nothingness and being and the psychology of fraud

image by Mr. CRO via flickr

I listened to a fascinating story on NPR about “The Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things,” by Chana Joffe-Walt and Alix Spiegel.

Good people do fall into the chasm. We know that, I suppose. But what this story, or that of Toby Groves, shows us is how it happens. Step by step. Little actions which grow and grow and before you know it you are in too deep, too far, and you can’t get out.

The decisions that take us there, according to Ann Tenbrunsel, a researcher quoted in the piece who studies “unethical behavior,” are dependent on the framework within which we make them. She points out that we operate more often than not under a certain blindness. Rarely, it seems, do people actually choose to behave badly. Our humble human brains are flawed in a way that prevents us from seeing the big picture, and hence we trespass.

Her conclusion is that a great deal of fraud is unintentional, as was, apparently Toby’s. He is not evil, just deprived of reason by his myopic focus on saving his business rather than on the ethics of his decision. His lack of judgement is backed by the best of intentions.

I know… “the road to hell is paved…” and all that. But it’s true.

And these same intentions are seen in all those who support the lie, who do so because they care, about the initial liar, about the thing being lied about, about the company needing just a little help to gain purchase on the slippery slope of economic hardship. The little lie becomes many little lies which then grow exponentially, yet all might have been avoided had there been a simple reminder at the start that lying (or stealing or whatever the possible bad behavior might be) is unethical and illegal. That framework seems to yield ethical results. We need to be reminded like little children to brush their teeth before bed. Maybe we should start each morning by putting hand to heart and reciting a pledge, not to God and country, but to doing the right thing.

Hearing this story reminded me almost immediately of one of my favorite books, read long ago. It was a keeper and survived all bookshelf purges, so I was able to reread it today. It is called, naturally, Corruption, and was written by the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Some have likened it to Camus’ The Stranger, and understandably so, for it portrays with deceptive simplicity the parched Saharan-like existence of a man who sells his soul to the devil one day at a time. It is a universal tale of temptation, of desperation, of weakness, of good intentions stained by the promises of all too easy rewards.

As Ben Jelloun said in his preface, “The story takes place in contemporary Morocco. Under different skies, thousands of miles away, the human soul, worn down by the same misery, sometimes gives into the same demons.”

His tale is that of a bureaucrat named Mourad, a simple man who struggles to provide for his family, to keep his integrity within a world which thrives on turning the other way when it is compromised. He is an everyman, an awkward Don Quixote stuck not in the maze of the medina of Fez or the office buildings of Casablanca, but in his own inability to be “flexible,” to join the tribe.

He is not that different from Toby Groves, or the bit players in his story of fraud. He is not that different from any given man or woman struggling to provide for his family or succeed.

“My life is worse than miserable,” Mourad thinks to himself:

On his modest salary he supports his family, pays the rent and his children’s school expenses, and also provides for his mother. But he can’t make ends meet. He lives on credit, thanks to his grocer, and knows he can’t have a third child. They can say all they want that every birth is an asset, that God will provide for the needs of his creatures. Mourad is adamant on this subject, and to put an end to the discussion insisted Hlima start using an IUD. It was then that she told him, angrily, “Your assistant is a real man! He earns less than you but he lives in a beautiful house with two cars. His children go to the French mission school, and he also takes his wife on vacations to Rome! All you give me is an IUD and meat for dinner only twice a week. This is no life. Our vacations at your mother’s, in that old house in the medina in Fez—you call that a vacation? When are you going to realize how miserable our lives are?”

His wife Hlima is bitter and angry and wants him to play the game and take the bribes and do the favors that will give them the perks of those who do. His mother-in-law sneers and his children look at him with something akin to pity. His life is a downward spiral until he gives in and takes the envelope, stuffing it in the pages of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, “which I bought at the flea market in the medina. That way if I reverse the title, and go from nothingness to being, the book will in a sense be about me.”

He is a man like any man faced with a decision, his mind playing with him and offering up a million reasons why just this once won’t matter, that everyone does it and the end justifies the means. His intention, after all, is not to better himself as much as to better his family, his company. Just this once.


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