectrum over any other, because I think that all are susceptible to this, some more than others, certainly. But in that world, anyone can suffer confirmation bias.

And so if you’re aware of it, and you ought to be — if you’re a human living in the modern world and you’re not aware that you have a confirmation bias — the first thing you need to do is understand what a confirmation bias is and be able to admit to yourself that you are biased by virtue of your lens on the world being different than everyone else’s. People who did not grow up in your neighborhood with your community, with your family, with your friends, and share your experiences.

No one has that lens that you have, and you are then, by definition, biased. And everything else you see in the world.

Now, I’m not saying that you should be ashamed of that. But you should acknowledge it and in acknowledging it, you seek to counter it by working towards finding other ways to see the world than the one that you’re sort of inherently carrying with you from day to day. So that’s my main aim whenever I’m teaching these subjects in my classes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. And I really like how you said, have conversations with people who disagree with you because that’s the most important thing. I think over the last few years, maybe [a] decade or so, there’s been a perspective of life is Twitter, where somebody tweets something and then a mob attacks you.

In reality, life is not Twitter. It is completely okay to have conversations with people on the left, people in the right, people in the center. 

As an example, whenever I read articles, I read articles at FOX, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Reason.com, FOX News. You have to read things all across the spectrum.

Dr. Gary Deel: Sure.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: You especially need to read things that challenge you. And you might initially say, “I do not agree with this.” But if you could read something and get too wide, that writer, that thinker is making a point, you can then understand them better. And you might actually be persuaded.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, I think the defensiveness and the rejection is part of the natural human reaction to a threat. And in this case, it’s not a physical threat, but we perceive it in the same way. It’s an intellectual threat that if done in a public place or in a public setting, threatens our integrity in the eyes of the rest of the population that we have to co-inhabit this planet with. And so we fear that confrontation and having to admit, this is one of the things where I sort of have a controversial view on debates.

We started a debate series here at APUS several years ago, and it’s been great and we have another episode coming up here on June 10th in the School of Business. And I love that spirited discussion of a disagreement of ideas, because some people are afraid to disagree, period, for fear of just offending someone.

The first problem you need to overcome is you need to have the courage to be able to speak your mind and share different ideas in a respectful way, and disagree with people and trust that they will respect you enough to not take that personally.

But the second piece is that, if you are shown to be wrong or convinced to be wrong about an idea through what someone else shares with you, and there’s some communication, you owe it to yourself and to everyone else around you to have the courage, to admit that and to acknowledge it.

And I believe it was one of the ancient Greek philosophers — you might know better than I do — who viewed an argument or a debate in such a way that, if you enter that argument with someone and walk away from it, having new information, meaning you were shown to have been wrong previously, and that person corrected your point of view, well, you benefited from that discussion. They didn’t because they just confirmed what they already knew, but you are now the beneficiary of new information. And so you should be proud of that.

Having walked away with something you didn’t have when you went into it, rather than being ashamed of the idea of having to correct oneself. I saw an article just yesterday or the day before this was regarding the Vice President Biden’s comment about African-Americans not “being black,” if they voted conservative, Republican or something to that effect.

And he was actually applauded by several media outlets in these articles for having the courage to walk that back and say “I was wrong. I’ve made a mistake. This was a poor choice of words, and I apologize.”

Because that’s something that in politics, in particular, in religion, in particular, and in many other spheres of our discourse today, people are just absolutely reluctant to do, even if you can see it in their eyes, that they have realized that they were mistaken, they will fight you to the cliff and go right off of it, defending the bad ideas that they had to begin with, for fear of letting any pride slip in that moment.

And I think that that’s really dangerous in a democracy. We’ve got to be able to admit when we make mistakes and realize it’s okay to be wrong. Part of the process of being human is learning new things.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And it really makes me think how people can think that they’re correct. Say when there are ideas originally form while they’re in their 20s, and that it’s never going to change.

Dr. Gary Deel: Right. Yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: We’re always evolving as far as our thoughts and ideas.

Dr. Gary Deel: Well, whenever I have political conversations with those I disagree with, I ask them — I tend to lean to the left. And so we talk a lot about national politics and even state-level politics and folks on the right have their candidates.

And I’m fine with that. But I say to them, “Look, what would it take? Tell me what new information you would need to have for you to change your view on this individual, on this candidate,” whether it be Trump or anybody else with respect to the way that they feel about that person. And from time to time, I will find people who struggle with the idea of just having to contemplate what would be necessary for them to have a change of heart.

And you can notice in real time, this sort of epiphany that takes place, where they go, “Wow, this is kind of dangerous for me to be at such a point of, whether it’s idolatry or just a loyalty to a particular political figure,” that they themselves cannot think of a circumstance in which this person could do or say something sufficient to cause them to lose that person’s support.

There’s that moment of reality setting in where it’s like, “Wow, maybe I need to rethink my criteria here across the board.” Because every belief that we have, no matter how foundational, should be subject to new evidence. We should be open to the possibility that that could be revised. If something tomorrow were to happen, that would cause us to have to rethink it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, completely. And that’s the thing. Even you should take… you should take even a quasi-scientific approach to things, new evidence that will change your perspective.

Dr. Gary Deel: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. Excellent. Well, today we were talking to Dr. Gary Deel, and we’re talking about the complexities of business ethics. Thank you so much for being here, Gary.

Dr. Gary Deel: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and you’re here at The Everyday Scholar.

About the Speakers

Bjorn MercerDr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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