Discussions of Ethics Tend to Miss the Point

The thing I find most disturbing, if not disgusting, about the overwhelming majority of so-called ”discussions” that take place in the TV community is how utterly trivial and paltry they are. They are not discussions. Instead, they are half-baked, ill-formed arguments masquerading as serious positions.

This came to mind as I followed coverage of the Television Critics Association July press tour, where the heads of several networks accused their counterparts at other networks of unethical behavior involving copycat shows.

The ”arguments,” if they can be called that, for and against Fox TV’s stealing or pre-empting of ideas for new reality shows range between two extremes. On the one hand is the position that there is no violation of ethics because there are no ethics so to speak in the TV business. As one of the participants put it, ”There is no ethics among thieves.” On the other hand, the behavior was justified because it represented nothing fundamentally new or different; in effect it was OK because it has always been that way.

Where the first position justifies stealing by denying the existence of ethics altogether by virtue of the kind of business that TV is, and the kinds of participants it attracts, the second justifies stealing by the so-called ”fact” that ”that’s the way it’s always been.” That is, the fact that ideas have been stolen a million times over, justifies the 1-millionth-and-first act of stealing. In more abstract terms, the fact that stealing has occurred n times justifies the n+1 time, where n is any number up to infinity!

No field or any aspect of human behavior is totally without ethics. Indeed, the complete absence of ethics in anything we humans do is a complete and utter impossibility. Whenever one is faced with the choice between two alternatives, that choice not only has to be made, but it has to be justified in some way. If the choice is justified in terms of ”better profits,” then ”better profits” is in effect the underlying ethical basis.

More to the point, the ethics that underlies the TV business is not basically one of thieves. If the industry were capable of being honest with itself, then it would tell it like a recent book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, does.

In effect, the modern corporation fits the profiles of a psychopath and a sociopath. Among the prominent characteristics of psychopaths and sociopaths is not only their complete disregard for the feelings of others, but the fact that they exhibit no guilt or remorse whatsoever for their actions. In effect, ”the business” is the mind of the psychopath or sociopath writ large.

Even thieves are capable of feeling remorse and guilt. But psychopaths and sociopaths are not. Indeed, conning is a big part of their makeup, so much so that they feel a great sense of elation by putting something over on someone ”who deserves it.”

This helps us to see why there are no feelings of guilt or remorse with regard to stealing ideas. Furthermore, it also helps us to see why there is continuous justification for the appropriation of ideas.

The second argument is also sociopathic, although of a somewhat different kind. It rests upon the philosophy of utilitarianism or cost/benefit analysis. It says that if a certain act is ethically warranted n times, then it is warranted n+1 times, especially if the benefits of the act outweigh its costs.

Once again, there is a variant, or an aspect, of sociopathic thinking. It says that whenever a cold calculation reveals that the benefits of an action are greater than the costs, then one is morally warranted in engaging in the behavior.

No one who wants to remain part of a human community can reason this way entirely. To do so is to damage seriously any foundation for trust. And, especially in today’s post-9/11 world, trust is needed more than ever.

However Hollywood justifies what it does, its justifications need to be seen for what they are. Indeed, I suspect that this is why there is so much underlying anger with regard to the Hollywood community. The anger is not directed toward the exposure of a breast here and there, but with regard to the half-baked and disingenuous arguments that are used to justify it.

Originally published in Television Week, September 6, 2004
Reprinted with permission, © 2004 Crain Communications Inc.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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