Liberal Education

Ethical Drift

In Lifeboat, the film by Alfred Hitchcock, several marooned individuals who have survived the wrecks of their two ships find themselves adrift in the middle of the ocean. Their meager supplies soon begin to run out, and as they do, the drifting of their lifeboat becomes a metaphor for the drifting of their ethical standards. Within less time than one might have imagined, the survivors are acting in ways none of them ever would have thought possible.

Ethical drift is the gradual ebbing of standards that can occur in an individual, a group, or an organization as a result of environmental pressures. It often occurs insidiously, and even without conscious awareness. Just as a boat adrift in the midst of the ocean can travel long distances without any visible change in its location, so too can ethical drift occur without people realizing that they have changed (usually for the worse) their ethical standards.

One who is adrift at sea will eventually become aware that he or she has drifted, because the constellations, which are fixed in positions, will appear to have moved. But it can take a while to realize that the constellations seem to be in different places, and by that time, one may have forgotten where they originally had seemed to be. Similarly, when ethical drift occurs, one typically realizes it only after a great while, and by then one may have lost one’s original bearings.

The biggest challenge of ethical drift is that, because it typically is insidious, people are not even aware it is happening. They may believe that they are adhering to the same ethical standards they had before. Or, by the time they realize that their standards have changed, it may be too late. We often assume that people who act unethically simply decide to behave in a way that they or anyone else can see is clearly wrong. Frequently, however, such people have experienced ethical drift; their frame of reference has changed so gradually that they are not even aware that they are behaving unethically. Others may be appalled by their actions—except those who have drifted along with them.

Students, for example, may begin by lifting a few words from materials gathered from the Internet, and gradually progress to sentences, paragraphs, and then major parts of, or even whole papers. The process is much more insidious than when students merely decide to “buy” a paper from a paper-writing mill. The students may not even be aware the process has taken place—although, of course, they should be.

I once talked to an individual who had gone from working in one organization (a university) to another (a consulting company). He described to me in some detail the unethical practices of the firm. I asked him why he did not leave. He replied that the down-drift in ethics had occurred over a long period of time, or at least he had become aware of it only over an extended period of time. Had he realized it at once, he would have left, but the process had been so slow that he had not even been aware it was taking place. At that point, he felt he would have trouble finding another job, and had himself become somewhat ethically compromised.

Such drift can happen in many contexts, of course. The quality of intimate relationships can decline, as can the quality of life in a particular home or town. What is potentially different about ethical drift is how it eats away at one’s humanity and leaves one caught in a situation that can be not only ethically compromising, but also potentially legally dangerous.

Environmental forces

Ethical drift is provoked by at least four environmental forces. First, it typically occurs when there is intense competition for resources, as on the lifeboat. Second, people start to feel that they are in a zero-sum game, often with relatively meager rewards—again, as characterized by the lifeboat scenario. Third, people perceive, or think they perceive, others acting in ways that are ethically compromised, as Hitchcock’s characters saw each other acting in more and more ethically challenged ways. Sometimes, when individuals or organizations compete, team members actually may encourage an individual to act in ethically compromised ways. Finally, people may see no other viable way out of the quandary; they feel they cannot just leave the situation—as in the lifeboat scenario, where exit from the boat meant almost certain death.

When we teach students ethical reasoning and behavior, we need to make them aware of the challenges of ethical drift. People who experience it had often started out acting according to ethical principles and may not realize that they have drifted into behavior that no longer upholds the ethical standards they originally set for themselves. For example, students may start off by setting high standards for themselves in writing papers but, after observing others lift material from the Internet without attribution, may start doing so themselves, with the amounts of material lifted increasing from one assignment to the next. Or a scientist may start “cleaning” data and proceed to “massaging” and then to “falsifying” it. Or a college administrator may exchange a home renovation for a vendor contract at his college, thinking that’s what others do, so why shouldn’t he?

If one looks at people who have committed serious transgressions, one often finds that they started out just like anyone else. Consider, for example, two notorious bank employees. Jerome Kerviel at the Societe General and Kweku Adoboli at UBS, from what the records show, started off as honest but aggressive traders. They made bets that went wrong. They tried to recoup the money they lost, at first, through legal activity, then through activity that went beyond the bounds of legality and ethicality. In the end their behavior became egregious, and they were caught. They experienced an intense competition for resources as a zero-sum game: they were either making money or losing it. They were acting in banking cultures that encouraged aggressive risk taking and even going beyond the bounds so long as the actors did not get caught. In the end, they saw no way out of their quandary except to recoup their losses illegally, although of course they could have turned themselves in, possibly losing their jobs but not exposing themselves to the possibility of prison terms. Perhaps the most critical element was the organizational culture of ethical drift, one that held it is all right to shave a little here, a little there, so long as appearances are maintained and the ends are alleged (falsely) to justify the means.

People who experience ethical drift usually do not tell themselves and others, “How unethical am I!” Rather, in order to maintain an ethical image of themselves (false though that image may be) they tend to resort to rationalizations: “It was God’s will.” “I was forced to do it; I had no choice.” “It was either me or him/her.” “They got what they deserved.” “He/she was not really human in any case.” “I did it for the good of the organization.” “It was the right thing to do under the circumstances.” “It was strictly a business decision.” “I did it for his/her own good.” “No one’s perfect; God has forgiven me, and you should too.” “It felt like the right thing at the time.”

It might seem easy to avoid ethical drift; you have simply to be true to your original ethical standards. But that is easier said than done—first, because one often is not aware of one’s own drifting and, second, because there often is a cost to acting in an ethical way. For example, if a student observes his roommate copying text verbatim from the Internet without attribution, he may know at some level that he should say or do something. But what? And even if he does something in response, he risks losing not only the friendship of his roommate, but the friendships of others in his social circle. Indeed, he risks being ostracized completely. How much easier it is to drift into a “live and let live” attitude toward others, and then to demand that others take that attitude toward oneself as one’s ethics drift downward.

Discouraging ethical drift

What can one do to discourage ethical drift in colleagues, students, or even oneself? First, an organization needs to recognize and warn its members of the phenomenon of ethical drift. Second, there needs to be a culture of no tolerance for ethical drift. Third, actors need to be warned to be vigilant for ethical drift in themselves and others. Fourth, mechanisms must be available to identify ethical drift when it occurs—such as curbs on illegal trading, in the case of banks, or services such as Turnitin, which detects plagiarism, in the case of colleges and universities. Finally, those who are caught drifting beyond permissible bounds must be quickly, visibly, and appropriately punished. At Oklahoma State University, for example, students are taught from day one that ethical practice and leadership are the core of our land-grant mission. For those who take another path, we use a grade of “F!” to indicate dishonesty, as distinguished from a grade merely of “F” for a failure.

Ultimately, the greatest protection against ethical drift is wisdom—recognizing that, in the end, people benefit most when they act for the common good. Wisdom is the ultimate lifeboat.


Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, George Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Ethical Leadership, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University.


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