"Does it Make Sense to Blame the System?" Why? Radio Episode with Guest Lisa Herzog
12:10PM Mar 12, 2020
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions with everyday life. On today's episode we'll be asking whether it makes sense to blame the system with our guest, Lisa Hertzog.
My best friend Gail was on the phone making her way through an automated customer service tree when she got frustrated. Press one for this press two for that over and over again. She heard that recorded voice when she finally cracked and screamed into the phone. Almost immediately the computer told her that she was being transferred to an operator. She reported the story with glee, she found the secret way in. Here's the thing. Many phone trees are designed specifically to not get you to where you want to go.
efficiently. They're created to give callers something to do while they wait. Others are constructed to inspire people to hang up. Facebook doesn't even have a way for regular people to contact them. big corporations work overtime to insulate themselves from complaints and queries, and we are expected to just accept it. This is how the world works. fine print is used to manipulate us gift cards go unspent sign up for a subscription trial period, and you're automatically renewed bureaucracy as a weapon contracts are impossible to understand without an expert, and there is no single person we can accuse. Sure, we can blame Mark Zuckerberg for being evil. But how much power does he really have? He has a board of directors and lawyers. He's subject to the culture and markets that drive internet profits. It's not the people, it's the system. On today's episode, we're going to ask if this assessment makes sense. Is it coherent to think about the system as a single entity? What are organizations without people we have to ask what are bureaucracies without rule makers
We know that a thing is more than the sum of its parts. JOHN, Paul, George, and Ringo were all talented musicians. But none of them alone reach the greatness The Beatles managed together. They were more than just four people who played in unison. They had producers, engineers and marketing folks, but then again, maybe they weren't without their individual brilliance, the band would have been nothing. Let me ask these questions in a couple of different ways. Why should I take shorter showers when industry and agriculture combined make up about 95% of the world's water usage? Or alternatively, why shouldn't I download movies illegally when accountants in Hollywood use sleight of hand to avoid paying taxes and other fees? Did you know that Return of the Jedi earned half a billion dollars and his latest 2015 still technically never made a profit? Sure, in principle, we should conserve water and respect intellectual property. But why should any of us follow rules that are designed to exploit us and give others the advantage does that make us
suckers? Shouldn't we reject an immoral system? Aren't such things designed to insulate us from moral responsibility in the first place? But there's another problem. And I'll post it this way. How many bad things must someone do before they're labeled a bad person? If I shoplift once, maybe I'm a scamp twice, I'm a risk taker, but four times eight times, am I a criminal the first time or just when I decide to keep stealing
if a wireless telephone company makes a billing mistake and overcharges customers once, okay, that's understandable, twice could be bad oversight. But how many billing errors do they have to ignore before they're deemed corrupt? And what if they're never made aware of the errors because they've created that automated customer service system that Gail fought through that inspired her to scream? If the system is designed to stop the company from being told they're exploiting their customers? Can they ever be blamed if they never learn it? So far, I've described ethical problems.
But there are metaphysical questions to what's the system? Is it a thing in itself or just an idea we use to manage complexity? Is the economy real? Or just a shorthand term for trillions of commercial exchanges? is a corporation a person like the United States Supreme Court ruled? Or is that just a legal fiction? brands do have identities, but maybe Verizon, Exxon, or Microsoft or just conglomerations with mailing addresses we can put on contracts and lawsuits. A famous American fast food chain spent years donating to anti gay organizations. How can a chicken sandwich be homophobic? All of this is to say that when we blame the system, we are making a whole host of philosophical assumptions that we take for granted. We talk as if it's real, we act as if it has an ethics we describe it as if it has a purpose. But whether it does any of these things is still a matter of controversy. And even if we answer all of these questions in the affirmative, even if we can aim for a real ethical and purposeful organization, we
Still have to know where to start. Do we address the people, the ideas, the rules or the culture? And can we talk to one without talking to the other? It's all very overwhelming. No wonder it makes us feel so small and helpless. No wonder all we want to do is scream.
And now our guest Lisa Hertzog is Associate Professor and Rosalind Franklin, fellow of the faculty of philosophy at University of Groningen, Netherlands. She's the author and editor of numerous books including reclaiming the system, moral responsibility, divided labor and the role of organizations and society. Lisa, welcome to why. Thanks for inviting me.
If you'd like to comment on the show, you can find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all at why radio show one word or email us at ask why at UMD. edu. You can also listen to all of our previous episodes for free and find information about our future at y Radio show.org. Alright, so Lisa, this is kind of silly way to start but when I think about blaming
system, I can't get the idea of an aging hippie out of my head. I just see him standing there complaining. It's the system man. It's the system. Isn't it? Isn't language like this? I don't know, old fashioned? Well, I totally sympathize. The question is, what do we do next? after claiming the system and saying, Oh, it's all the system? Do we just accept that it's the system and not do anything about it? Do we try to exit from the system as much as we can? Or are there ways in which we might try to change the system? And where are we if there's the system and there's us? And I mean, you're right, some of these metaphysical questions at the beginning. What is the system actually, in the end, a much of it is actually man made and so in principle open to change. Is, is the system of metaphor, or is it something real? Is it just the way that we talk about something that's too hard for us to conceive in our head or does it too
Develop a life of its own sort of artificial intelligence almost.
I won't say it has a life of its own, but it has develop this life of its own because we all take it to be something that we then use to coordinate our actions and expectations and the focus of our attention. And that's what gives it reality. And that's also why logins changeable if we think about it differently.
Now, maybe your idea of a system is a little different than mine, and we'll talk about some of that later. But I'm having a sort of turtles all the way down moment, right, if British Petroleum as a system or Verizon as a system, it's in an economic system, which is in a world system which is in the human system. When we talk about a particular organization or particular aspect of it. Is it artificial to set up the division that way? Are we just creating a part that doesn't really exist?
Well The way you described that is very much in terms of nested structures. And there are system theorists who think that human beings are just other systems within systems within systems and so on. The question is, at what level? Is it helpful to think about? Well, I'd like to prefer calling the systemic structures that we see and at what level? Is there the sort of independent force that we've created by all believing in it? And I think that focusing on organizations is actually quite interesting because they are still somewhat manageable for our imagination, and they have sort of clear boundaries, and of course, they act within yet broader systems. But what I found when I started working on this is that lots of philosophy looks at either the individual, what should I do the moral question and can't and so on. Or it looks at the big societal level, like what is the state of Ohio should just society be organized and this muscle level of organism However places organized, how a company's run and so on, that gets not so much attention and philosophical discourse, but it's so important for everyday life and also for our moral life.
One of the questions that I found myself asking when I was reading your book was whether this discussion obliterates the distinction between public and private, we're also used to having right our private decisions, and we have made choices about relationships in marriage and, and morality and what's important to us. And then there's the public decisions, the political decisions and public policy and welfare and war and all that kind of stuff. But once you an agent in an organization, does that make sense? Does it make sense to think that you are a private person in a public organization? Or does that distinction break down?
I think to some extent, just break down and I think that's important to accept because we are so used used to think in terms of it's either private or it's public. And I think there are lots of in between mixed entities and certain nations. And I think the world of work is to create extend a public world because it's shaped by public rules, the encounter of people we don't encounter in our private lives, in the sense of family and friends, and so on. And I like to think that we should understand the economy, in a so much credit, extend as a public system, and not be misled by the talk about private property properties, something we need to think about, well, yes, but the rules and also the purpose of that whole system that's not just private for single individuals and their families. There is something that concerns society as a whole there. And that's why I want to challenge this distinction. And by the way, in organization studies, it's totally normal to not think about public private divide in that way, but to look at organizational stuff. Whether it's a state bureaucracy or a public company, or a private company, once you have an organization of a certain size, you see certain patterns, you see certain features that look actually quite similar and what we like to call public or private entities.
Does the I'm not sure what to call it, the incentive structure, change things, right? I mean, so a major corporation, let's say a private corporation, wants to earn a profit wants to earn money. The worker, maybe the worker wants to earn a paycheck, but also maybe the worker wants to do something meaningful or contribute. There's this universe of incentives and reasons for doing things. Does that change? I mean, there's this whole long standing discussion on morality if if you save someone's life to get into heaven, right? It's selfish. It's not altruistic. But everything in in in the corporate world is is in some sense, self oriented. So does that change how we talk about morality.
That's one of the stories that we like to tell ourselves that it's all about money and incentives. But I think there are lots of psychological studies. And you can also find lots of anecdotal evidence that this is more complicated. Because even at work, people don't care just about money. They care about how their colleagues see them, they, some of them at least care about how they themselves can see their own work or that they can still look into the mirror and see themselves as a, you know, morally decent human being. And incentives are really multi dimensional. And there is a real question about this picture of human nature that has been so dominant in the last couple of decades that human beings mostly react to incentives, carrots and sticks. Because human nature is just much more complex and if someone wants to do something, sometimes they will fight it for it. Even though they have to overcome many obstacles or you see this also in companies. There's sometimes It seems to be irrational fights, but what you can understand when you see that people pursue just completely different aims. And so in some sense, this whole talk about that people are doing it for an incentive becomes a bit of weight, because there are so many different kinds of incentives that you really need to look at the concrete case. Otherwise, you end up saying something like, people are doing things they're doing, because there's a reason for why they want to do them and becomes pretty tautological.
Right? So So is it is it wrong? Like you said, some people look at themselves and have that that self identity is talking about reputation or talking about self worth? does that fit in that same category of incentive as bonus structures and promotions? Or are they different would Aristotle think of reputation as incentive?
If you use incentive in a very broad and formal and almost empty sense, then you can summarize it under the term But I would also agree that they are actually quite different in their structure, and also in the consequences that have that they have on how people actually act. And if you take reputation, for example, of course, one big question is what reputation with whom, in which group? And what do people in this group consider, you know, as something that raises your reputation, well, that lowers it. And so, this is a very strong social index, which money as such, maybe doesn't have so much and self worth. If you take your your own conscience to be the standard, that's also in a lesser degree, a sexualized phenomena, although of course, you've your conscience has probably developed in several contexts, but you're a bit more independent, if you look at that. It's a reputation has this different structure in that respect, and we could talk about more details here because if you start looking at Okay, is the reputation as a good colleague or reputation as a good boss that again, could be completely different
Okay, so so I'm having this internal dialogue as the host of the show, because we're talking about individuals here. But the title of the show is about blaming the system. And the introduction was about the system. And so I guess the question is, how do we proceed? Does it make sense to talk about corporate identity in terms of T Mobile or Facebook or something like that? Or are we always going to go back to talking about individual people and how they relate?
I think it's totally okay in everyday life to use these four times. But take an example when you want to blame a system. Let's take Facebook, when you want to blame Facebook, you need to ask this question, is it the structure as a whole that you want to play him who made the decisions for this entity, there are people who actually made these decisions or let something happen sometimes things happen without anyone making decisions. But then still, you can hold people accountable for what happened. I think from a normative perspective, if you talk about the morality here, also the political dimension, it's very important to keep both levels in mind both the entity as a whole, but also then to open it up and to look, okay, who's doing what and for example, if you have a very bad corporate governance in an organization, then this might be what leads to bad outcomes. And then maybe it's hard to trace the responsibility to individuals, precisely, but there is still a way in which you can hold different individuals personally accountable for what's happening. So I think they did both levels. And I mean, philosophers like to reduce complexity, but it shouldn't be more effective than reality tells us.
You know, the pivot moment for me in the book, right? All good books have this moment where you just think fundamentally differently and for in your book for me, you use the phrase the moral division of labor. Now longtime listeners know I am an Adam Smith scholar, you're an Adam Smith scholars to that We met many years ago. And I'm used to thinking of the division of labor as an economic concept as a work related concept. But then you introduce this idea of the moral division of labor, that actually the moral agency of an organization is broken up into parts and coordinated. I think that's fabulous and really challenging. Can you talk about what that means? What does it mean to have a moral division of labor? And how does that change how we talk about moral decision making?
Yeah, so that it has to do with the Adam Smith typed division of labor, where you talk about different tasks being done by different people. And I was supposed to talks about markets where people exchange stuff after they've done the different things that they do in the division of labor. In organizations, you have divided tasks, but they are also integrated in the organizational structure. That's why we have companies in the first place, not just free market exchanges, and the moral division of labor. What I mean by that That, to keep an organization morally on track, different people need to fulfill different roles in order to make sure that the whole can stay morally decent or whatever you want to call it. And in that sense, there are different tasks and different responsibilities. And just to make it a bit more concrete I'm the accountant in a company has a different role than the visionary researcher that develops new products. And there might also be people have explicitly moral tasks. For example, someone might get the task to check whether a company's supply chain is clean off, that's a major human rights violations. Now, the sweatshop labor and so on. And in that sense, what matters for a good organization is that this constellation of different people fulfilling different roles, that works well and of course, that in turn ensuring that it works. So that in turn is the responsibility of the leadership of the organization to manage So they don't have to do everything themselves, but they have to make sure that other people are trustworthy in doing a good job in whatever role they need to do.
The most useful example of this, for me was your example of the doctor Monica, and how she was very stressed out about her job at the hospital and really wants to do a good job for the patients. And she's reading the notes from the previous doctors, and the notes are written handwritten illegibly. And so she always has to work three times as hard to read the notes to so that she doesn't make a mistake. And it never occurred to me that good handwriting was a moral imperative that in this context, in this context, she can't be the most moral doctor she can be unless the people who come before her are moral enough to write in a way that she can read it. That's the kind of detail that you're dealing with. Right? That's what it means to have a functioning moral organization, am I right?
That's a particular example. And I think today we have one more of these iPads for Doctor. So they have to type things, those are probably getting better. But there can be seemingly small things that really make a difference. And I read quite a lot of accounts of catastrophes in organizations. So nuclear power plants, disasters, or this was one very early, very rare disaster in the UK, they often had to do the seemingly trivial misunderstandings between people who are doing different things and maybe not communicating whether they had done something or not. And, and that's a strong and important dimension of the moral life of organizations, that important information needs to be passed on. And I think the example of the doctor is telling in that respect, because it's pretty clear that the patients need to be looked after carefully, and that the information in these handwritten notes might be really crucial for how you treat them. For example, if they I don't know if they energies are something, you can't use certain medications. So it's totally crucial for the division of labor to work that these communicative processes work well, otherwise you might end up doing something. Really, what what is it really immoral outcome? And the question is whether the individual is to be playing for it. And that person I was an interview yet, the real person I talked to her in an interview, but she told me was that because the organization was not run variable, and her colleagues are often under stress, she didn't blame her colleagues, they were all overworked and so on. That's what made it so hard for her to live up to her responsibilities as a doctor.
So there are two different factors. I mean, there are multiple factors, right, but but there's the limited knowledge aspect. Everyone in the organization just knows the little bit that they know. And then there's the communicative aspect, which is how do you pass on that knowledge in a way that is the most useful? That seems like a very human problem. Right. I don't know everything you don't know everything so much. It's about communication. So do you find that the organizational ethics really are just analogous to humans? The way that I don't know Plato thought that justice of the soul was was analogous to justice to the city? Is it just the same thing writ large or do something else going on?
I think there's more going on. Because you can have situations where everyone might be more or less innocent, maybe a little bit negligent or something. And yet, the organization as a whole might produce a disaster. Like, for example, when you have, I don't know, chemical catastrophe. And what everyone did was just small mistakes, like a lack of communication for getting one bit of information. It can be really stupid stuff like one sheet of a pile of sheets getting lost on the way and these kind of things look like you wouldn't want to hold individuals fully accountable for them. It seems sort of innocent. This happens to all of us. But in organizational context, this can be so crucial. And in that sense, there is something that goes beyond individual morality in the sense of, am I doing something truly evil or not. It's more about the kind of care you take into thinking about your role in the organization, and what impact your actions or your emissions have on the possibility for others to fulfill their moral duties.
When we come back from the break, I want to pull this thread and I want to talk about the culture of organizations and the norms and rules and how this affects individual actions and the way people work together. But before that, you're listening to Lisa Hertzog and jack Russell Weinstein on wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. We'll be back right after this
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your back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host jack Russell Weinstein. We're talking with Liza Hertzog, who's all the way in the Netherlands about blaming the system and organizational ethics and how individuals relate to that. I, I'm thinking about being a teacher. And I think about the fact that one of the natural outcomes of being a teacher is that students complain about grades and you can do things that will encourage them to complain are discouraged. Quite a few years back, I started using a rubric. And a rubric is a piece of paper that you attach to the paper that you've backed that has numbers right or very good, good, excellent and categories. And even though my grading didn't change, the moment, I used a rubric, the moment they saw math and numbers, they stopped complaining. And my complaints went down by like 95%. I also think years ago teaching at California State University, Fresno, and working with those students there. And as my wife observed, that's actually where we met when my wife observed that the Fresno students would do great with the first sentence in a question. But if the question was multiple parts, they would never answer the other parts. So you had to phrase all of your assignments, either in one question, or push and prod and force them to engage in the second, third and fourth part of the question. So Liza with those examples if you're a teacher too, so I'm sure you have the the European equivalent of that. Absolutely. When we manipulate the sort of the culture, the the expectations, the norms to make the workers or in our case the students do things. Is that a negative form of manipulation? Are we? Are we gaming the system in a bad way? Or, you know, do I am I am I? Am I taking the opportunity for the students to complain away by using a rubric.
So, you didn't take the opportunity away in the sense that you wouldn't allow them to come to your office hours, right. I think there are two things going on in the room. Great example of one is good, and the other I think it's not so good. The good thing is that you're giving people a justification for why they got the crate they got. And I think that's a very important aspect of teaching. And I think it's also very important in other organizations, when you talk about work, instead of just giving orders, explaining people why you want them to do something can be Experience completed differently because it has a certain dimension of respect, that you explain to someone why they should do something. And then they can also understand it better and think on their own feet while they're doing it. The other thing is, I think in our culture, we have a huge over evaluation of numbers compared to verbal expression. And giving numbers might actually have silenced them a bit more than if you had given them like verbal feedback. I'm just assuming that and there, I'm wondering I mean, it's a little bit is it looks very objective. And you're used to thinking that it's somehow scientific and rigorous and so on. But is it really doing more than the verbal feedback? And in that sense, it might be a bit of a self protective strategy, right?
All teaching is a self protective strategy. That's lesson one. Um, but you use this word respect, and this is really interesting. Because one of the marks of a teacher student relationship is that the teacher has a kind of power over the student and the teacher has to respect the students. The fact that you're assessing them and that they feel even more powerless than they may be just respect work different going up or down the hierarchy. And what I mean by that is, is it the boss's job to respect the worker more than it is for the worker to respect their their supervisor? Is? Is there a moral imperative to think more about respecting people who are quote, unquote, beneath you, than people who have more power over you?
Yes, I think that's correct, if you put it that way. And the reason is that if someone if you have power over someone, then it's much more likely that you unintentionally disrespect them or fail to show Respect to them, then if they have power over you, because then if you do something that they don't like, they will just tell you, and they might tell you in very unpleasant ways, and then you do what you're supposed to do. But if you are in the more powerful position, the other side might not dare to speak up whenever you do something that might be perceived as disrespectful. So in that sense, yes, but there is actually also an interesting, practical component to it, which has to do with knowledge. Because if you are the boss, you need feedback from those who do the actual tasks and who are in your team. And if they fear you, and if they don't feel respected by you, they might not be willing to share that knowledge with you. So in order to have a good feedback culture and to hear from them, whenever there are problems or new challenges, or new ideas about what could be done better. You sort of understand why they wouldn't share it with you if you don't treat them respectfully. So in that sense, there's also a sort of Prudential case for respecting others. Although in the end, I would argue, it shouldn't just be the goodwill of the bosses, there should actually be accountability structures and maybe even big vert here, but democratic structures.
So I use the phrase feedback culture. I really like that phrase. I think that's a useful
bit overused by corporate consultants, but I still like it.
Well, does that mean I now to start paying you $400 to now? The flip side right of respect is that the folks higher up on the hierarchy, we also think that they're more accountable for the moral wrongs. Right. Is that fair to say that different people in an organization have more moral responsibility? And if so, does that mean that with added blame comes? I don't know. I'm not quite sure how to finish this question. Added freedom that that right. If the person in the warehouse does something wrong, and it causes a table to be damaged, that's one thing. But if a vice president of finance does something wrong, and the end the company goes bankrupt, that's something different. How do you deal with moral agency and moral responsibility when you have a hierarchical organization where people have different levels of power and also different levels of accountability?
Well, I think some very intuitive principles here are something like with power comes responsibility, but also something like it depends on the tasks the worker who destroys the table can be responsible for that various The boss is responsible for things like allocating tasks and the team making sure the team works together and so on. So there is a division of labor again, but there is also this thing that higher up, you have more responsibility and ideally, I think there should also be more accountability in a legal sense. And I think one of the big frustrations that many people feel about the current way in which our capitalist systems are organized, that you get the impression that the higher up you are in hierarchies, the less likely it is that you will be held accountable for mistakes you make, or they will fire you, but you get a huge compensation package. So it's very cushioned. Once you are in these higher positions there is, the more you are on the receiving end of yet doing the actual task, receiving orders and so on, the more you'll be held responsible for any little mistake you made and you might be fired, at least in the US, as far as I know, you might be fired immediately. And there's very little protection. So there is a real asymmetry between the way in which power is distributed and the way accountability and also certain forms of claim are distributed.
Is there a difference between moral responsibility and moral accountable Because you change the language in the middle of the answer. I mean, I know you did on purpose, right? But so what's the difference?
But like by moral, I meant sort of from an ideal observer position if you really try to get the case, right. But when I talked about the frustrations, I was also thinking about the legal accountability and also, to some extent, the public perception. And I think there is at the moment quite a discrepancy in the sense that we should hold people in responsible, very high paid positions, morally responsible for what they do, but we fail in our legal systems to hold them legally accountable.
So how do you with a project like this, where you're looking at the real world and you're interviewing real people, but then you're applying philosophical principles and methods of analysis? How do you deal with the contrast between the ideal philosophical and moral point of view and then non ideal point of view because of course, right philosophers from, you know, from way back when to contemporary philosophers love to exist in the ideal universe and play philosophical games and do trolley problems and do all these things. But this is real life. So how do you how do you negotiate the tension between the ideal and the non ideal?
I have to admit that I got a little bit bored by the purely ideal wrong. And I think there's just so many urgent and also interesting and challenging questions in real life. And I have sort of a pragmatist background and my intellectual upbringing. And I think that all the concepts that we use to talk about morality something like respect or something like 2d or whatever, we can try to define them in some idealized abstract way, but they are ultimately informed by the experiences we made. In our lives, and philosophers are not the only people who make these experiences. There are lots of moral agents out there who make very different experiences. And that's why I felt this need to interview people and to get lots of different perspectives and interesting case studies on the table before I would write about this. And then the interesting question is how you can, let's say, remain aspirational in the sense that I do strongly believe that we can and should follow certain moral imperatives, but also take into account some of the constraints that we have to live under. And I think there is a distinction between constraints that are systematic constraints of what it means for human beings with human nature to live together in society, for example, the fact that we seem to need large scale organizations and constraints that are constraints of the current situation. But that would end being constraints if we could change something. So for example, if we had a different A system of legal accountability that could improve many things that are currently challenges for the moral lives of agents and organizations, just because certain problems will arise any longer.
Do you see a radical difference between the accountability in European systems and American systems? I mean, even the capitalist what we call capitalism is very, very different. So when you look at America overseas, and you read the news, is it familiar or are you do you find it more foreign than you would expect?
Oh, it's such a multi faceted
economic and cultural and political system. But with regard to capitalism, my impression is and I mean, there's research about this and the historical trajectory has been explored quite extensively. In the US, there is a greater tendency to believe in free markets and not to try to embed them in the way that the European tradition suggests, even though there has also been a move in a sort of, quote unquote, neoliberal directions in Europe, but there is still a stronger sense that, yes, you need a legal framework. There's no Invisible Hand of the market as such, you need to structure markets through the legal system. And I think that also influences to some extent, the accountability structure in the sense that there's no assumption or not as much I think, in Europe that if your ex successful market actor, actor, if you earn a lot of money, that automatically means that you're a good moral agent that we should sort of hold this in your favor. In Europe, there's much more of a suspicion. If you are becoming rich very fast. Maybe you've gamed the system a little bit, or maybe something's a bit dodgy about how you did this. So that's the difference in mentality I think, and of course, there are also differences between the different European countries here, and then you have also nuanced differences. In the legal systems, for example, in the US, you have many more of these. What are they called when many people together consumer cooperation, these
may not class action suit class, essentially you think class action and mass action, but it's class action suit.
Yeah, I mean cause action. And that's not so widespread in Europe, it's not coming in some countries. And that can also make a difference. Because all these rules are, of course, well known to the legal departments of corporations. And they often anticipate what would happen if something came out. And so that's why the system of rules is, in my opinion, very, very important. And it's not just the so called Invisible Hand of the markets is really the system of legal rules. also things like bankruptcy rules and so on. And in that respect, lots of American authors have also argued that the American model at the moment is very much in favor of the rich, the powerful, the big corporations to the disadvantage of And normal people.
So let's take another concrete example. Let's take James who was the pseudonym for someone you interviewed in the book. And James is a banker. And when he sat down to talk to you, he turned off all this is his phone and all that kind of stuff. And he just started talking. And when he kept saying over and over again, his banking is immoral. It's just, it's just an immoral enterprise. And when I go in, I do immoral things. And, and, and he's just, he just puts his moral identity aside at the door. So the first side I guess I have a series of questions, right? But, um, should we a not hire someone like that and be done? What does that tell us about where he's working culturally and see? Would he be treated differently in America and in Europe? What would James's attitude be more culturally acceptable in the American free market libertarian In Wall Street, as opposed to the much more structured, top heavy German system for example, or or or or the Scandinavian countries.
Oh, well I think the banking systems and Europe have quite strong similarities to the US. Oh, that's stupid that that's
really that's really unfortunate. But in
terms of what attitude Do you have towards your work? There is a very interesting notion and Germany which is still quite widespread. I think it also exists in many Scandinavian languages. It also exists and Dutch I've learned. And that's, yeah, we kind of religion started calling a vocation spoofing in German. And that is a sense that you have a task in your life. Your job is not just your job. It's your role in society, and it comes with a certain responsibility. And interestingly, in Germany, we say it's just a job and the sort of don't identify with it and want to distance ourselves then we use the English word. And I think that kind of attitude is not as widespread in the US and also the UK. And in that sense maybe this attitude that James exemplifies that you just do whatever you ask you try to maximize your gains, and you don't care about the morality and the social impact and so on, that will probably receive more moral claim in a German context than in one of these countries that have a more like, liberal version of market economies.
You know, that idea of the the Translate ability of our bite and proof, right, where, where work versus vocation or a job versus a calling. Does that change the organizational structure? If you know, as a university professor, I have struggled for a very long time with the fact that being a professor is really part of my identity. And when things are stressful at the university, the only way that I can sort of get through it is by disinvesting. Myself. It's a it's a phrase that my therapist taught me disinvesting myself from my job. That's what it means to be an academic, there are people who work as a bank teller or as, you know, gas lines, and they don't see their identity is wrapped up in their work in the same way. Does that change the organizational culture? Does that change the moral consequences? And have you found that is there a difference between the how good and bad a company is based on how much people identify with it?
Many questions? Yeah, sorry. Sorry. Let me let me start with the individual and then I get to the culture thing. I think there are morally speaking both disadvantages and advantages of a more engaged and a more disengaged attitude. Because if you're extremely engaged, you might become so tied up with your role, that it becomes very difficult for you to take a neutral stance and to really evaluate what's going on and to even consider the possibility that maybe I need to move out of that organization. So you might become too personally involved and that can be problematic for your moral perspective. There's the other extreme, which is the James person and then the book. He just doesn't care at all. And of course, that kind of attitude means that if lots of people don't organization happiness, anything that comes top down will be executed by them. There's no kind of sort of moral check and balances through the employees and accompany various if people think about what they do more in these moralized terms and they come some veered immoral or dysfunctional, new guideline from the top there will be resistance and there will be maybe open maybe less Oh, forms of trying to circumvent this. And that can be a good thing. Various these chains like fingers, they are very sort of passive and from a moral perspective and you can push them in any direction you want to push them. And for organizational culture, I think we need to be realistic enough in the sense that there will always be people who don't identify too much for their job. But I think a good organization needs at least a certain number of people who care about the fate of the organization and also the moral fate of the organization. Is that a place where people are treated with respect is that a place where there are no risks of these kind of moral crackdowns that we talked about earlier? And you don't get this if everyone is just doing a job and going home and then enjoying their real life as some people call it in the evening. So you need a certain number of people who care about the organization.
So let's let's get into Lisa's brain for a second someone comes up to you and I come up to you and I Say, Hey, I have this organization, it's a disaster where we're not happy, we're doing immoral things. It's chaotic, the communication is terrible. fix it. How do you start? Where do you start? When you want to improve an organization or a system morally,
no pressure, no pressure?
No, but I think there is a case to be made for the importance of good leadership because leadership is visible for everyone. And there's a strong tendency in organizations to look at both seen as acceptable, and also the way in which people talk about certain things at the top of an organization and that has a huge cultural influence on many organizations. So, we have a saying in Germany, to say this, if the fish stinks from the hat, then you need to change the hat sort of. So you cannot really change an organization very easily. If you
say that. You say that in German for us. Place I really want to fish. When the fish deficient?
Yeah. Excellent. Okay. And I think there are lots of organizational studies that confirm that the culture is to create extent influenced by by the leadership and what's perceived as permissible and more normal and impermissible by the leadership. So if this person comes to me, as someone who realizes that he or she works in our organization, that is really sort of morally rotten to the core, because leadership doesn't believe in moral values, then there is a real question of whether you should keep that job and try to improve things on the ground in your little corner of the organization or over there you need to leave and maybe also raise your voice about what's going wrong in that organization. So I have strong sympathies for whistleblowers. I think we need far more whistleblowers than we currently have.
I want to talk for a second because the whistleblower thing will take us in a very particular path. I think that the expression that you just taught us is really telling when compared to American expressions, because the only equivalent that I can think of is a bad apple spoils the bunch. Oh, yeah. But when you say a bad apple spoils the bunch, you have an assumption of equality that all of the people are responsible, and that one person, whoever they are, can ruin the whole package. Right. But the the the the fish stinks from the head, right, that puts the onus on the leadership and on and on the hierarchy. And that feels much more German than American. And so do you think? Do you think that this sort of egalitarian approach is more conducive to a moral Outlook or as a more hierarchical approach where people have, I don't know, a proportional responsibility would give us more flexibility to be more moral I think
it's hard to generalize because organizations are quite different. And there are often functional reasons for why you want to have steeper or less steep hierarchies. But I think whenever you have hierarchies, then to say any Apple can corrupt the whole thing is just totally unrealistic. If you think about how much someone as a CEO of a big corporation can do wrong, and someone who's just responsible for one little parking rock, when usually there is a difference in the extent to which they influenced the organization as a whole. But I think that's actually one of the reasons for making an argument that those who have power over others in organizations should be accountable to them. And there are lots of other arguments as well. But I've come to think when working on ethics and organizations and all these things, that we should have democratic structures and organizations. So gathering a gala terian accountability structure back into all these hierarchies that we, at the moment just accept as being okay as hierarchies. What why is it that someone should be able to tell other people what they have to do what they have to bear without any protection for these people very little and without any opportunity for them to talk back and to make their voices heard?
that's a that's a really interesting question. Earlier in our discussion, you said that it seems likely that large scale organizations are necessary for human life. And now you're sort of calling into question the, the sense that you can't have authority without reciprocal rights without reciprocal opportunities to express yourself. Those feel like very radical, very modern notions of what it means to be a human in society. Is it too radical to expect large scale organizations to care about worker rights as a two round For us to think that democracy can permeate private organizations as well as the public sphere. Well, it
was for the workers movement has been fought for decades and centuries Really? And I don't think it's, if you start thinking about it, it seems sort of obvious. And the question is just why do we think the alternative is so obvious, and by accepting it, and lots of arguments that you then hear are, oh, it's not efficient, it's not feasible and so on. But there's a very interesting factor, the German system of codetermination has not 50 but a bit less, but for the considerable percentage of members of the boards of large companies from the set of workers. And according to standard economic theory, this should mean bankruptcy for the German economy. But the German economy is doing reasonably well. So you can integrate workers voice. The question is whether it's The way it's done in Germany, but all these arguments about feasibility, and now it's not efficient, whatever. That doesn't seem to be quite true. And there are also very successful worker run organizations, co Ops, for example. And somehow in our economic discourse, we don't talk about these and we don't talk about these as a potential alternative to the shareholder top down hierarchical model that is so prevalent at the moment. But I think when you want to know, okay, what direction could be taken in terms of reforming capitalism in a way that makes it more human more just that leads to more egalitarian outcomes that also allows us to have true democracy in the political realm. Then, thinking about how to democratize companies, I think it's really a way forward.
You just use the term efficiency and you were talking about stockholder shares and all of that sort of thing. Efficiency itself, right. The modern capitalist mentality is that a failure Above all else, the central virtue that feels like an amoral claim, it feels like it's not connected to morality, but of course, it is right to prioritize efficiency is to make a moral claim. Would you talk a little bit about that? And when you talk about how that affects organizations and your project in general,
yeah, um, I mean, efficiency is used in a way that makes it a highly loaded category because of what is included and what is not included. And that notion of efficiency. So workers well being is usually not part of what we understand by efficiency. So it's very much focused on numbers. And it's very much focused on output and not on the long term effects that are not factored into these calculations. And just one obvious example is that as long as we don't have higher prices on co2 emissions, it's always efficient. for a company to do things that have higher co2 emissions, because we don't factor in the effects on society and climate on future generations. So it's a highly artificial notion. And it prioritizes the financial outcomes of companies at the cost of so many other important considerations. So, I mean, there are different rhetorical strategies you could use, you could either completely redefine efficiency, or you could just get rid of that notion and think about what is actually the purpose of different organizations. And let me give you an example from another piece of perfectly informed philosophical research that a colleague of mine closer another model and I have just been working on. So we looked at the practices in a climate camp. Now this looks like a totally different kind of organization. It's just people. You mentioned hippies. At the beginning, it wasn't quite hippies, but sort of in that direction. People going to a camp to learn about climate change, about climate justice or social justice and so on, and they had to build everything from scratch and they had a very interest by organizing very it was not so much fixed roles. There were no people giving orders, everything was done pretty spontaneously. But they got things done. They got all the tents up, they got the electricity running, they got pizza for everyone. And they had held workshops, and they had press statements and so on. And it was in a way, and it was efficient in the Senate or vacations, whatever you want to call it, they got things done. And that's a very interesting example. Because when you talk about alternative organizations, often the charges are they're just talking, it's just discourse. But that's something you really cannot say in that case. And we had a big discussion actually, with colleagues whether you'd call this other form of getting things done efficiency or something else. But it shows that there are really different ways in which we can think about these practical imperatives. And I think it's very important that we take practical constraints and imperative seriously, without automatically falling into the trap of thinking standards. Book efficiency because they are really different ways of getting things done and they might be much more humane and just and make everyone happier at work.
Well, first of all, for the record, if pizza is the solution to global warming, my stomach is in trouble because I'm too old for pizza. But um, but
they managed 2000 people at
Occupy Wall Street struggled with the same with the same issue. The original organizers and when they were set up in downtown New York, they tried very hard to have non hierarchical structures are really listened to people and this communal approach, again, as you point out has this long history and especially has its its modern roots in the 1960s. And so, it's interesting to see how the organizational structure is itself a challenge to this this teleology, this idea of what we're aiming for, and if it's efficient, Do we think that the efficiency leads the organization? Or the organization could say, No, no, this is what we mean by efficiency. We're gonna redefine it for for for the discussion. All right?
Well, I mean, one challenge, of course, is when you talk about economic organizations, and they have to exist in markets. Can they produce things at a price that can compete with how other companies produce? And that depends a lot on regulation.
So so let's walk away for a second from the economic model. And let's go back to your idea of whistleblowers because when people listen to this in the future, they ought to be reminded that right now we're at the tail end in the United States of the of the senate trial of President Trump's impeachment. And if you look from a particular spec perspective, there is one very basic disagreement in the republicans and in the Democrats, the republicans keep trying to out the whistleblower, especially Rand Paul. He keeps trying to tell Everyone who had us and the republicans claim ultimately is being a whistleblower is disloyal, that you have to be loyal to the organization, you have to be loyal to your hierarchy, you have to be loyal to your team, the democrats position is if there's any loyalty, you have to be loyal to the Constitution, and the whistleblower needs to be protected because the whistleblower was was was aiming at that is this question of loyalty and whistleblowing? Is this a moral question? And if it is, how does it affect organizational structures? When loyalty is prized over say, truth or a person's external commitment to what they think justice might be?
I absolutely think it's a moral question. And I think it's a very important one because we have so many large complex organizations in our societies and within these kinds of organizations. You can hide all kinds of wrongdoings but also might just be apparent wrongdoing. Actually, not wrong, but it looks like that. And I think in the end, loyalty to the organization needs to be trumped by loyalty to the wider society. And there is a certain way in which you're centralizing the organization, if you demand loyalty to that entity to be so much more important than loyalty to other people, I mean, who who is it you're loyal to in the end, it's a bunch of people, maybe some shareholders from around the world, but also the concrete people who work in that organization. But there are other human beings and there's no reason why you should give so much more weight to those who are in your group than to those who are not part of your group. So in that sense, I I actually have tried to sort of reinterpret this notion of corporate citizen because Management Studies like to think about corporate citizenship as people who like to be citizens of the organization and are very loyal. But at We should think about it the other way around, someone is a citizens first, and then a member of an organization, that citizen and in that sense, also a commitment to the values of the constitution that needs to come first. And that needs to be carried into organizations.
So you use the phrase in group out group, and it makes me wonder, when we're talking about organizations and when we're talking about systems, is this all just another form of tribalism is part of what you're arguing? Almost a cosmopolitan point of view that look cosmopolitan, say, there is the human species and our loyalty has to be to the global human project and national identity is somewhat artificial. Are you saying something similar that ultimately you're a citizen, first, you're human first morality, as you say in the book is pervasive and you have to pay attention to that first. And focusing on loyalty is just the kind of tribalism that human beings have gotten in trouble with wars, particularly religion. wars but also national identity and ethnicity and things like that. Is there an analog there?
I fully will probably take too long to go into the whole cosmopolitan Muslim debate. But let me say one thing. I think companies are trying to actively motivate our tribal thinking by making us cooperative members and have the corporate DNA or whatever it's called. And that can be a real threat to people's autonomous ability to judge what's going on and to the moral decision making of court I of course, there is a certain responsibility that you have to people who are closely around you if only because you know what's going on for them. But if your action if your say you are one of these people responsible for supply chains, if you're just not willing to do a proper research on all the suppliers you have, if that means the violation of human rights of human being somewhere else in the world can loyalty to the organization via good reason to outweigh that? I mean, that's a real question. That's a, that sounds abstract, but I think there's a practical challenge in many situations for people. And I think we should think about a certain basic level of morality, you can capture the human rights or the golden rule of whatever, which we really need to use to transcend more tribal, as you called it, forms of community. And, and also, I think, there there is a tendency to think that the fact that it's okay if I'm sort of tribal, with my family, with my friends and so on, also mean that it's also okay to be tribal with my employer. But that's a different kind of game we're talking about. And as I said, companies like to make us think that because then they are more river working harder for them. They can, you know, get us to do more work and so on. And that's a Isn't there interest, but that's a very strategic move.
And that is that is one of the great long term deep philosophical questions, right? How much priority we have to our parents, right? famously, Plato in the euthyphro, has Socrates challenged the guy who won't protect his who won't protect his father from being arrested for killing someone. Right. And so this question of expanding the concentric circles from family to community, where does work fit in? Where does the your employer fit in? That's a tremendously powerful question. And so I want to, I think we're going to try to end by asking two very specific questions, one of which is the title of this episode. And then the next is the title of your book. So you know where I'm going. Does it make sense given all we've seen to blame the system? Is that a coherent moral position? And if we've and and can we say the system is corrupt? The system is mistaken, and that's what's wrong.
I think that's can be a threat. Step but there needs to be second and third and fourth, whatever steps that then unpack about what we mean, who is wrong about what, who seem to be forced by systemic powers, whatever to do certain things. And who is actually really responsible as an individual?
Is this a practical question in the sense that when you blame the system, you need a handhold? And that handhold maybe the vice president or the or the legal team or the or the, the shareholder policy or something like that? Or is it a philosophical objection, in that the system is so amorphous and such a metaphor that really we need to deal with a reality rather than a fiction, so to speak? Is it practical or is it philosophical,
kind of science both?
Both and I think the important thing is that human beings are the kinds of creatures that tend to live in self fulfilling or self undermining prophecies, and if we always Plame the system without also asking well, who In particular did what and what can I do, then we given to that picture, every one of us is just powerless. And I've been in these interviews that I did, I've heard people that I thought were immensely powerful telling me, you know, I can't really do anything. It's just, they're all these different groups. And I'm really just, you know, going along with it. And that's kind of quite true. So there is a danger in always blaming the system, the den doesn't, you know, locate moral responsibility, including our own in the void way.
So that that leaves us with the question that you've titled your book, how do we reclaim the system? What do we do and what does that look like? And I know it took you 200 some odd pages to say, you know, see if we can do it. 97?
Well, I think there are several levels. One is as individuals in the very context we live in, what can we do to make things better? What does it mean to relate to others often it's about building quality. In order to improve things, but then there's also the political level. And I think, here the nation states are currently still very important, because the way in which the legal framework is set has an impact on what kind of organizations are possible and which ones are likely to win out and market competition. And so there is also the responsibility we have as political agents to think about, okay, what kind of changes need to be made? And what does that mean for my voting behavior. And then there are lots of other levels in between. And I think what's probably most important is that we develop and strengthen forms of solidarity with those who are also struggling in these situations and try to make things better, because there's an immense power and seeing that there are many people who are trying to make things better in their own ways, and they're different positions. And if you can join forces, often that helps to get us a bit closer to something better than we currently have.
You know, that that's a really intriguing way to move into the future. Because of We haven't addressed this yet the invisibility of the people who are trying to make the change, right? In these organizations, the people, when they try to make things better, often, they're not acknowledged. Often it feels like just day to day work. And often they're blamed by the failure of the organization rather than their attempts to make it better. Do you think that this is the wrong way to ask the question, but let me let me ask it this way. We all seem so pessimistic about making organizations and systems more moral. Do you think that pessimism is misplaced? Do you think that there are more people trying to fix it than we think? Or do you think that in the end, there's a few people trying to make a difference and luck, among other things is going to play a huge role?
actually afraid of this pessimism because it prevents us from even recognizing what each of us could do. I think it's just the way in which it paralyzes us. That is So dangerous. And I mean, it's very hard to put numbers on this because what does it mean to try to make a change? Some people try it on fail on for a while they don't try. But if someone else asked him, would you be willing to join us in trying to change things? They would say? Yes, of course. So I think we need to look at the places where it is happening. And I see lots of places where people start thinking, Okay, this capitalist system as we have it at the moment, that can't be the way forward. The kind of planned economies that the Eastern Bloc had in combination with dictatorship, that wasn't a good way either. So what is a good new way? And I see that there are lots of companies that are rethinking their strategies or priorities. There is a lot of cheap talk there as well. But sometimes if you have the CEO say, saying something about oh, we need to be sustainable, then the people in the different departments of that organization can actually say what our CEO said, we have to be sustainable. So now we need to change something. So they can also be sort of the classical civilization power of hypocrisy playing a role and the more we I know about these efforts, the more inspired we can got on the psychological level, but also the more we can learn from each other about tactics and strategies, what works. And I think lots of social movements, the feminist movement, the the black movement, that they have something that can be learned that needs to be transferred to the organizational context, like these alternative ways of organizing all these things. And at the moment, I think it's actually exciting to see that there is a lot of hunger for alternative models, and there is a lot going on.
Well, this has been a wonderful conversation, really one of the best parts of it may have gone unnoticed by our listeners in that the topic that we're talking about is tremendously abstract and can get very, very technical. And your work and your examples have made it very concrete and understandable. So Lisa, thank you so much for joining us on why.
Thank you for inviting me. That was fun.
You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein. And Lisa Hertzog on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
Visit IPP ELLs blog pq Ed, philosophical questions every day. For more philosophical discussions of everyday life I comment on the entries and share your points of view with an ever growing community of professional and amateur philosophers. You can access the blog and view more information on our schedule our broadcasts and the y radio store at www dot philosophy and public life.org.
You're back with wide philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm jack Russell Weinstein. I was talking with Liza Hertzog about reclaiming the system whether it makes sense to blame The system and how we fix it if that's what we want to do. And she said something really interesting. Towards the end, she said she was talking to all of these people interviewing them. And she had all of these powerful people that feel powerless. And her response was, that can't be right. But of course, it is right. Part of the point of a system, part of the point of an organization is that it is infinitely more powerful than any one individual, even if you are the CEO, even if you are the CFO, even if you're the Chair of the Board of Directors, it is this massive ship, that one person may be steering, but everyone else is operating. And so the question then becomes, how do you fix the system? How do you fix a bad organization? And the central insight that she begins with is that there is this thing called a moral division of labor, that the way you fix it is by doing your part, maybe you write legible notes to the doctor, maybe you let your subordinates complain to you. Maybe you show people more respect, maybe You are a whistleblower who knows, but you have to do your part. And you can't do your part unless the leadership protects you, unless the leadership is good. And that is ultimately the takeaway. Organizations are top down. But the goal of the top is to make them more bottom up. The goal of the top is to distribute moral responsibility, moral freedom, respect, learning, communication among the organization and to give everyone the opportunity to rethink the goals and the purpose. It may not make sense to blame the system, because we are part of the system. But it does make sense to reclaim the system. Because since we are all moral agents, everything we do matters, morality is pervasive. And if we all work together, we can not just steer that ship, but make it worth writing in your listening to jack Russell. Why Steen on wide philosophical discussion that everyday life Thank you so much for listening as always it's an honor to be with you.
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