Lynn Stout


On her book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People

Cover Interview of November 16, 2010

The wide angle

I first became interested in the phenomenon of conscience through my work in corporate law.

Some readers may find this odd: the business world is often described as a place where the selfish pursuit of material gain dominates human behavior.  But after studying corporations for more than two decades, I became convinced that the homo economicus model of purely selfish behavior did a surprisingly poor job of explaining what I observed from the inside.  Corporations characterized by a high degree of internal trust, honesty and cooperation usually thrived.  Those torn apart by infighting and opportunism often failed.

What is true of corporations seems true of societies as well.  The rule of law is essential to peace and economic growth.  Conscience, in turn, seems essential to maintaining the rule of law.

Statistical evidence links cultural habits of unselfish, prosocial behavior with both economic prosperity and personal satisfaction.  Evidence is also accumulating that ethical, unselfish behavior is on the decline in the United States.

Just as environmental scientists have become alarmed about the many sources of data that point to the possibility of global warming, some social scientists are becoming worried about the possibility of “conscience cooling.”

If Americans are indeed becoming more selfish, unethical, and asocial—concerned only with their own material welfare, and not with the fates of their communities, nation, or future generations—the shift threatens both our happiness and our prosperity.

It’s time to cultivate conscience. The right kinds of laws play an important part in that process.