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The Fear of Getting Caught
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
What about science, the realm of disinterested inquiry? I’ve got a file a foot thick on the subject of recent frauds in American science. At Emory University and later at Harvard, Dr. John Darsee built a dazzling career based on phony laboratory data. At Yale, Dr. Vijay Soman fabricated data in an insulin study, thus setting off a scandal that cost his supervisor and co-author, Dr. Philip Felig, an appointment as chairman of the department of medicine at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. At Cornell…but you get the picture.
Let’s return to the consideration of dishonesty in business, from the perspective that opens if we step back from the present. Anyone who is interested in the role of business in American life should take a close look at the discussion of Benjamin Franklin in chapter 2 of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber sees Franklin as representing the spirit of capitalism “in almost classical purity.” After noting that our archetypal self-made man commends honesty, industry, frugality, and punctuality chiefly because of their utility as means of gaining credit, Weber observes that “where, for instance, the appearance of honesty serves the same purpose, that would suffice, and an unnecessary surplus of this virtue would evidently appear to Franklin’s eyes as unproductive waste.” To Franklin, Weber charges, virtues “are only in so far virtues as they are actually useful to the individual, and the surrogate of mere appearance is always sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view.” This attitude seems to Weber “inevitable for strict utilitarianism.”
The distinction between affirming honesty as a matter of principle and affirming it as a matter of policy takes us to the heart ol a permanent dilemma. Free enterprise has much to recommend it, and honesty has much to recommend it, but no law of logic guarantees that free enterprise shall be honest. Caveat emptor has always been the morality of the marketplace. Honesty may be the best policy if you care about getting into heaven, but if your chief concern is to get rich, honesty may seem an inconvenient virtue.
From a business perspective it is even possible to imagine cases in which the appearance of dishonesty might be good policy. The late attorney Roy Cohn, for instance, may have been a saint in private life, but his reputation for nastiness undoubtedly helped him in his business. If you’re selling your services as an intimidator, it doesn’t pay to have the manner of a choirboy.
In view of the severity of Weber’s criticism, it’s important to note that Benjamin Franklin took care not only to appear industrious and frugal but also (as he relates in his autobiography) “to be in Reality Industrious and frugal....” Franklin always emphasized character. In the world of Poor Richard, the way to wealth was the path of virtue.
When the desire for gain exceeds the fear of getting caught, and no inner voice objects, the stage is set for scandal.
What about the world of Bobby Wilkis? Greed and fear, it’s said, are the forces that drive Wall Street. When the desire for gain exceeds the fear of getting caught, and no inner voice objects, the stage is set for scandal.
What are the forces that work to sustain honesty in business? In the days of Benjamin Franklin, the fear of getting caught would have involved far more than the fear of the SEC. Bank accounts in the Bahamas do not escape the notice of an all-seeing God.
If faith fails, the fear of God gives way to the voice of conscience. If conscience fails, there is still the voice of the utilitarian ethic—the affirmation of honesty on grounds of policy. And if utilitarianism fails, civilization trembles upon its final support—the fear of getting caught.
That may be a slender reed, but it’s better than nothing. I don’t know what led Bobby Wilkis and his cohorts to involve themselves in the scheme that came crashing down upon them last year, but in the contest between fear and greed, I wish that fear had spoken more forcefully.
What is to be done? Already our business schools have swung into action, developing courses that pay special attention to ethical issues in business. Imagine that the National Football League, concerned about the level of violence in professional football, proposed that colleges spend more time lecturing college athletes on sportsmanship. Courses on business ethics will have exactly as much influence. The way to keep people from breaking the rules is to make them afraid, and the way to make them afraid is to catch them if they cheat and to punish them if they are caught.