making local government more ethical

Blind Spots VI — Psychological Cleansing and Obfuscation

The denial of unethical behavior, which usually occurs long after the behavior itself, is usually the worst part of an ethics scandal, the adding of insult to injury. The public is faced with two possibilities when an official denies that he did something unethical. This dilemma is well described in Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It, a new book by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Princeton University Press):
    It is possible that the person doesn't actually believe he behaved ethically, but rather claims to be ethical to reduce the damages associated with his unethical actions. [Another] explanation is also the most troubling in terms of improving one's behavior. It is possible that the person inherently believes in his own ethicality, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Note that the authors say the second explanation is more troubling in terms of improving one's behavior, not what many of us would say:  that the official who thinks so well of himself is simply in denial, detached from reality, caught up in a world of power and yes-men. When you believe you act ethically because you are an ethical person, you have no incentive to analyze situations for their ethical aspects or bring ethical reasoning into play.

I would add that those who deny the unethical nature of their behavior not only prevent themselves from improving their behavior, but also make it less likely that those around them will improve their behavior. And that includes citizens as well as officials.

Psychological Cleansing
The authors describe the process by which people deal with their own unethical conduct. Our "moral disengagement" involves a process they refer to as "psychological cleansing."
    As we gain distance from our visceral responses to an ethical dilemma, the ethical implications of our choices come back into full-color. We are faced with a contradiction between our beliefs about ourselves as ethical people and our unethical actions. This type of discrepancy is unsettling, to say the least, and we are likely to be motivated to reduce the dissonance that results. So strong is the need to do so that researchers found in one study that offering people an opportunity to wash their hands after behaving immorally reduced their need to compensate for an immoral action ... No other action was needed.
Psychological cleansing is a process that "allows us to selectively turn our usual ethical standards on and off at will." It consists of rationalizations, changing our definition of what is ethical, and becoming desensitized to unethical behavior. With respect to desensitization regarding billable hours, the authors note that "as ethical numbness sets in, each one-hour lie becomes less ethically painful."

Although Blind Spots focuses on unconscious behavior, its authors do consider more intentional behavior. One kind of intentional behavior they discuss is obfuscation, which they define as "the practice of communicating in a deliberately confusing or ambiguous manner with the intention of misleading the listener. The main goal of obfuscation is to create reasonable doubt about change in the minds of citizens and policymakers and thus to encourage the status quo to prevail."

One example they provide is that of auditing firms who "claim their integrity protected them, thereby creating reasonable doubts in the minds of politicians and the public about the need for change" (that is, change in rules governing auditors).

Although government officials often claim they have integrity, citizens are less likely to believe them than they are to believe auditors. For obfuscation, officials tend to turn to the law and the attack. They insist that they followed the law, or that the law isn't clear or, if they get really desperate, that the law isn't constitutional, at least with respect to them, talking about their rights of free speech and legislative immunity. The fact that rights and government ethics are both intended to protect citizens, not officials, is something they never point out.

The alternative is the attack. Those making the allegations are said to be acting purely out of partisan spite. They've done the very same things. They're making a mountain out of a molehill. Attacks create a cloud of uncertainty.

Each of these acts of obfuscation is an attempt to turn attention away from the official's behavior and away from government ethics in general. They are attempts to have newspapers and blogs write about partisan rancor, legal language, free speech, and legislative immunity. Some are attempts to take the matter out of the hands of an ethics commission and put it in the hands of the courts, where laws trump government ethics nearly every time.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics