making local government more ethical

Summer Reading: The Righteous Mind II - Individualistic vs. Sociocentric Societies

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon, 2012), Jonathan Haidt identifies one of the biggest obstacles to government ethics in the U.S.:  the fact that we have an individualistic society, placing individuals at the center, rather than the more common sociocentric society, which subordinates the needs of individuals to the needs of groups and institutions. Ours is a society of rights, while sociocentric societies are societies of obligations. Government ethics is all about obligations, and dealing responsibly with conflicts between one's obligation to one's community and one's obligation to one's family, friends, and business associates, one's self-centered community.

Local government officials often talk of their rights when it comes to government ethics. Elected officials have the right to make a living on the side. Spouses of government officials have a right to do whatever they want; they should not be hampered by their spouses' obligations. Government officials speak of their privacy rights when there is talk of financial disclosure requirements. And, of course, government officials speak of their right to legislative immunity, even though this is not a right at all, but a way to protect constituents from having their representatives pressured by the executive branch.

Rights have almost no place in government ethics. But it is difficult for people in our society to see past rights in order to understand obligations, unless the obligation is stated as a clear legal requirement and enables behavior that benefits them. For example, in some states local elected officials are obligated to vote. Local elected officials seem to have no problem understanding and following this statutory requirement, perhaps because it is so clear and simple, perhaps because it allows them to participate with a conflict. In other words, it is a lesser obligation that, to their benefit, they can call an overriding obligation. The balancing was done long ago by the state legislature.

The individualistic-sociocentric distinction also lies behind the problem of seeing how harmful ethical misconduct is. We easily understand harm done to individuals (including the undermining of their reputations and preventing them from participating in matters where they have a conflict), but we do not so easily understand harm done to institutions or communities. In any scandal, most of the talk is about personal misconduct, personal integrity, and personal reputation. The effect on the community's pride, citizens' participation in government, and the anger citizens feel is rarely discussed (the principal exception is the misuse of taxpayer funds).

In a sociocentric society, the talk would be of the tribe and, most likely, of the ancestors. We talk of the Founding Fathers to buttress our arguments. We don't talk of how our actions today would cause them agony and possibly lead them to take vengeance on us. The past is past, and the future (our obligations to our community's children and grandchildren) is often ignored just as easily.

A related issue that Haidt raises is the different ways in which people differentiate between violations of moral rules and conventional rules, that is, between violations that harm individuals and violations that break taboos, but where no one is harmed. Haidt was involved in a study that showed that social class was the principal determinant regarding how people differentiated between the two. Wealthier people tended to differentiate the most between them, while poorer people tended to see both sorts of violation as equally wrong.

This might explain why wealthier people, including most people who are active in politics, see ethics violations as more minor than the average citizen, who becomes very angry when officials use their positions to help those with whom they have special relationships, even when no one is directly harmed.

Continue with the next post on this book.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics