As promised, I want to take a look at this article (discussed also at Corpus Callosum). I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t have much to say about what causes might underlie the phenomenon of do-gooders doing bad. However, I will have some words (from the point of view of someone concerned with practical ethics) about how this pitfall might be avoided.
From the article:
[O]ften in life, the line between right and wrong becomes blurry, particularly when it comes to cheating on a test or in the workplace. For example, somebody could rationalize cheating on a test as a way of achieving their dream of becoming a doctor and helping people.
In the new study, detailed in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers find that when this line between right and wrong is ambiguous among people who think of themselves as having high moral standards, the do-gooders can become the worst of cheaters…
“The principle we uncovered is that when faced with a moral decision, those with a strong moral identity choose their fate (for good or for bad) and then the moral identity drives them to pursue that fate to the extreme,” said researcher Scott Reynolds of the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. “So it makes sense that this principle would help explain what makes the greatest of saints and the foulest of hypocrites.” …
Why would a person who thinks of himself as honest cheat? The researchers suggest an “ethical person” could view cheating as an OK thing to do, justifying the act as a means to a moral end.
As Reynolds put it: “If I cheat, then I’ll get into graduate school, and if I get into graduate school, then I can become a doctor and think about all the people I’m going to help when I’m a doctor.”
A competitive playing field, whether at a university or business, can also motivate cheating behaviors.
“Cheating is a way to get ahead in a competitive environment where there are rewards for winning or getting ahead of others,” said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the current study. “It seems like there is an increasing desire and expectation in our society to ‘be the best.’”
Beyond university classrooms and the business world, can we think of any other competitive environments? Anyone?
So, the actual research:
Reynolds and University of Washington colleague Tara Ceranic surveyed about 230 college students with an average age of 21 who were enrolled in an upper-level business course. The survey measured moral identity with 12 questions about the importance of certain characteristics, such as generosity, willingness to work hard, honesty and compassion, and whether things like clothing, books, activities and friends were associated with the moral characteristics.
Students were also asked whether they had engaged in each of 13 cheating behaviors, including using cheat sheets (crib notes), copying from another student and turning in work completed by someone else.
Overall, cheating was rampant.
- More than 90 percent reported having committed at least one of the 13 cheating behaviors.
- More than 55 percent reported saying nothing when they had benefited from an instructor’s grading error.
- Nearly 50 percent reported having inappropriately collaborated on an individual assignment.
- Nearly 42 percent indicated copying from another student during a test.
Students who scored high on moral identity and also considered cheating to be morally wrong were the least likely to cheat. In contrast, the worst cheaters were the “moral” students who considered cheating to be an ethically justifiable behavior in certain situations.
“If they think it’s wrong, they’ll never do it,” Reynolds told LiveScience. “If they think it’s OK, they do it in spades.”
I’m still kind of trying to wrap my head around the notion of having a high moral identity but not viewing cheating as morally wrong. If anything, this strikes me as a study that gives the Kantians a bit of an edge over the consequentialists in the ethical behavior Olympics. But seeing as how the moral identity scoring here doesn’t seem to tell us much about which ethical framework (if any) the subjects would identify as their own, we’ll set this point aside.
The practical question is how to get people to behave more ethically.
The study discussed in the article suggests that there’s nothing about viewing yourself as committed to high morals that guarantees ethical behavior. Indeed, it seems to suggest that people who see themselves as good people will tell themselves that their acts are good, too — perhaps because they advance the ends of a good person.
You might diagnose the problem here as a failure of knowledge — for example, of the knowledge that cheating is wrong. Maybe folks just need a workshop where an ethicist reminds them that cheating is wrong, so that when they’re pinched for time in a competitive situation they won’t overlook this important fact. This doesn’t look like the best response to me.
Instead, I’d suggest that people who would like to behave ethically — who would like to see themselves as moral and to have good reasons for seeing themselves this way — should think of ethical decision making as a process best conducted in the open rather than secretly. To the extent that ethical decisions connect us with other people and their interests, there are issues of fairness and of the impact of our choices on others that need to be faced. And to the extent that ethical behavior is somehow distinct from doing whatever we happen to feel like doing, our ethical decisions are reaching for something like objectivity.
This means getting a sense of how others would view our choices is really useful. Checking our judgments about whether particular courses of action would be good is a way to be sure we aren’t simply rationalizing what would get us to our goal most easily. Actually talking to other people as we’re evaluating our options can help us see ethical details we didn’t notice on our own — other people who might be effected, for good or for ill, by what we decide to do, potential consequences, either short term or long term, we hadn’t imagined, other obligations we may have overlooked.
Making the decision all by yourself risks overlooking the legitimate interests and judgments of everyone who’s not in your head. That makes objectivity a lot harder.
Now granted, most of us have lives in which we can’t convene a focus group every time we face a decision with an ethical component. But if you’ve actually discussed some of your ethical decision making with other people before, it becomes easier to “hear” their voices and perspectives as part of your inner dialogue. You ask yourself how they would react to the course of action you’re considering, and what alternatives they might suggest. You remember that acting ethically is more than finding a way to sell yourself on the moral superiority of doing what you felt like doing anyway.
A reasonable ethical decision is one that you can defend — to others, not just to yourself. You can give reasons why, of the choices available, this was the right way to go.
A course of action that you are taking pains to hide — one which you would not want to have to defend to others — is a red flag, ethically speaking.
Being able to justify a course of action to others is a more stringent requirement than being able to justify it to yourself. Folks who see themselves as living up to a high moral standard ought to keep that in mind and make sure their deeds can meet this requirement.