On laziness and noble cause corruption
This one is for Cilia and Elin
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Two weeks ago, we heard from former UK politician Polly MacKenzie about her new role as Chief Social Purpose Officer for the University of Arts London. In the interview, I asked Polly to comment on a recent critique of her role from the writer, who had argued that bringing purpose to the arts is part of a corporate movement driven by politics. This critique is part of a more extensive campaign Asbury has been running on his Substack against corporate purpose. While I’m unsure if I agree with Asbury’s entire position, there’s one argument I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I first read it.
Purpose leads to noble cause corruption - Nick Asbury
Noble cause corruption (NCC) refers to a situation where individuals, often in positions of authority such as law enforcement, engage in unethical or illegal actions in pursuit of what they believe to be a morally justifiable goal or outcome. It’s closely related to teleological ethics, which asserts that the morality of an action is determined by the goodness of its outcomes or consequences. Teleological ethics exists in tension with deontological ethics, which proposes that one’s inherent moral principles and duties should guide one's actions, irrespective of the consequences. (ChatGPT helped me with this explanation.)
Asbury believes that organizations in pursuit of purpose could be more likely to commit NCC because they are more willing to justify any means towards their noble end goal:
If you convince yourself as a human, and certainly as a business, that you exist in service of a noble goal, it can paradoxically make you more likely to justify any means towards that end. After all, you’re one of the good guys. And if you’re doing well, you have even more chance to do good. Maybe it’s OK to cut a few corners.
To prove this point, Asbury highlights the case of Elizabeth Holmes—the world’s once wealthiest self-made woman billionaire now serving a 9-year prison sentence for fraud.
Holmes was the founder and CEO of Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup that shot to fame in the early 2010s for claiming to revolutionize blood testing. From a single drop of blood, its finger-prick blood test could allegedly diagnose multiple conditions and diseases. Except, it couldn’t. Because the company could never get the technology to work. Holmes successfully misled investors, patients, and regulators for years until the then Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou published his 2015 bombshell article, sparking Holmes’ eventual downfall.
Today, the extent of Holmes’ self-delusion remains unclear. Did she genuinely believe she was advancing healthcare and making diagnostic testing more accessible, or was the purposeful pursuit merely a cover for unethical and fraudulent practices? Is the truth somewhere in between?
While Holmes is an extreme example, Asbury’s article got me thinking about all of the other potential ‘cut corners’ taking place in organisations worldwide. And what the compounding effects might be. After all, if we can reap huge rewards from sustaining small, smart choices over time, we can also cause great damage from sustaining small, ill-considered ones.
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Take startups again. They're high-risk, high-stress environments where speed and change are the only two constants. Startups backed by venture capital funding are under constant pressure to grow and prove to their investors that they made the right bet. It’s a recipe ripe for shortcuts—ones that, to Asbury’s point, are a lot easier to live with when you believe your company is trying to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. What’s one potentially biased job ad when you’re trying to fix fusion power? One skipped accessibility test on the path to ending financial exclusion?
This pattern exists beyond the startup world. In a recent blog post, Pass It On guest Vu Le wrote about laziness in the non-profit sector. Many of the examples were just as applicable to tech startups:
Hiring your friends or family members because you’re too lazy to run an effective hiring process and too lazy to reflect on nepotism and other unethical practices.
Using arbitrary proxies of qualification such as formal education degrees because you’re too lazy to think through what the position needs to be successful.
Not bothering to add captions, subtitles, alt-texts, transcripts, etc. to your videos, images, podcast episodes, because you’re too lazy to research what would be helpful for colleagues who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind, have low vision, etc
These are all examples of inequitable practices. Le believes they occur because the non-profit world doesn’t consider them lazy. Instead, non-profits have internalised a capitalist definition of laziness built around productivity:
Our self-worth and even identity are tied to doing stuff constantly, and when we think we’re not, we feel awful and useless. […]The definition of “laziness” needs to shift from “being averse to work and productivity” toward “being averse to doing things that would lead to a just and equitable world.”
I think this is just as true for tech startups as it is for non-profits. I also think that noble cause corruption is just as likely to play a role in non-profit ‘laziness’ as in startups. If your non-profit’s mission is to end homelessness, you might be more willing to skip those alt-texts and captions—even if it means making your marketing less accessible.
Look, this stuff isn’t easy. I work for a startup with a noble purpose, and I’ve taken a lot of shortcuts. I’m not willing to abandon the notion of purpose, but I am willing to build habits to help me fight against the compounding effects of NCC.
My starting point is going be to try and slow myself down. While I work in a fast-paced environment, the need to respond instantly to any situation or feedback is largely intrinsic and self-inflicted. This post from New Yorker cartoonist Sophie Lucido Johnson sums it up:
Post description: “It does feel (for me, at least) like things are emergencies that simply are not. Most things at work are not emergencies. When my daughter’s pants are wet, that’s not an emergency. Other non-emergency things: Can I go to a party, would I be willing to read this manuscript, is it OK for Luann to stay an extra hour, and even: Jerry is mad, and he is mad because of something I did, and he is mad AT ME. And EVEN: my friend said something hurtful, and it affected my feelings, and it triggered some deep sadness, and now I am very tender. AND EVEN: there is a terrible email in my Inbox suggesting that I am a bad person who should not feel comfortable posting things on the Internet because WHAT GIVES ME THE RIGHT TO TAKE UP ALL THIS SPACE. All of these things: non-emergencies. Not necessarily non-serious, but non-emergencies. They can rest for a while, while I have some time to look out the window and remember the things I might’ve forgotten.”
By training myself to pause before I act, I hope to create a bit more time and space to mitigate the shortcuts. Or, as Johnson so beautifully puts it, to remember the things I might have forgotten.
Thanks so much for reading,