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Step 27: Moral Mazes (part 2)

Corporations and bureaucracy have insinuated themselves across the world, ushering in a different moral code, or some would say “immoral code,” that shapes our society. In part 2 of our look at Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes we hone in on the rules middle managers play by to survive, such as how to shift blame, avoid responsibility, and speak in provisional, coded language. This bureaucratic ethic led us to 2008’s Great Recession.

music courtesy of Feslyian Studios [link]

Robert Jackall
Moral Mazes [1988] [link]

Read Along

If you wish to read along with us for STEP 29, here are the two texts we are covering.

William James, Pragmatism [link]

William James, Pluralistic Universe [link]

Gut Decisions

“The core of the managerial mystique is decision-making prowess” 

Robert Jackall

So, if decisions were easy, they would be made by someone else, so it is only the big money, big risk decisions that are looked at to determine your prowess. 1,000’s of jobs and the future of the division are on the line. How do you make the call? By your gut.

The rules of a manager are :

“(1) Avoid making any decisions if at all possible; and

(2) if a decision has to be made, involve as many people as you can so that, if things go south, you’re able to point in as many directions as possible.”

You have heard of that moral dilemma thought experiment developed by Utilitarians, such as Peter Singer: the trolley experiment?

The Trolley Experiment

In the corporate version, no one takes action: 5 people are hit by the trolley and then everyone blames everyone else for not jumping. Another great day at the office dodging responsibility. 

So, your primary GUT DECISION for your survival in company: Who is going to get blamed?


 For managers, to be BLAMED is to be injured verbally in public. And since we know that “image is crucial” this is a serious threat. The wise manager knows it has nothing to do with facts or the merits of a case, but is a socially construed manifestation born largely of being in the Wrong place, at the Wrong time.

But you ask, “Ryder, why couldn’t they set up a system for tracking responsibility?”
Well, if you tracked subordinates, you would also be tracking top executives…

As Jackall says: “Bureaucracy expands the freedom of those on top by giving them the power to restrict the freedom of those beneath.”


 The goal here is to outrun your mistakes! 

Jump up the ladder, then when the person who replaces you inherits your screw-ups, you blame it on them and fire them.

A manager can defer costs for short-term profits or gains. By running a manufacturing plant, but never doing the right repairs, or not replacing stock, it looks like the plant is generating a profit while it is deteriorating, but good looking numbers get you promoted, and then the next guy has a deteriorating plant that needs repairs and new stock. And of course the promoted manager hiding his malfeasance says “I ran it for years without a problem… perhaps you just aren’t a capable manager?”

This sets up what Jackal calls “probationary crucibles” in which managers are tested under extreme pressures, reshaping them to make decisions for short-term expediency, for their own survival. In the end, the games played for a manager to “look good” and “meet the numbers” actually cost the company: it is a parasitic relationship that drains the company rather than keeping it healthy.

There is a natural selfishness… people want to make the system work for themselves. And when they get to the top, they can’t criticize the system that got them there.

Manager in Moral Mazes

 Flexibility, & Dexterity with Symbols

 As you climb, the rules of the game are, you never publicly criticize or disagree with one another or the company policy. You just wear an agreeable face and use ambiguous language. But when blame time shows up, everyone has already built defenses and set up scapegoats.

But you have to be cautious because the person you criticize today, could be your boss tomorrow… so the organizational contingency requires coded, provisional, and ambiguous language.

 Jackall says the higher you go in the corporate world, the better you need to be with manipulating symbols without becoming attached or identified with them. Thus “truth” takes a backseat for the imperative of appearances, which chamnpions adroit talk requiring moral flexibility and dexterity with symbols:

And what happens when there is definitive proof of your mistakes? You say you were in accordance with the rules at the time, claiming that risk is necessary to make money, while you personally avoid risk by hiding in a bureaucracy. 

As Jacklll says

You socialize the risks and harms of the corporate industry, while privatizing the benefits.


Jackall shows the contrast from the original protestant ethic: an ideology of self-confident, frugality, and independence. It championed stewardship responsibilities, where your word was your bond. But it also signaled success as God’s favor, and that was used to explain away the misery of the poor and unlucky.

What has happened is that bureaucracy

“breaks apart substance from appearance, action from responsibility, and language from meaning.”

Robert Jackall

With survival tied to such a fickle, mercurial fate corporate bureaucracy erodes internal, and external, morality. It generates its own rules and moral standards, primarily through social context: what is fashionable becomes true, since everyone is looking at each other for moral cues, but to rise in the ranks the only virtue to be found is self-interest masked as company loyalty.

2008 The Great Recession

Jackal has a 2009 essay added to Moral Mazes. It proves his 1988 book prophetic. Corporate Culture and Bureaucratic ethics expanded into a societal consciousness of short-term profits with super shady logic, yet everyone was doing it so it became conscionable. And it broke our economy.

This is an egregious example of “socializing risk and privatizing profit.” It proves the protective power of bureaucracy, and encourages future recklessness.

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Robert Jackall :Moral Mazes [link]

Max Weber: Protestant Work Ethic [link]

The Trolley Problem: the “fat man” variant [link]


Office Space [link]

Wolf of Wallstreet [link]

Vice [link]


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