Villainy – it’s an interesting topic.

As a social worker, I need to make some decisions that are not necessarily well received by those whom those decisions affect. I also make many decisions that are well received – so it isn’t all bad. My hope is that more people bless my name than curse it. Reflecting on this prompted me to think – at what point do I turn into a villain? After all, don’t many villains justify their ‘evil’ acts by doing the best thing despite the will of the people? Isn’t that what I do?

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin, this proverb is attempting to justify the cost of the eggs to make a good ending, the omelette. Many of my clients lack the insight, motivation and or intellect to make intelligent choices. Many lack relevant support and resources to manage their preferred outcome. At these times I need to step in and make recommendations, enforce rules of the organisation (policies, program guidelines and legislature). This may take the form of counselling, educating and or referring to relevant government bodies.

Many times families of the clients welcome the necessary intervention, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the client is grateful that someone has stepped in, often they aren’t. On average though, most of the clients and families that I work with are happy with the result that our facility has supported them achieving.

The times when both the client and the family are angry with me prompts me to review the actions that I have taken. Did I really do what was best? Did I really follow the rules and did I need to? Was there another way? Frequently my result is that for the definition of ‘best’ within the program and my conscience, for the definition of the rules as I know them, I did the right thing and there was no other, better way.

Best is a strange word. I have had a client, who lacked competence due to memory and lack of insight, who had five children all trying to do the ‘best’ thing for their parent. Each had a different but reasonable idea of what ‘best’ looked like. Each child’s view was incompatible with at least half the other children. Who is to define what the ‘best’ thing was for their parent? Who am I to decide for them? To protect ourselves from this, we make a decision as a team to ensure that we have checks and balances in place and that all decisions are team decisions, each of us working within our consensus ethics, work place procedure, program guidelines and the law.

That all sounds fine and dandy. Usually it works really well, although I am sure that those who receive the more intrusive interventions on their hopes and aspirations are not happy with the role we play. What if we tinkered a little with some of these settings. Let us say that our personal ethics were a little more broad than they are, perhaps the work place procedure was written up by us to reflect these broader ethics, perhaps the program guidelines are self funded and also written by us and the law, while something we must comply with locally whenever convenient, is something we need to measure against the cost of achieving our goal. How villainous can we become?

Personal ethics are derived from a combination of genetics, culture and experience. While some would like to suggest they are sourced in religious doctrine, there have been more than enough religious people committing “sins” and crimes against common law ethics to combat this notion, and more than enough non religious (athiest) people demonstrating altruism and cooperation to dismiss the perceived requirement for a religious upbringing. Basically, the spectrum of ethics in people is broad regardless of your cultural upbringing and absence or presence of a belief system. Often the caring fields call to a more select group of the general population, mostly those whose ethics run strong in representing and assisting those who need help. A company is generally looking for individuals whose ethics lie more towards making money with minimal harm – where harm can be broadly defined. This can include allowing the breaking of eggs to make that omelette. A study of psychopathy in Chief Executive Officers (CEO’s) of companies has demonstrated that the CEO population has an inflated representation of people who score high on tests designed to identify psychopaths. Please note that psychopaths are not all out to kill you, in fact psychopaths just generally don’t care whether you live or die – there is generally no murder agenda. The perceived cost of killing you just because you are in their way – jail time, loss of social status, difficulty in finding future employment – keeps most psychopaths from seriously considering this solution to your inconvenience, despite what the media and common fear states. Additionally it is not just psychopaths that commit murder, whether as an immediate solution or a planned execution. The point to discussing psychopaths at this point is all about empathy and how it plays a part in personal ethics.

Choosing what to do with and or on behalf of another has a great deal to do with identifying with that person and imagining yourself in their situation. This is empathy. Most people have it to varying degrees, however as a general rule, psychopaths don’t. The emotions that psychopaths feel is a closed system. It is about only them, and sometimes psychopaths also experience a limited range of emotions. Rarely does a psychopath feel for someone else. This can create a very egocentric system for valuing everything. While psychopaths are aware that others can be hurt, can love, can feel happy and sad, it has no emotional reflection on them unless it helps or hinders their plans. Around about now, many people will be wondering if they are psychopaths. Looking at the way we think psychopaths work can be scary because we all share some of these traits. It is the abundance of these traits and the absence of others that can define you. Most people reading this will empathise with others, appreciate beauty beyond it’s acquisition value and love their family and friends. If that is you, you are most likely not a psychopath, even if there is an element of calculation in all of the things I just mentioned.

If a group of CEOs form a panel to promote a cause, what are the odds that the panel is only personned by psychopaths? Once they figure out that they are not being judged by the others from an empathy perspective, it is quite easy to see that they could subtly change all of the settings of the panel to be far more calculating for profit than for empathic driven ethical good.

Laws are written by people. Not all people write the laws, just those who go into the correct branches of government. Mostly laws are well thought out comprehensive. Often they are very complex allowing for wriggle room via a good lawyer. Even so, laws are local phenomena, an international company or committee can transgress the laws of man. While people can be sent to jail, a corporation cannot, that entity can only be fined. Often enough the cost of complying with the law can be more expensive than paying the fines for breaking the law. A company may choose to not follow the law for economic reasons. The law may not be as binding as one thinks.

Another consideration is the person who has gone through some kind of experience that has fundamentally changed their value system. Values are a priority system for things, emotions and concepts. Consider this ‘joke’:

Sam asks Lee if they would sleep with them for one million dollars, after some consideration Lee agrees. Sam then asks about the same activity for one dollar. Lee exclaims that they aren’t a prostitute to which Sam states that was already established with the acceptance of one million dollars, now they are just haggling over price.

This humour is derived at finding the value of money verses sex and that many people do actually have a “price” or value hierarchy. Another example it the classic rail cart thought experiment.

You find yourself at a railway, there is a cart (weighing several tons) hurtling down the track and it is going to run over five people stranded on the track. You see that there is a fork in the track and a lever to switch the cart to that fork, but there is one person stuck on that track. You have insufficient time to help either party off the track, but you do have time to get to the lever and switch the track. Do you leave the cart to run over and kill the five people, or do you switch the lever and kill the one?”

This value experiment is to prompt people to consider if they would rather not act and by inaction cause five people to die, or to act and by acting be responsible for the one persons death. It can be followed up with this:

The five people are pensioners and the single person is a teenager – does this change your decisions?

How we value things depends on our upbringing, our society, genetics and our experience. People who have gone through traumatic events, such as rape, war and domestic violence can have an altered value system due to their trauma. Even within a single society the value system of each individual is on a fairly large spectrum.

So what happens if each of the people on the team have had traumatic experiences, or have a fairly alternate value system? The values and ethics held by each team member are now non-standard. It is likely that the goal they will attempt to achieve will be driven by their fears and dreams, which may be mundane or quite extraordinary. The method to which they wish to traverse to achieve these goals may be unacceptable by society. Or to use a nice cliché, these people may feel the ends justify the means, while Western society tends to promote that the ends do not justify the means.

How would each person on the team now plotting the commonly unthinkable plan justify their position? Probably they will say something like “we know best”;”the people this affects clearly are unable to make these decision themselves” because they are “not smart enough, not able to comprehend so lack insight” and so on; “it is the ethical thing to do”; “while there are people who will think this is wrong and will hate me for it, it is the thing I have to do”; and probably “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”. Basically the same reasons that I use to make my hard decisions.

So I console myself that I have empathy and a good value system – yet so would they – that I don’t have too much power to make significantly harmful mass decisions and that on average people think I am doing the right thing. My question is, what ratio of commonly regarded “good outcomes” to “bad outcomes” do I need to achieve to not be a villain? Or is that an example of a cold calculation?