Thursday, September 22, 2011

Its only part of the game

I have just finished reading Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenstern, the business reporter for the NYT. If you want to see a catalogue of irresponsible behavior in the run up to the financial crisis and the Great Recession, do read this book. It raises the question of how executives and professionals, who in all likelihood lead ethically informed lives, could have engaged in reckless and  unethical conduct.

I want to draw attention to the idea of the “game” as a mechanism for avoiding responsibility. Since I believe that many lessons in leadership can be derived from the TV serial, “The Wire,” it is interesting to note that the gangsters in the drug trade called the trade, with all its violence, “the game.”  A game is a moral universe of its own making. It has its own rules in the service of separating the losers from the winners. Some of the rules in the drug trade, as depicted in The Wire, did have a moral character; for example not “shooting up your enemies” on Sunday, (the Sabbath) or not killing innocent bystanders. But within this moral universe the primary task of all actors is to try to win.

I wonder if this is in fact a stance that some leaders in competitive settings take. One can see the advantages of such a stance.   A game is not for real, it privileges winning rather than producing, and legitimates financial and psychological injuries as the natural consequences of losing. Morgenstern reports that as the mortgage bubble began to unwind, one actor in an investment bank noted that the  “mortgage game was over.”

If we look at ethical behavior psychoanalytically we can say that the superego, anticipating conduct that violates ethical norms, intervenes by creating anxiety. We are tempted to fulfill our desires by exploiting others, but are forewarned by the experience of anticipatory anxiety.  This would suggest that the concept of the game subverts this circuit, by proposing that the both the desires and the injuries are just “part of the game.”

It is interesting that “game theory” has arisen in the service economy where instead of wrestling with the materials of nature in production and agriculture, we are wrestling with each other. In creating economic value through our relatedness, for this is what the service economy is, we may go overboard and think of our relationships as “part of the game.” 

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