Behaving Badly

Eden Collinsworth’s book, Behaving Badly, somehow made it onto my radar, i.e. my library holds list, and while I’m hard pressed to recall the prompt to read it, I enjoyed its company. Behaving Badly felt like a philosophical tour of, or perhaps a decent introduction to, morality as it applies to relationships, money, business, sex, and technology. While Collinsworth leaves her initial question regarding how we determine morals in the context of morally questionable politicians, corporations, etc. largely open ended, I appreciated that the book remained curious and exploratory. It was neither too heavy, nor too light, and if nothing else the referenced materials listed in the back of the book provide an excellent springboard for future, more substantive, reading.

Behaving Badly begins by trying to define morality, more specifically how morals and ethics differ and create a frequently conflicted decision split, like in the case of a doctor who wishes to act compassionately towards a terminally ill patient to end their suffering, but is ethically bound by larger professional expectations not to assist in death. There is also the question of our own motivations to be altruistic towards others while acknowledging our own selfish tendencies, which of course took me back to the Friends episode in which Phoebe is determined to do a good deed that is truly selfless and warrants no acknowledgement. (Spoiler: it’s nearly impossible and she fails.) There is a self-interest that perpetuates our own morality, even if we’d rather not admit it.

The main focus of the book, however, was not our own mechanisms for acting morally, but rather the ways in which we seem willing to accept corruption on larger scales. We seem to accept political and financial exploitations, or rather we openly anticipate politics and business to be crooked. If we can’t trust our designated leaders as righteous beings, who holds our moral compass? If the only punishment for breaking the law is financial (a fee), then the decision to act justly is not a moral one, but rather a financial one. Case in point: banks and corporations who budget for said violating fees. Morals, the book suggests, are fluid and contextual, not only within social sectors, but cross-culturally and cross-generationally as well. Whistleblowers in Japan, for example, are no heroes. Any attempt to sabotage an almighty corporate giant in the highly filtered Japanese press will ensure the end to your career and the destruction of your reputation.

Perhaps the most alarming discussion in Behaving Badly was the one surrounding technology and artificial intelligence, though I found a little comfort in Collinsworth’s foothold in something that felt like technophobia. It’s a little too easy to imagine our propensity to overshare online, i.e. perpetually feed Big Data, and our eager adaptation of new technologies, as an all too easy, and rapid, pathway for these so-called advances. How can we determine a moral roadmap for something we don’t even really understand? The larger question for me, and Collinsworth, it seems, is also why this techno-future is an inevitability. Collinsworth might not have posed this question outright, but she at least expressed her own misgivings about it, which I found somewhat comforting.

Behaving Badly is a bit of a tour de force and takes on many more scenarios/issues worth much more attention, like social media and reproduction. I also appreciated the discussion of our cultural notion of celebrity, namely why we let these created celebrity images speak on our moral and social behalf. What qualifies these mega rich entertainers to crusade for climate change, world hunger, etc.? Is celebrity a modern version of sainthood? If so, why are we willing to let people achieve it now via leaked sex tapes? (Kim Kardashian, Eden Collinsworth is looking at you.) Behaving Badly succeeded in piquing my curiosity, and even if it didn’t touch on anything new, per se, I appreciated the discussion.

*Photo credit: ryan harvey

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