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Meet "Homo Duplex" - a new ethics super-hero?

[This essay was originally posted on The Conflict of Interest Blog.]

In “Behavioral Ethics for Homo Economicus, Homo Heuristicus and Homo Duplex” – which is published in the March 2004 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes – Jesse Kluver, Rebecca Frazier and Jonathan Haidt describe three views of human nature and consider the implications of each for the field of business ethics:
 

  • The traditionally dominant “Homo economicus” model, which sees human nature as based on “rational self-interested actors within systems of economic or social exchange” and which views incentive alignment as the key motivator for human behavior.
  • A more recently emerged “Homo heuristicus” approach, which posits that heuristics (ingrained mental short cuts) and biases “drive decision making behavior, including ethical decision and behavior.” The authors view this model as more psychologically realistic than the Homo economicus approach and believe it offers a variety of insights that can be useful for shaping “ethical systems” (including, presumably, C&E programs).
  • Homo duplex,” a term coined by the sociologist/psychologist/philosopher Emile Durkheim, which posits that we operate on (or shift between) two levels: a lower one – which he deemed “the profane,” in which we largely pursue individual interests; and a higher – more group-focused – level, which he called “the sacred.” The authors see this view as an extension – not as a contradiction – of Homo heuristicus.

This last model has considerable potential, the authors believe, for promoting ethical behavior. That is because various studies have shown that “some of the neurobiological adaptations humans have developed for moral behavior work explicitly at the group level rather than the individual level,” “above and beyond what might be expected under the Homo economicus or Homo heuristicus models.” Yet, the authors argue, Homo duplex has received far too little attention to date, and the paper offers ways in which this model of human behavior could be used to promote ethical conduct in businesses and also suggests avenues for further research.

There is much more to this paper - concerning, among other things, lessons for organizations seeking to build what Haidt calls “moral capital,” as well as the importance of designing “ethical systems” to bring employees of an organization to the above-described higher state, and I wholeheartedly commend the piece to readers of the COI Blog. Indeed, I hope to explore some of these possibilities in future posts.

Having said all this, I should note that there may be limits to how far this thinking can take a company in promoting ethical and compliant behavior, given that so many major business crimes emanate from the “C-Suite,” the inhabitants of which may be both less likely to act ethically as a general matter (as discussed in this post) and less inclined to participate in what the authors call “ego-dissolving activities” – i.e., the basis for Homo duplex’s higher level – than are the rank-and-file. Indeed, the most famous corporate example involving an attempt to build team spirit is, the authors note, “Wal-Mart, where each day employees participate in the Wal-Mart chant…” While presumably effective in reducing the rate of petty theft by store employees, based on various press accounts, this doesn’t appear to have done much to deter massive bribery by the company, which on some level seems to have involved some of its senior managers.

In a related vein, while I am a big fan of Homo heuristicus (as reflected in my many earlier posts on “behavioral ethics and compliance”), and (based partly on my deep admiration of Haidt’s landmark book, The Righteous Mind), while I embrace the authors’ agenda of conducting more research into how a Homo duplex view can be used to promote ethical behavior, I think it important to continue to work with the central insight of the much-maligned Homo economicus framework too (and believe that the authors – who note that we do not need to rely solely on an one view of human nature – would agree with this). That is, while the incentive-based approach to promoting ethical behavior is as old as the Code of Hammurabi, at least in the modern corporate crime setting it has been hobbled by moral-hazard-related infirmities – i.e., it has not , in my view, had a real chance to live up to its own potential to be an ethical super-hero.

For further reading see:

Scott Killingsworth’s excellent paper, on C-Suite behavior, discussed and linked to in this earlier post

My recent “Ethics Exchange” with Steve Priest about “Ethics, Compliance and Human Nature” on ECOA Connects.

[See also our summary of Cultivating Conscience, which argues against the Homo economicus model using a Jekyll-and-Hyde metaphor that closely resembles Homo duplex.]

 

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