Like many people (around 73 million), I watched the presidential debate last night. As difficult as it was to watch, it brought to the fore the stages of moral development, with its focus on “law and order” and discussion of motivation behind actions taken, such as paying taxes.
Morality is not a static framework, but rather one that changes as we age and develop personally over time. Sometimes people stop at a certain stage, but the possibilities are there to move beyond externally-imposed rules into universal ethics.
Why does this matter in analytics? If we administer an implementation, we become enforcers and gatekeepers of information. We’re also tasked with being the last voice of reason before any questionable code or privacy-violating item goes live. If we’re analysts, we might be pressured to present information a certain way to reach a pre-drawn conclusion. We might be caught among political factions within a company each vying for their piece of the pie, and here were are trying to present an unvarnished truth, which may have negative consequences for one of those factions.
How we respond to these challenges may vary depending on where we are within the stages of moral development. For the sake of this post, we’re speaking of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. To get ahead of this, there are valid criticisms/limitations of this framework, namely that is centered around Western males, as is much of 20th century psychology. However, I believe it’s useful to illustrate a general point.
There are 3 primary stages: Pre-Conventional, Conventional, and Post-Conventional moral reasoning. In the Pre-Conventional stage, the individual is focused only on external punishment, then later what is in it for them to obey authority. In the Conventional stage, laws are obeyed due to a desire to conform socially and gain acceptance among one’s peer group, then later to uphold societal norms. There is still a focus on external authority and consequences. In the Post-Conventional stage, there is a recognition that laws are human creations, and unjust laws should be changed to laws with greater benefit through democratic process. Finally, there is a recognition that laws must be grounded in justice to be recognized as valid, and there is an obligation to disobey laws that are unjust. There is also a clarity of one’s own values to determine what is acceptable. In the Post-Conventional stage, there is an ability to place ourselves in another’s shoes and feel empathy for their position. This stage is the only one to rise above the level of the individual to universal ethics.
How does this look when translated to life and to an analytics career? Let’s take examples from each stage for common scenarios.
Life: “I will pay the minimum amount of taxes I can get away with, because the IRS will punish me if I don’t.”
Analytics Admin: “I won’t deploy this problematic code because I’ll lose my job if I do it.”
Analyst: “I won’t lie on this report because I’ll lose my job if I do it,” or worse, “I will report this selectively to make things look better, because I’ll lose my job if I don’t.”
Life: “I will pay taxes because I want to be perceived as a conforming person and because this is a social norm.”
Analytics Admin: “I won’t deploy this problematic code because I’ll lose the respect of my peers in the industry/company if I do it.”
Analyst: “I won’t lie on this report because I want other people to see me as an honest employee.”
Life: “I will pay taxes to benefit others, and will also campaign against uses of my tax dollars I disagree with.” or “If everyone refused to pay taxes, critical infrastructure and education would be at risk, so I will pay them, and also campaign against uses I disagree with.”
Analytics Admin: “I won’t deploy this problematic code because of the impact it would have on the people that visit our site. I care about their privacy and personal information, because I would be incensed if a company was careless with my information.”
Analyst: “I won’t lie on this report, because honesty is important to me in principle. It would lead to incorrect conclusions that would ultimately hurt the business to lie about the current state of affairs, so I will produce an accurate report regardless of internal political pressures.”
There are many other possible examples and outcomes possible here, but hopefully the above examples illustrate the differences in approach among the various stages. Most adults remain in Conventional morality and do not progress to Post-Conventional. For that reason, there may always be a need for a carrot/stick approach and peer pressure to promote things like public health initiatives, getting marketers to consistently use tracking codes, encouraging users to read the knowledge base you spent hours creating, etc.
We have real responsibilities, no matter what our role is in our organization, to pursue the highest moral good we can. We all encounter situations where we come to a crossroads that can have legal implications, particularly in the ever-changing landscape of privacy laws. It is up to us what we do and why. The outcome will determine our own future and that of our companies.