The following is a conversation between Max Bazerman, Professor at Harvard Business School and Author of Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.

Max H. Bazerman, Professor at Harvard Business School and Author of Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness

Denver: Every day, we make hundreds of decisions. Although many of these choices don’t seem to contain an ethical component, we would be well-served to examine that carefully. In so doing, we just might find ourselves doing more good and creating greater value for the world around us. This is the subject of a new book by award-winning scholar and Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman titled Better, Not Perfect: A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness. 

Welcome to the Business of Giving, Max!

Max: Why, thank you! Good to be with you, Denver. 

Denver: I love the name of your book, but why not the higher standard? I mean, when it comes to ethical behavior, of all things, why not strive for perfection? That’s what the philosophers would have us do. 

Max: I think we should strive for perfection, but I’m a realist in knowing that we’re not going to get there. Many wise philosophers have given us terrific direction on how we can create the most good possible. I think of Peter Singer and Josh Greene, two contemporary philosophers, who I learn a tremendous amount from in terms of thinking about what does the goal state look like. And for me, the goal state is to create as much value as you possibly can in the world across all sentient beings; or some people describe this as “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.” I think that that’s a terrific standard, but I find it’s also not achievable, and the perfectionist standard can turn a lot of people off, and they can not pay attention to the argument.

The whole concept from Bentham and Mill and Singer of utilitarianism is an idea that I think is a great idea — create as much value as you possibly can — but it turns people off. And when you tell people that what they’re doing that they think is a good act isn’t good enough, I’m not sure that that’s the best way to motivate better behavior.

So, with admiration for Peter Singer, my goal is: How do we engage people who may not be paying attention to the arguments of utilitarianism or creating the most good? And if we can get them focused on how to create much more good, or move to the maximum sustainable level of goodness that they can achieve, I think that that could be a terrifically important contribution. 

Denver: I do, too. It does make sense. I guess if you’re always failing at something, that can kind of beat you down after a while because you’re never going to be good enough. Max, I’ve always been curious about this, but does the study of philosophy result in any kind of change in one’s behavior?

Max: There’s limited evidence on that. There’s a philosopher — I’m blocking on his name — at UC Riverside, who has some interesting empirical evidence that the philosophy training doesn’t seem to change people’s ethicality. So, what we do know, we don’t see a tremendous amount of focus on changing people’s ethical behavior.

In the social sciences, we often distinguish between descriptive knowledge, normative knowledge, and prescriptive knowledge. Description is what psychologists do. We describe how people do behave. Normative is how we should behave, and I think philosophers are in the realm of telling us how we should behave. My focus is much more on prescriptive, or how to move the needle on how to get people to behave more ethically, where I’m defining ethics in terms of creating as much good as you possibly can.

So, I’m very much endorsing the utilitarian perspective of “What is the goal? Creating as much value as possible,” and I’m simply focused on how do we get the greatest movement possible, rather than simply highlighting for people what the perfectionist state would look like.

We depart far more from rationality when we’re using our intuitive systems to make decisions. The more deliberative we are, the less biased we’re likely to be.

Denver: Got it. You’re absolutely right. It has been I think 40 years ago that we identified bias and how it affects our decision-making, and we’ve been talking about it for 40 years, but we really haven’t done a heck of a lot about it. So anything that can get us into behavior change to actually change people’s behavior, that’s going to be your contribution to the field. 

Max: I think that that’s exactly right. So you bring a bias, and closely related to bias is the distinction between System 1 and System 2 that Danny Kahneman talks a great deal about in Thinking Fast and Slow. And what we know is that we are much more biased. We depart far more from rationality when we’re using our intuitive systems to make decisions. The more deliberative we are, the less biased we’re likely to be, the less racist we’re likely to be. And it turns out, our level of ethicality changes where we are much more ethical in system 2 than we are in system 1.

So, a lot of my effort is focused on:  How do we get people to deliberate? And when they do deliberate, they make decisions that are more in line with their underlying values and tend to create more value in the world. 

Denver: Josh Greene, I think, has made a great contribution to that by really having a parallel system of System 1 and System 2 in the ethical arena the way Daniel had it in just the way we make decisions on things.

Max: Absolutely. Josh Greene’s book Moral Tribes is one of the best books I’ve read in my life, and Josh is a good friend and co-author, and he absolutely deserves credit for moving the two systems of thinking into the moral domain.

I think that the more we deliberate, the more we think about it, the more we tend to do what creates more value for the broader world.

Denver: I really want to get into the meat of your book here in a minute, but I have a couple of other questions. First: Good people do some bad things, and they do them on a pretty regular basis. Why does that happen? 

Max: We often have conflicts between what’s good for ourselves and what’s good for the world, and I think that the more we deliberate, the more we think about it, the more we tend to do what creates more value for the broader world. Unfortunately, most of life is busy, and when we’re busy, we’re more likely to trust our System  1 thinking or our more intuitive thoughts, and that can lead us astray.  And that’s where we’re likely to be more biased; we’re likely to be more selfish. We’re not likely to think more broadly about the implications of our actions, and we do things that, with more reflection, we might not have chosen.

Denver: Generally speaking, Max, people who are ethical in one arena, are they likely to be ethical in another one?  Or is it all pretty inconsistent?  

Max: Somewhere in between. So I think that, sure, I think the people who are ethical within their family life are more likely to be ethical in their work life, but we certainly can identify dramatic inconsistencies.

I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a famous Pittsburgher was Andrew Carnegie.  And he’s quite well-known for the fact that he was very generous in donating, creating a library system, and many other important institutions that have the Carnegie name on them, particularly in Pittsburgh and in New York. But he was also somebody who created tremendous suffering by the way he managed the steel mill, and his work as a union buster that led to the deaths of many, and the destruction of the lives of many more was also part of his legacy. I think that we want to realize that many of us are great in some domains and less great in others, and most of us can create more value by fixing the areas where we’re less good.

The modern-day equivalent of Andrew Carnegie is the Sackler family, again, whose name we see on lots of important institutions. They’ve been very philanthropic, but they’ve also contributed to the death of so many people by their mis-marketing of opioids in their family company, Purdue Pharmaceuticals.

Denver: You have identified in your book several ways where people can improve their ethical decision-making. I want to run through a few, if we possibly could. Why don’t we start with pre-commitment to objectives. Now, how does that play into this? 

Max: I think that a lot of times, organizations have very ethical goals that simply get lost in the moment of a current decision. So we want to affirmatively search for people across gender lines and across race lines, but then in the midst of a hiring decision, we want the person who went to the same school we went to, or the person who’s similar to us in some other ways. So we focus on some emotive attribute, and the cognitive thought of the fact that we wanted to become more diverse gets lost in the shuffle. The more we pre-commit on the front-end of the search to what is going to be important to us in who we hire this year, the more likely we’re likely to carry through in an ethical manner. So, I think pre-commitment is amazingly important. 

Another kind of domain where we’ve seen this is with scarce resources under COVID.  So since I sent the book off to the publisher, COVID has struck us. And in a terrific Frontline episode about the COVID crisis in Italy, you see a very emotionally-drained physician who basically says, “The last thing I want to do is to make a decision about who should live and who should die because I have only one ventilator left.”

And I think that that’s a domain where we don’t want the physician’s emotive-drained self making that decision. We want to think in advance about what is the best allocation of scarce resources, and as I’m speaking to you, we don’t yet have a vaccine. But one day, we’re going to have a vaccine for COVID, and when we do, it turns out we’re not going to have 7 billion doses available the next day to cover all of humanity, and there are going to be decisions about who gets the vaccine first. And my reaction is:  Now is the time to think about that rather than thinking about it when there’s 3 million doses available and 7 billion people who want to claim their dose.

Denver: Well, that’s a completely separate show, I think, in many ways, because you would think that we’d be approaching this from a global perspective, but it truly has been approached from a nation-state by nation-state perspective. And that is probably, of all things… a virus. You would think that this would be a time that people would be taking a look at it holistically. That has not occurred.

Max: And even within the US, we have a president who, unfortunately, basically told the states, “Every state is on their own,” which couldn’t be a worse formula for how to best fight COVID. We would hope that the nation’s leader would be thinking about how do we do the most good with the limited amount of scarce resources that we have available, rather than thinking that somehow competition is going to magically solve this problem when there’s simply no logic to competition being the right solution to this particular problem. 

What we find is that when we judge one person, one idea, one philanthropy at a time, we tend to use our intuitive, emotive systems. When we’re thinking about multiple options at the same time — multiple people for a job, multiple philanthropies who might get our contribution — we tend to be more deliberative, and we create more value with our decisions. 

Denver: Competition is the right solution for driving up prices for resources that these states need because they’re all going against each other, which is absolutely crazy. 

 We tend to look at decisions one at a time. And I’ll take a look at something, I’ll say, “OK. Let me look at the pluses. Let me look at the minuses.” I do that all the time. I’m always weighing risks and opportunities, et cetera. Is there a better way of going about making those decisions?

Max: Absolutely. So what we find is that when we judge one person, one idea, one philanthropy at a time, we tend to use our intuitive, emotive systems. When we’re thinking about multiple options at the same time — multiple people for a job, multiple philanthropies who might get our contribution — we tend to be more deliberative and we create more value with our decisions. 

So if we think about the hiring decision, what we find in our research, and this is research with Iris Bohnet and Alexandra van Geen, is that when we evaluate people one at a time, that’s when we get more sexist decisions– where we hire men for math tasks and women for verbal tasks. And when we have people compare it to two or more potential employees, the gender-based hiring decisions basically disappear, and people use performance-relevant criteria. So, in our experiments, we not only reduce bias, we largely eliminate bias when we move from looking at one candidate at a time to multiple candidates. 

Similarly, I would predict that when you get one request at a time through the year that you consider for your philanthropic dollars, you use your more emotive system on: “Does this tug at my heart?” Whereas if every November or December, you sit down and think about who’s going to get the X number of dollars that I’m prepared to give, and you compare multiple charities, my prediction is that you’re going to make decisions that are going to create more good per dollar when you’re doing it comparatively, rather than evaluating one charity at a time. 

Denver: One of the thought experiments you present in the book, it’s John Rawls’, I believe, and it’s called the Veil of Ignorance. I loved it. What is it? And how can it maximize the value of our decision-making?

Max: Rawls is a very interesting character, perhaps the most famous philosopher of the second half of the 20th century. He very much viewed himself as an anti-utilitarian, and he was famous for two concepts: One was the Maximin Principle of maximizing the welfare of the least well-off; and the other concept that he was very famous for was the Veil of Ignorance. 

The idea of the  “veil of ignorance”  is that if we wanted to think about the fairest way to create society, a good mental exercise will be to think about how should it be organized without you thinking about your own situation in life, without knowing what gender you were, without knowing whether you were white or Black or Asian, without knowing whether you’re American or from Ghana or from Italy. He argued that we can make wiser decisions, or more ethical decisions, if we thought about ethicality without being encumbered by all of the aspects of our own self-identity.

Recently, in research with Karen Huang and Regan Bernhard and Josh Greene and Netta Barak-Corren, we do research looking at what happens when we use a veil of ignorance in terms of value creation, and specifically, in our most recent experiment, we look at the decision of who gets the last ventilator during the COVID crisis.

Now, as I speak to you, I’m a 65-year-old, so you’re going to see that I have a bit of a problem as I tell you about this particular example. But the question we give to people to tell us about is: How should the last ventilator be given out? Should it go to the 65-year-old who, if they get the ventilator, can be expected to live another 20 years? Or should it be given to the 25-year-old who, if they get the ventilator, can be expected to live 60 more years? Assuming that the person who doesn’t get the ventilator will die, and the 65-year-old arrived in the hospital first, so who should get the ventilator? 

It turns out that, I want to get my data right here, that people under 30, a  significant majority want to give it to the young person, and that’s both consistent with their self-interest, and it’s also consistent with many utilitarians who think that there’s more value in saving the 25-year-old than the 65-year-old. In contrast, those over 60 overwhelmingly favor giving it to the 65-year-old. After all, we don’t want to be ageist, and the 65-year-old got there first. 

Denver: First come, first served. 

Max: First come, first served. Exactly. It couldn’t be fairer than that. But when we ask people to first think through this problem with a veil of ignorance, and to imagine that you could be the 25- year-old, or you could be the 65-year-old, how should the decision be made?

We have people think that through, and people overwhelmingly now think that the 25- year-old should get it because I’d rather have a 50% chance of getting 60 more years than a 50% chance of 20 more years. And then we then asked them, “OK. Now, what’s the fairer decision?” Now, all groups, including the people over 60, vote in favor of giving the last ventilator to the 25-year-old. 

So, when we add the veil, the self-serving bias that comes from “Who am I?” and “That’s who I want to get to ventilator” goes away, and we do a good job of asking the question: Where would the ventilator do the most good? 

If we simply make decisions about what favors do we do based on what feels right, what we’re going to do is we’re going to squeeze out time and not have time available for using our time more effectively. 

…sometimes the best way to create good for the university or for society is to say “No” so that you have the resource of your time to do more important things

Denver: That is a great example.

You talk about a couple of things in the book that really don’t have anything to do with ethical decision-making, but it turns out they do, and they really are points of leverage. One of those would be allocating time. Now, how is allocating my time an ethical choice? 

Max: I think that there’s a tremendous implication of how you allocate time on the ethics.

So recall I’m using the utilitarian definition of ethics — creating the most good you possibly can. We all get lots of requests on our time, and people are often asking us to do a favor, but I want you to stop and realize that you have a limited amount of time. And if you do Activity A, there’s something else that you aren’t doing with that time. If we simply make decisions about what favors do we do based on what feels right, what we’re going to do is we’re going to squeeze out time and not have time available for using our time more effectively. 

 Linda Babcock, who’s a friend of mine and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, basically became aware of that, particularly as a senior female faculty member in her university. There were lots of requests for her to volunteer her time, to serve on every committee imaginable, and she’s a good citizen, nice person, but she couldn’t do everything. 

She created, with a number of her colleagues, the “Just Say No Club,” so that these senior female faculty members adopted the lens of sometimes the best way to create good for the university or for society is to say “No” so that you have the resource of your time to do more important things. So, if you can create more value because you say “No,” then I think that that’s a very powerful way to create more value in society.

So, just as we think of our money as a limited resource, I think we should think about our time as a limited resource and think about the most value we can create. So as I stand here as a 65-year-old, I very much think about — with my 20 years plus or minus left– how do I create the most value that I can? While I still want to lead a rich and rewarding life myself, I don’t want to suffer, and that’s why I want to be better, not perfect. I’m not willing to sacrifice all of my enjoyment to reach a perfectionist state of utilitarianism. 

Denver: And you created more value in your life 15 years ago with your 50th birthday present to yourself, correct?

Max: I did. For my 50th birthday, what I did was I audited my life to look at: What were the tasks in life that I was spending time on doing, that I was spending time doing that I didn’t particularly enjoy?

And sometimes there’s things that you can’t avoid. I’m a professor, so grading certainly fits that category, but I have an obligation and no easy way to avoid that task. There’s also faculty meetings. I have restructured my life a bit, so I go to less faculty meetings.

Denver: Congratulations on that! You can write a book on that one, too. I think you’d get a lot of people picking it up. 

Max: Yes. I think it’s a very important topic on how to avoid meetings. 

But the third category where I acted in a very strong manner was, as an academic, we’re asked to review papers for scholarly journals, and sometimes we’re asked to be on the editorial board, which creates a bigger obligation to review more papers. 

By the age of 50, I realized that I knew lots of 25to 30-year-old colleagues who wanted that task, who would probably pay more attention to the task and do a better job. Yet, by the time I was 50, I was known in some areas of research, so journals would ask me. And I found myself reading far too many papers that I wouldn’t be reading if I didn’t have this editorial responsibility. So, for my 50th birthday present to myself, I quit four editorial boards to dramatically reduce my obligations to review papers. 

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not claiming that this is a pure, nice act in the sense that I was creating some harm, but I was going to enjoy myself more, and I thought I could re-allocate those same hours to doing other pro-social events in my life that could create more good. And this would simply create opportunity for younger scholars who I think would appreciate that particular task more than I did at that time. When I look back at it, I think that that was a very good birthday present, and the world is slightly better off as a result. 

Denver: And also, it’s interesting how it brings in one of the other principles. You did not look at this editorial board and these papers and do the pluses and minuses. You looked at options. You looked at several things. You didn’t look at it one at a time and say, “What else could I be doing instead of doing this?” And that, again, informs ethical decision-making.  

Max: Nice addition, Denver. I accept that. 

Denver: Everybody is in favor of equality, except for the fact that we’re not. Speak about tribalism and ethical decision-making.

Max: Yes. Josh Greene’s book, Moral Tribes is a terrific resource on this, but it’s in Peter Singer’s work as well, that we can create far more value if we treat the interests of all sentient beings equally. That doesn’t mean we treat all people or all animals equally. 

So we care about the pain and suffering of animals.  That doesn’t mean that an insect is as important as a human being. It means that the suffering of an animal should count in a similar way to the suffering of a human. Now, humans are more valuable because we live longer than most animals. We have more upside potential to create value in life, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the interests of others.

So, Singer’s language, Peter Singer’s language, is equality of the interests of all sentient beings. That doesn’t mean that we treat all entities the same way with equality, and that’s a concept that I try to move more toward in my life to a significant degree. So, again, the idea is equality of the interests of all sentient beings rather than treating all people exactly the same. 

Denver: The third thing you talked about was waste reduction and you draw a great example of that and ethical decision-making in the example of Amazon 2 and their competition to find that second headquarters. Explain. 

Max: When Amazon was looking for their new headquarters, they created a competition that engaged a couple hundred communities who spent enormous quantities of money to bid on this project. And in the process, Amazon may well have obtained some useful data for themselves at the expense of municipalities who could have been spending those funds on schools or hospitals or other important entities. Amazon may well have created some competition, but I would argue that Amazon could have obtained most of the competition that they needed by identifying the handful of municipalities where they would actually consider going.

And I think that when Amazon created this competition to lure hundreds of communities to spend millions of dollars on consultants to create proposals, that was an enormous drain on society. Very wasteful. I found that to be an enormously wasteful set of activities that Amazon created, probably without thinking about how their process would affect so many communities and taxpayer dollars.

Denver: If I can be a little more critical about that, I would think that, first, they may have done it in order to create a lot of public relations around this effort, and secondly, to get bids that they could use against those other cities to get their prices up. So there could be some even additional considerations that are put into that mix.

Max: See, I think that they could get most of the competition with 10 rather than 200. And I think the PR wasn’t well-thought-through because they in fact were amply criticized for the processes that they used. And eventually, they ended up selecting two sites and backing out of one of the two deals. So from their standpoint, I don’t think that that was a big win for Amazon. 

Denver: No. It didn’t turn out to be that way. 

And then of course, there’s philanthropy where every charitable dollar that is contributed to an organization does not carry the same ethical weight. Explain that concept. 

Max: So, you’ve had Peter Singer on your show before and… 

Denver: Delightful — he was fabulous. 

Max: His ideas are remarkable. And so, I’m inspired by both Singer’s book and Will MacAskill’s book on effective altruism, so two terrific resources, which I don’t need to repeat because there’s so much written. But the movement of effective altruism is really about how to donate your dollars more effectively, and that doesn’t just mean reducing overhead costs, which Charity Navigator focuses on, but thinking about: How do you create the most impact, positive impact, per dollar? Or how do you create most value per dollar that you’re contributing? There’s also a strong push that most of us should be donating more than we currently do, and I certainly concur with all of that. 

What’s intriguing for me about the effective altruism movement is that if you go to an effective altruism conference or,… and  I’ve done this on multiple occasions… I’ve spoken at an effective altruism conference.  When I walk into a room of hundreds of people, it’s not that I’m older than everybody else by 10 years or 20 years. I’m literally older than everybody else by 30 years. This is a young movement of highly educated, often tech-focused people who are tremendously engaged with the topic of how to create the most good through their philanthropic giving, and I just think it’s terrific.

Now, the limitation is that it’s a very small portion of the philanthropic world, and there are lots of people in my generation who just aren’t sold on the idea. In fact, they get a little bit annoyed by it. 

Denver: Yes, they do.

Max: The notion that they shouldn’t donate to their opera house or donate their money locally, but they could create more value by sending their money to emerging economies, or reducing animal suffering, or focusing on climate change is just not that appealing. 

And in my own household, I’m married to somebody who fully understands effective altruism, but she’s far from being on board with the effective altruism movement. She’s amazingly effective at encouraging people to donate more money, to creating fun and interesting ways to engage people who have the money to donate,  who might not think about doing so to become more involved, to create a community around giving. She’s terrific at all these things. 

And I think that Marla… that’s my wife, I think she makes the world better, but she doesn’t do it according to the recipe of the effective altruism movement, and that goes back to the title of the book. 

The goal is different strategies for how to get people to be better, even if we can’t get them to be perfect. 

Denver: Yes, it does. That’s really better, not perfect.

Max: Exactly. And what Marla would highlight, as 80 people leave our house after she’s had a very effective fundraising event at our house and effective altruism comes up, she’ll point out to me that there weren’t five people in that room who would have been there had we been holding an event for an effectively altruistic organization as defined by that movement; that her skills focus on getting people in the broader Boston area to engage in important social commitments, where the audience just isn’t ready to be sold on the effective altruism arguments about where their money should go. 

So, she’s creating a better world through her strategy and reaching an audience that I don’t think that the effective altruism community can yet reach. I would like to think that as people become more involved in philanthropy, they may be more open to some of the effective altruistic arguments that can later be made to them. So, the goal is different strategies for how to get people to be better, even if we can’t get them to be perfect. 

The effective altruism movement is very good at saying: We want to encourage people to be better without the expectation that they’re going to be perfect.

Denver: And as I recall my conversation with Peter Singer, he’s not a purist when it comes to effective altruism actually in his whole life, but it is a major factor. And that’s what you really want. You want people to consider it in their decision-making. And I think you’re absolutely right. Over time, it will carry more and more weight. 

Max: And I should add following your comment, I think that the effective altruism movement is very good at saying: We want to encourage people to be better without the expectation that they’re going to be perfect. So I think my title is very consistent with the effective altruism world. What I would add is we can apply that to lots of aspects of our ethical life, not just philanthropy. 

Denver: As we take this ethical decision-making, we move it over to leadership. There’s a lot of issues around that, but I’m going to ask you about one. And that is that leaders are responsible, not just for their own decisions, but also for the decisions of the people around them that they manage. How do you take some of those principles that you discussed — if you’re a leader — and impart them to the members of your team?

Max: I think that’s a terrific question. So, as you just suggested, for me, the most important way of thinking about leadership is that leaders differ from other important professionals in that they’re responsible not just for their own decisions, but for the decisions of other people

I think we do that in a variety of ways. We do that by the norms that we set in our organization, by the values that we live in our organization, the way we act ourselves because people are looking at leaders. And that becomes very scary if we think about the current political environment in the middle of 2020.  

But leaders often can also nudge people toward more effective behavior. So Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge is a terrific book on how you can affect lots of people’s behavior — from organ donation to financial contribution, to paying your taxes and so on and so forth — and leaders can often make fairly small changes in how things are done within their organization, or their state, or their country…that could affect the ethical decisions of so many of us, and those opportunities should not be lost. 

I think we want to encourage people to speak out because when organizations are destroying value, there are often people in the organization who know it and see it and aren’t saying anything. And too often, leaders suppress those criticisms, and I think wise leaders, ethical leaders encourage people to be critical of the organization.

Denver: It’s really avoiding ethical fading as you talk about it because they can get into the background because the other factors which are so germane to the decision overwhelm the ethical considerations, and you just have to keep it in front of you and keep it present, and the behavior will change as a result. 

We have a lot of leaders that listen to this show.  And in addition to reading your book, if you were coaching a leader on ethical decision-making, or maybe providing them with some practices that they could work on on their own, what would you suggest? 

Max: Well, first of all, I think that there’s a lot of terrific work out there long before Better, Not Perfect. So, I think that reading the work that exists in the social sciences and philosophy on ethics is just a terrific thing to do. I hope that my book is a useful contribution for helping leaders think about these issues. But I think leaders should also think about: How can they audit their organization to think about the impact that you’re having? 

So I can certainly imagine that there were people within Purdue Pharmaceuticals who just didn’t think about the tremendous harm that was created by the opioid epidemic and the role that Purdue Pharmaceuticals played in exacerbating that. So I think we want to think about the issues that are going on in our organization or audit them.

I think we want to encourage people to speak out because when organizations are destroying value, there are often people in the organization who know it and see it and aren’t saying anything. And too often, leaders suppress those criticisms, and I think wise leaders, ethical leaders encourage people to be critical of the organization.

And I think leaders want to think about the choice architecture that they’re creating. How are decisions being made? What are we rewarding around here? Sometimes, we’re critical of subordinate behavior when we’ve created the incentives to do exactly what they’re doing. 

I think of…if we can go back a number of years, there was what was described as a “steroid crisis in baseball.” And when the media finally paid attention after the owners ignored it for years, the owners turned around and said, “Look at these bad players.” They were mad at Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and a variety of other players.  And that completely ignored the fact that the owners had created incentives to become bigger and stronger and hit more home runs. And home runs went up during the steroid epidemic, and owners made money because more home runs were hit.

Denver: That’s right. Ratings went up with the home runs. You’re right!

Max: Exactly. I think the owners helped create the incentives for the players who used steroids, and then when they couldn’t avoid the media paying attention, they basically denied blame. I think it was their obligation to pay attention to the steroid epidemic on their own long before the media forced them to do so.

Denver: Absolutely. Let me close with this, Max. How has writing this book impacted your own ethical behavior? Has it changed in any way? 

Max: Absolutely. I would say that this book has been a long journey of learning.  I’ve written a number of books before, and I’d say that I typically go from start to turning in a reasonably polished draft to the publisher in about 18 months, maybe two years. I’ve been working on this book for seven years. And it’s because there’s so much that I didn’t know, and I would literally take six months or a year off at a time from doing any writing to go back and learn more from Singer and Greene. So often I find that things that I wrote are really elaborations of ideas that they inspired, but I would need to learn it and master it and then think about how it plays out in a variety of applied contexts. 

I certainly donate in a more effectively altruistic direction. I think about the value of my time, not just in a selfish way, but: how can I create the most good? I think I’ve redefined my mission in life based on reaching my maximum sustainable goodness.  So I think that this book has been a profound learning journey. I hope lots of people read it, but quite honestly, if nobody read it, the process would have been valuable in terms of how it’s changed my own behavior.

Denver: Well, that is the ultimate testimonial from the author himself, and truly heartfelt. The name of the book again is Better, Not Perfect:  A Realist’s Guide to Maximum Sustainable Goodness. I want to thank you, Max, for being here, for sharing these insights. It is a wonderful book. It’s an accessible book, and it was an absolute pleasure to discuss it with you.

Max: Thank you, Denver. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. And thank you for being so well-informed for the interview. 

Denver: My pleasure.

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