I recently returned from a short vacation in Las Vegas with a new take on the role of culture in ethical decision-making. Las Vegas is associated with a myriad of slogans that promote debauchery and immoral behavior, and the results of a zeitgeist like this are not surprising. What is a surprise is the extent to which the social norms of a particular location can affect and change the behavior of an otherwise ethical person.
Consider the following example. As my wife and I were walking into Harrah’s, I noticed a piece of paper flapping on the ground near the front door. I walked over to investigate, and was pleased to discover that it was a twenty dollar bill. I picked it up and put it in my pocket, delighted to have some extra money to compensate for my losses to that point.
Before I made it back to the sidewalk, a man walked up to me and claimed that the money I had just picked up was dropped by a cab driver that had just driven away. He suggested I give it to him, and that he would return it. I refused, thinking that this man was trying to turn my good fortune into his own. He suggested that I give the money to the valets at the cabstand so that they could return it. Again I refused, not wanting to trust a group of men who work for tips with my newly discovered treasure. He asked me to wait while he contacted the other cabbie. I refused this request as well, declaring my desire to continue my vacation instead. As I walked away, he muttered something that was clearly derogatory and probably suggested that I was a less than honorable person. At the time, I could not have cared less.
Now that I am back in the real world, I am somewhat surprised at my gross lack of trust in my fellow man, as well as my desire to turn another’s folly into my own fortune. This is atypical for me. I usually try to do what I think is right, even when its means that I miss out on something beneficial. Why would I suddenly abandon this commitment?
There are several cultural factors at work here, which not only explain my behavior but also point out the importance of where we are in determining how we think we ought to act. Had I been at home and experienced such an incident, I likely would have either trusted the guy who claimed the money belonged to his fellow cabbie or been willing to wait until the guy came back. I doubt that I would’ve felt such a strong desire to keep the money if I hadn’t been losing at the gambling tables and wanting to try my luck with an additional twenty.
The cultural norms of Las Vegas suggest two things. First, everyone is out to make a buck, whether honestly or not, and there is an overwhelming sense that wherever you are, you are at risk of being taken advantage of. Trusting that the money I found really did belong to a cab driver, and that the man who approached me was going to return it would’ve required denying this Vegas norm. All evidence suggested that it was true. Thus, trusting that the money would be returned to its rightful owner appeared dangerously naïve.
Further, “get the money” is seemingly a core value in Las Vegas, and out-of-town visitors are easily infused with it once they step off the plane. People go to Vegas to win money, but they usually don’t, so any opportunity to get something back seems justified. There is a sense that Vegas owes you something, that you have been cheated if you don’t win. As long as you are following the core value of “get the money,” actions that seek to do this cannot be the wrong thing to do. Vegas’ culture doesn’t support that kind of thinking.
I am certainly not the first person to go to Las Vegas, do something that they later don’t feel right about, and blame my actions on being in Vegas. I have to admit a sense at the time that what I was doing wasn’t the best course of action morally, even if it was consistent with the Vegas way of thinking. However, my own sense of moral obligation was counter-balanced by the self-preservationist and opportunistic culture of Las Vegas, and my lack of awareness of this effect altered my decision regarding what I ought to do.
Human beings are products of their environment, which doesn’t excuse immoral behavior but does raise an important concern for someone who wants to be ethically upstanding. Doing the right thing is easier when society supports it, and much more difficult when it doesn’t. Being ethical sometimes means going against cultural norms, and it is important to be aware of how difficult this actually is when the norms of a particular place are strongly in conflict with our own sense of right and wrong. Perhaps this is the true meaning of the statement that “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.