The Apple Conundrum: A New Test For You..

Apple 3dby Michael Friedlander, Featured Contributor


In my last article, I offered you an Ethics Test. Thought you might be interested in another one …

Incidentally, I’m sure you’ll all be delighted to know that most of you passed the last Test. Not everyone mind you—just most of you… Congratulations!

For those who haven’t yet taken that Test—and because this is a sequel to that Test, please take a moment to enjoy the last article HERE before continuing on…

This article now continues the narrative by shining a light on why Bob and you might have done what you did…

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]T[/su_dropcap]HIS ARTICLE continues the narrative by shining a light on why Bob and you might have done what you did…


OK, here’s my sad admission: I have this almost morbid fascination with ethics—and scams… I’m really sorry about this. I do apologize, but its outta my control—really!!! Nothing I can do about it…

There, I’ve said it… I’ve revealed all… I feel the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders… I blame it on my book

As I researched some high profile scams for my book, I couldn’t believe the number of otherwise quite normal and well-balanced people who were right there—in the middle of the scams. And, while there, they all looked the other way as they witnessed all kinds of unethical and dishonest acts occurring on their watch—right under their noses.

These were otherwise good people. They were all responsible parents. They were all quite generous and charitable. All were all alumni of our very best schools. Many came from prominent and wonderful families. And many were already rich—some ridiculously so…

As I saw this as a recurring pattern, I can remember blinking in disbelief. I can also remember shaking my head in disgust.

And, of course, this made me wonder… Really wonder…

“THE APPLE CONUNDRUM”—and your new test…

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

original_ApplesConsider for a moment a perfectly normal person who wouldn’t even THINK of stealing an apple from his or her local grocery store. No, this would NEVER have occurred to him.

Have you ever wondered why that very same person would go to work and then steal pens, pencils and pads? Or why he would fudge expense reports—or lie outrageously to customers and clients and even act fraudulently?

Have you ever wondered how, in that short walk from the grocery store, he could have become so unethical and untrustworthy—and possibly even a criminal?[/message]

This, gentle readers, is what I’ve called “The Apple Conundrum”…

So, here is your next test: “Can you solve it”?

On my part, I must admit I initially couldn’t. It flummoxed me—totally. To figure this out, I knew I’d have to get some help—but, initially, I couldn’t figure out from where…


Lets agree on this: The Apple Conundrum is about ethics… You OK with this?

And because business ethicists presumably study ethics, finding a business ethicist seemed a logical starting point for me in my quest for enlightenment…

After a little research, though, disillusionment overwhelmed me…

It seems many of these ethicists rely on great thinkers like Emmanuel Kant and the Utilitarians. Many also rely on three folk theories to explain cheating or unethical behavior. These theories suggest that unethical folks—

  • suffer from some character flaw; and/or
  • are greedier than their colleagues; and/or
  • simply don’t know right from wrong.

I then stumbled on to something mildly disconcerting. Apparently another group of academics had conclusively repudiated each of these three folk theories. I figured it was time to move on from those folk theories…

That left me looking intently for help at the doorsteps of Emmanuel Kant and the Utilitarians. Sadly, this didn’t help. How could anyone seriously argue with a straight face, I wondered, that people committed white-collar crime because they lacked expertise in the application of the categorical imperative or the felicific calculus?

C’mon now… Really???

And for those who would dare to disagree with me, a thought occurred to me. Perhaps they should visit with a scammer. Perhaps they should ask if the teachings of Emmanuel Kant or the Utilitarians would have put him or her on a different and more righteous career path? And when that scammer finally wiped the tears of laughter from his or her eyes, perhaps they might agree with me: Neither Emmanuel Kant nor the Utilitarians were particularly helpful in resolving the Conundrum

So, with apologies to all of you business ethicists out there, I decided to move on …


The criminologists seemed a better bet to me. Don’t they study what motivates people to commit crime? And wasn’t this the very essence of The Apple Conundrum?

These were the guys for me…

I was now curious as to how they might approach The Apple Conundrum

For starters, I was encouraged that the criminologists had long ago debunked each of the three folks theories that were previously regarded as sacred and sacrosanct. In doing so, I discovered the criminologists had also pointed to something quite profound that I suspect we all already know…

Perfectly ordinary people, when put into the certain situations, are capable of committing quite serious crimes and acting unethically and immorally.

Now we were cooking… A critical task lay ahead…

We had to understand the “situations” that might result in otherwise normal people doing what they might otherwise never do. The question now became whether we could control those “situations”—and thereby head off the bad behavior at the pass?

To illustrate their point, many criminologists had relied on the Princeton Theological Seminary study…

The Princeton Theological Seminary Study

In this study, students at the Seminary were told they had to report to a building across campus to make a presentation. Some were told they were on time. Others were told they were early and the rest that they were late. The experiment was set up so that they would each have to pass a stranger in need of help…

  • Of those who were told they were late, only 10% stopped to help.
  • Of those who were told they were on time, 45% stopped to help.
  • Of those who were told they were early, 63% stopped to help.

This seems to confirm the criminologists’ conclusion that it is the situation in which you find yourself that will determine how you might act. They added this, though—

It is also your perception of what your colleagues think of your actions that will play a pivotal role in how you act.

As for our friend, who wouldn’t steal an apple, the criminologists would argue that our friend acted as he or she did because the culture our friend’s workplace. Why? Because it was this culture that allowed this to happen. And, certainly, if our friend’s colleagues also lied and stole and acted unethically, there would no disapproval from them when our friend acted in the same way…

Could this explain why psychologically normal folks, who share conventional societal values, sometimes take advantages of opportunities to act unethically or even criminally?

If central to solving The Apple Conundrum is controlling the culture of the workplace, isn’t the real villain here the leader who creates that culture or then who condones bad actions flowing from it?

Had we solved The Apple Conundrum?

Not quite yet…


The criminologists wanted to know more. They wanted to know more about what actually made people do what they did. So, they interviewed those who had committed this type of white collar crime…

And those they interviewed were apparently quite forthcoming. What the criminologists discovered was that they all used the same series of excuses and rationalizations. These excuses and rationalizations became known as “techniques of neutralization.” These, incidentally, became red flags for anyone seeking out signs of ongoing questionable behavior.

See if you can pick out which of these techniques of neutralization our friend at the grocery store or Bob or you might use—

“Denial of injury.”

Here, he would minimize the harm that had resulted—or would deny that any harm had occurred. He would claim, for example, that money was borrowed and not stolen—or that he only intended to frighten the victim. Or that the victim was already so rich, he wouldn’t feel the loss.

“Denial of responsibility.”                                                                        

Here, the offender would claim he wasn’t responsible. He would claim that his actions were unintentional or the result of insanity or provocation.

“Appeal to higher loyalties.”

Here, he would deny the act was motivated by self-interest. He would claim to be motivated by higher loyalties or some moral obligation such as loyalty to his employer, to friends, to colleagues or family.

“Everyone is doing it.”

Here, our offender would claim he had no choice because the competition was doing it. The only way to remain competitive, he would argue, is to keep up with the competition.

“Claim to entitlement.”

Here, our offender would claim he was entitled to do what he did by denying the authority of the law. The law, he would claim, was illegitimate. Or he would claim that he was underpaid and that he was taking only what was rightfully his.

“Denial of the victim.”

Here, he would claim victim was unworthy in some manner or other. He might claim retaliation—or that the victim deserved it for some reason. He might claim his company was itself unethical and deserved punishment as meted out by him.

Condemnation of the condemners.”

Finally, our offender would impugn the motives of those who condemn his actions. For example, he would criticize management of his company—or the police as being corrupt or unfair or that he was being prosecuted maliciously.


From all of this, I would suggest we have two sets of solutions or answers to our Conundrum

Firstly, on a purely personal level, the answer lies in our mirrors—and what we see as we gaze into them. We all know the difference between right and wrong. We don’t need a law book or a course in ethics. As the late Justice Potter Stewart said,

Acting ethically is to know the difference between what we have the right to do—and to know what is the right thing to do.”

We all know instinctively what is the right thing to do. All we need is a mirror—and the courage to look into it.

Then, on the corporate or institutional level, the answer lies with our business and other institutional leaders—and their mirrors. As they gaze into those mirrors, here are the questions each leader might ask—

  • Am I willing to create an ethical environment in which our friend will feel quite uncomfortable doing what he was previously doing because of my disapproval and of that of his colleagues?
  • Am I willing to make quite clear that no technique of neutralization is acceptable?
  • Am I prepared to lay down a marker as to what is acceptable behavior—and what isn’t?
  • Am I prepared to lead by example?
  • Do I understand that Codes of Conduct and Ethics are fine, but that Enron had a quite remarkable 65-page Code of Ethics that its most senior leaders disregarded?

And, as a special bonus, here are a few special question that leaders of all academic institutions, but particularly Business Schools, might ask—

  • Knowing that my students are cheating in exams at an almost unparalleled scale, what am I prepared to do about it—if anything?
  • Am I prepared to continue to look away as my students cheat?
  • How long can expect to keep my job if I do nothing about this cheating?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Have we solved The Apple Conundrum? Then again, maybe we haven’t…

Finally, I apologize for my fixation with ethics and scams. For many of you, I’m sure this is getting tiresome… Really sorry about that! I also apologize if, after reading this, you never look at the apples in the grocery store in quite the same way…

So, what more can I say—other than to repeat what some cartoon character must sure once have said: “That’s it for now, folks!”


Michael Friedlander
Michael Friedlander
IN 1979, prior to arriving in Los Angeles, Michael was an attorney in Johannesburg, South Africa. After leaving South Africa, he worked for an international trading company in its London and Zurich offices... After moving to Los Angeles, he was admitted to the California Bar. Since then, his law work has focused on assisting clients in the negotiating and structuring of their national and international business transactions… In the late 1990s, he ventured from the dark side to explore life on the bright side—the world of business. He was then the CEO of three international companies. In 2008, he ventured back to the dark side, where he always belonged... He has written “Detecting the Scam: Nelson Mandela’s Gift,” which highlights how moral authority, common sense and negotiating skills can help detect and avoid scams. Has also written "Come Dance With Me," a diary about life, laughter, finding balance. His latest project is the ""

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