What Did Michael Cohen’s Testimony Teach Us About Ethics?

3 minute read

On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, was brought before a congressional hearing to testify about his involvement with Trump’s various dealings, including his alleged collusion with Russia and the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels. The hearing broke the seal for Cohen, where he revealed the darkest depths of his time alongside Trump, proclaiming “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat.”

Driven by power and ambition, Cohen explained that “being around Mr. Trump was intoxicating” and he had been persuaded into doing unsavory work without being directly asked. “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That's not how he operates.”

What would compel Cohen to jeopardize his future without being instructed to do so? What frame of mind would an established, successful professional have to be in to needlessly risk (and ultimately lose) his freedom?

Parallels in the business world could help us understand Cohen’s motives. As Harvard Business Review explores “Despite good intentions, organizations set themselves up for ethical catastrophes by creating environments in which people feel forced to make choices they could never have imagined.” Trump’s “unspoken” desires created an environment that pressured Cohen to live up to his expectations of him, similar to when employees of thePhoenix Veterans Administration felt forced to manipulate their hospital wait times in order to meet targets without being specifically directed to do so, ultimately leading to the death of 40 veterans waiting for care.

There have been a number of studies that suggest power corrupts everyone in one form or another. If Cohen was “mesmerized” by the power he gained working with Trump, why would he suddenly come clean now about Trump’s wrongdoings? According to Harvard Business School research, people can behave unethically in situations that favour them, without even realizing it. Studies also show that people who believe they share bonds with others, real or imaginary, will mimic other’s behaviours. For example, people are more prone to litter in areas covered in litter, but also likely to be more environmentally conscious when told other people are doing the same. Based on this these studies, there is a chance that Cohen’s case could have been the result of his environment, if indeed his allegations turn out to be true.

However, it is worth noting that individual autonomy still exists. Our individual dispositions can predispose us to be unyielding to pressure to act unethically. An example of such an individual disposition is “honesty-humility”, a personality trait. Being high in “honesty-humility” means you’re more willing to rise above a high-pressure environment to make the right choices. Perhaps the recent events involving former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould might suggest that she is high on honesty-humility. She stood up to the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Trudeau when asked to “help out” SNC Lavalin and skirt around the rule of law. At the end of the day, a toxic environment may urge us down a dark path, but our individual dispositions and convictions are what ultimately saves us from walking it.

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Foundation.