Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Hank Roberts
    November 28, 2007

    Very topical:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/business/24shortcuts.html?ei=5087&em=&en=108bef0adf486fde&ex=1196398800&pagewanted=print

    —— excerpt ———

    The majority of those praised for being smart chose the simple task, while 90 percent of those commended for trying hard selected the more difficult one.

    The difference … came from one sentence of praise.

    They were then given another test, above their grade level, on which many performed poorly. Afterward, they were asked to write anonymously about their experience to another school and report their scores. Thirty-seven percent of those who were told they were smart lied about their scores, while only 13 percent of the other group did.

    —— end excerpt——

    Wow.

  2. #2 kevin
    November 28, 2007

    I have to wonder about the value of the data they collected and the conclusions they drew from it. Perhaps the self-reported moral cheaters were just being more honest, and the self-reported moral cheating-is-wrong folks are lying about to hide their cheating ways.

  3. #3 Julie Stahlhut
    November 28, 2007

    Here’s the question I’d ask.

    How common is this kind of rationalization …

    “If I cheat I’ll have a better chance to become a doctor and help people later!”

    … as compared to this kind:

    “If I cheat I’ll have a better chance to become a doctor and make lots of money!”

    Or, put another way: Maybe some people do have blurry ethical lines and justify cheating to themselves by saying they’ll help people later. But how common is this kind of behavior as compared to cheating out of plain old greed?

  4. #4 Melinda Barton
    November 28, 2007

    I think once we make some attribute central to our identities, we’ll rationalize (and lie if necessary) to preserve that identity. I think Hank’s comment demonstrates that nicely.

  5. #5 Mark P
    November 28, 2007

    If you assume that the results are valid, I wonder how well they serve as predictors of behavior beyond school for both groups.

  6. #6 Don
    November 28, 2007

    competitive environments? My wife reports that MOMs clubs have one-upsmanship as to who’s the “best Mom” as defined in old-fashioned stereotypical WASP terms. This goes up when Christian religious types are included.

  7. #7 MikeP
    November 28, 2007

    “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.”

    That’s something we try to teach my 12 year old stepchild. “If you didn’t know it was wrong, why did you hide it?”

    Sort of a modification of the moral imperative?

    At any rate, your final paragraph seems to suggest that the light of day consideration is somehow more important for those who perceive themselves as ethically correct. I don’t think that’s what you meant, but if it is, I disagree.

  8. #8 Old Bogus
    November 28, 2007

    “Beyond university classrooms and the business world, can we think of any other competitive environments? Anyone?”

    Politics. Even when the position at stake is of no monetary gain or even be unpaid for the winner, winning often becomes paramount at any cost. The point of elections is choice for voters, not winning for the candidates. Throw in some serious pay and it becomes even more important to win.

  9. #9 Beverly Nuckols
    November 29, 2007

    Beyond classrooms and the business world – traffic laws. The one place I “cheat.” I justify it by thinking I’m safer than most drivers, in a more efficient car and that these are arbitrary laws, any way. Going fast is not wrong in itself, and if you don’t get caught, it wasn’t unsafe, right? And I can live with getting caught or what it means about who I am to people who find out.

    You’re describing the conscience, and I want to say that conscience matters are more serious than my speeding and “I can live with that.” Or am I a “moral cheater?” I guess I’ll have to think a while.

  10. #10 Cat Faber
    November 29, 2007

    “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.”

    On the one hand, I would generally agree with this.

    On the other hand, I have no problem imagining stances I consider personally moral that I might still want to hide. In some cases prejudice (against gays, for instance, or against atheists) make letting other people in on one’s moral decisions just flat out not safe. My views on this may be affected by the fact that I live in rural Tennessee, but–I do live in rural Tennesse, and I can’t be the only one.

    I’m not sure how to resolve the intellectual tension generated by this basic disagreement. How can someone know that s/he is hiding a moral stance because of fear of prejudice and not because it’s not really moral?

  11. #11 capella
    November 29, 2007

    I think a lot of people who consider themselves to be “good” or “moral” do so out of a sense of entitlement that allows them to make greater allowances for their bad behavior: “I’m a good person and I understand this material, so I deserve a good grade… even if my professor doesn’t happen to agree.”

    Also, there are certain areas that will always be gray. It is very common for physics students (and I assume other students in problem-based courses) to collaborate on homework assignments, and most professor condone and even encourage this. But for a trailing member of a study group, it’s hard to draw a distinction between “learning how to solve a problem by reading a classmate’s solution” and “copying a classmate’s solution”, which would fall under the heading of “cheating behaviors”.

  12. #12 Drugmonkey
    November 29, 2007

    “I justify it by thinking I’m safer than most drivers, in a more efficient car and that these are arbitrary laws, any way. Going fast is not wrong in itself, and if you don’t get caught, it wasn’t unsafe, right? And I can live with getting caught or what it means about who I am to people who find out.”

    Of course Beverly, your moral schema applies equally well to driving under the influence of alcohol or cannabis. I mean, heck, someone who is dead tired or 80 is way more impaired than you after a couple a drinks, right? And what about yacking on the cell phone, you can dual task can’t you?

  13. #13 Z. M. Davis
    November 30, 2007

    The “If I cheat, then I can become a doctor and help people” excuse is bad reasoning even if honesty were not an end in itself. If you think at the margin, honesty is at least a means to the end of helping people: it might very well be the case that by cheating, a student could go on to become a doctor and help people, but even then, the cheater’s slot in med school would come at the expense of some other, slightly more able student, who would be able to help people better.

    I find the mention of speed limits interesting, because I realize that while I do consider it wrong to cheat on a test, I have no problem with breaking the speed limit. A contradiction?–I don’t think so. Cheating is wrong not simply because it is against the rules; it’s wrong because of the dishonesty. Honesty isn’t at issue in the case of traffic laws if one openly admits to speeding when asked. Is strictly obeying the speed limit laws a means to the end of people-not-getting-hurt-in-car-accidents? I would say yes, but there’s not nearly as clean of a separation between safe and nonsafe driving as there is between honest and dishonest behavior. Another point related to honesty is that the benefit of cheating to the cheater, viz., unearned high scores, is an inherently dishonest prize, whereas the benefit of speeding to the speeder, viz., getting to the destination faster, is something that is moral to want.

    Then there’s the issue of speed limits being ridiculously low, compared to what is generally considered to be acceptably safe driving. (Only maybe they have to be that low, or people would drive even faster.)

    It’s all very complicated. Which is no excuse for sin.

  14. #14 Drugmonkey
    November 30, 2007

    Z.M.D., and a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration is ridiculously low, compared to what people are willing to do chronically with less than universal accidents-resulting. Not to mention compared to the fact that inevitably the wrong-way-on-the-freeway headons always seem to feature BACs of 0.2+….

    and then we can get started on those that have no problem driving after a couple tokes…

    “everybody does it” and “nobody is really being hurt” are dismal arguments

  15. #15 Z. M. Davis
    December 1, 2007

    ‘everybody does it’ and ‘nobody is really being hurt’ are dismal arguments

    In this case traffic law, I’m not (yet) so sure. To the cheater who says “Everybody does it” and “Nobody is really being hurt,” we can not only rebut the two statements, but we can also say “Fraud is inherently wrong, full stop.” The fraud is what’s at issue, and we tend to suspect that “Everybody does it” and “No one is hurt” are rationalizations rather than arguments, however dismal.

    To the speeder who says “Everybody does it” and “Nobody is really being hurt,” you can rebut the statments, but it doesn’t seem correct to say “Driving faster than 105 km/h is inherently wrong, full stop.” What’s at issue is a cost-benefit tradeoff: you can have faster travel, but it comes at the cost of a higher probability of accident. There’s no bright-line moral principle to appeal to. And yet we need traffic laws if there is not to be chaos: the community needs some prevailing, well-understood standard that all or most abide by, in order to avoid chaos. The legislature can declare it by fiat, or the driving public can reach an implicit consensus. When the posted limit is significantly different from prevailing custom, I’m not yet convinced it’s wrong to go with custom.

    In making the tradeoff, it would help to have data (which I won’t trouble myself to look for) on the effect of prevailing driving speeds on accident rates.

  16. #16 Beverly B. Nuckols
    December 1, 2007

    What’s it mean that I think Drugmonkey’s a spoil-sport?

  17. #17 Theodore
    December 1, 2007

    Understanding the proliferation is another common element. What if cheating was a process that just as easily arose by an implicit consensus? Students know much better about the cheating of their peers then their profs do. What is the appropriate response in a widely corrupt system? Is maintaining perfect academic standards worth sacrificing a career for? I remember being in a tough biochem course where by the end all of the students ended up using unauthorized test banks, the closest I have come to cheating. We were in a small cohort, the class was graded on a curve, and when a few students who had typically been B/C students ended up getting 97%-100% on the first exam the professor didn’t notice, though the rest of us did. And yea, as someone who had been displaced from the top I felt upset (and also grouchy from sleep deprivation). Nevertheless, by the end of the semester everyone including myself, had earlier test copies. The ethical high ground for a few hold outs turns into snobbery as the culture of the cohort accommodates common grey strategies. Like I said, it was a small class size. I think the professor shouldn’t have graded on a curve (making it more competitive), or used the exact same tests semester after semester (easy temptation). Being ethical is hard enough as it is.

    In responding to the “It might very well be the case that by cheating, a student could go on to become a doctor and help people, but even then, the cheater’s slot in med school would come at the expense of some other, slightly more able student, who would be able to help people better.” I disagree. You are assuming the competition is fair. It might come at the expense of someone who was less able, or at the expense of someone who was even less moral and cheated even more. You can’t say for sure which, and neither can the cheaters.

  18. #18 Eric
    December 4, 2007

    I’m not sure I see why you would think this study gave the Kantians an edge over the consequentialists. Sure, a consequentialist might be more prone to the “it’s for the greater good” brand of rationalization, but if she were actually committed to acting ethically, she would apply the light of day test, and I doubt very many of those arguments, if any, would stand up to scrutiny.

  19. #19 Old Bogus
    December 7, 2007

    It is common knowledge that speeding is a gateway crime (This works for B. O’Rielly!). People who speed will work their way up to worse crimes. Before you know it, they’re passing on the right, parking on the wrong side of the street, and tailgating slower drivers. Book ‘em. They probably cheated on tests as well. Losers like me who don’t cheat hate them.

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