The Ethics of Short-Sightedness

The firebrand “New Atheist” and neuroscientist-author Sam Harris writes in Lying:

A prison is perhaps the easiest place to see the power of bad incentives. And yet in many walks of life, we find otherwise normal men and women caught in the same trap and busily making the world much less good than it could be. Elected officials ignore long-term problems because they must pander to the short-term interests of voters. People working for insurance companies rely on technicalities to deny desperately ill patients the care they need. CEOs and investment bankers run extraordinary risks—both for their businesses and for the economy as a whole—because they reap the rewards of success without suffering the penalties of failure. District attorneys continue to prosecute people they know to be innocent because their careers depend on winning cases. Our government fights a war on drugs that creates the very problem of black-market profits and violence that it pretends to solve. We need systems that are wiser than we are. We need institutions and cultural norms that make us more honest and ethical than we tend to be. The project of building them is distinct from—and, in my view, even more important than—an individual’s refining his personal ethical code.

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