Morality is for Others

by F.

There is a popular book on negotiating by Roger Fisher, et al, called Getting to Yes, which espouses so-called win-win negotiating. It's an encouraging book to read because it presents such a positive picture of negotiating—essentially, negotiating as collective problem solving. I've negotiated things this way and it is certainly pleasant, if the other side goes along. But often they don't, or, what's worse, they cheat.

Take the case of a guy I'll call "Bob."

Bob was a crafty negotiator and would suggest Getting to Yes to others with whom he was negotiating. He would open up the negotiation with a homily about how "We should all work together toward a common goal" and "Craft a win-win solution." Then he would send copies of Getting to Yes around to the other parties to the negotiation. Once they had drunk the Kool-Aid and were sold on crafting a win-win solution, he would proceed to lie about his position in order to extract a better outcome for himself. In other words, he would talk win-win and play win-lose.

Does this work?

Yeah, it works. It works all the time. Cheating like this has a higher likelihood of working if you are not going to be negotiating with the same parties again, or if they can't find out you cheated them even if you do negotiate with them again, which in my experience happens quite often. Generally, people are in a hurry and they don't waste time doing extensive post-mortems on negotiations. Once the deal or sale or transaction is over, everyone moves on.

I don't think Bob's tactic is, conceptually speaking, uncommon: you can quite often convince others to play nice or be moral and then take advantage of them. I think most of us have probably experienced a similar thing in school, particularly professional school like law or business, where the students tend to be cut throats. There's always some guy in your class who urges every one to "mellow out" and "not take things so seriously." He'll say things like, "Yeah, I'm not going to study for that test. I'm just going to wing it." And then you see this guy studying his ass off in the library.

Similarly, when a comapany is backed into a corner, it will often come out with arguments about morality, or, what amounts to almost the same thing, a plea for regulation that will apply to the competition but not to them. It's great to preach a rule that will hobble the competition but not you. Morality is for others. It's akin to the politician saying, "I don't favor the rich—I support the right of rich and poor people to sleep under bridges. See how fair I am?"

An opposing view of negotiating is found in Start With No, by Jim Camp, which is pretty good, and certainly closer what, in my experience, negotiating is like. I wish I lived in a world where win-win worked, but I don't see it happening in American business, in which human beings tend to cheat whenever they can. This probably explains why human beings are pretty good at cheater detection. We're not great at it, which is cause for hope, because it suggests we may not have evolved in an entirely duplicitous environment.

Then again, who knows.