Two good reads on morality and opportunity

by Ryan Streeter on May 27, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

One of life’s best simple pleasures is reading the Wall Street Journal’s Review section every Saturday morning with a dark, rich cup of joe at hand.

Two reviews this week were especially interesting. Together, they invite reflection about the nature of morality and opportunity – two rather big topics. Meaning of life kind of stuff.

The first is Dan Ariely’s summary of his new book on why we all lie and cheat, even if just a bit. His experiments are fascinating and show that just about all of us will take advantage of little opportunities to get a little more for ourselves, even if we have to do so dishonestly. I was struck especially by this passage, in which he describes how he added a morality factor into a typical experiment that gives people an opportunity to cheat without being discovered:

[I]n the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior. (emphasis added)

That’s called conscience. It exists. The question is how to strengthen it, and after millions of pages of research and experiments over decades, it seems pretty clear that small-scale communities in which people learn moral codes – family, church, school – are essential.

The second review is Enrico’s Moretti’s piece from his new book, The New Geography of Jobs (I ordered my copy 3 days ago). He writes about how mobility in America – moving from once place to another – is an essential aspect of the upward mobility story we call the American Dream.

I’ll have more to say about Moretti’s book in coming weeks, but suffice it to say that he’s bringing together Charles Murray threads with Joel Kotkin threads to create an interesting tapestry of why people move where they do, and what it means for inequality and jobs in America.

Moretti writes:

In total, almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30. Only 27% of high-school graduates and 17% of dropouts do so. This is an important reason for the increasing inequality in income and unemployment rates between workers with college education and workers with less education. A college graduate today makes 75% more than a high-school graduate. This salary difference is more than double what it was in 1980, and an increasing part of this difference reflects differences in mobility.

In the American myth, it’s supposed to be the uneducated, lower-skilled worker who “goes West,” or who ups and takes on a new frontier to make a new life for him or herself. But, in reality, it’s the upper tier of America that is the adventurous group (and maybe it’s always been that way…I don’t know the research on this), heading to new frontiers and making a killing, while those who stay put stagnate further. In today’s economy, it seems that staying put has more intensive stagnating effects than ever before.