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Behavioral Ethics–Explanation or Excuse? March 30, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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I read an interesting piece in Harvard Magazine, “On Behavioral Ethics” by the authors of Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, Straus professor of business administration Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Martin professor of business ethics at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Here is an excerpt from their piece which is also taken from Chapter 1 in their book:

In the wake of troubling decisions—cooking the books at Enron, going to war in Iraq on suspect grounds, making mortgage loans to indigent borrowers and passing the risk on to others—scholars in many fields are examining how individuals and organizations conduct themselves relative to ethical standards.

[The authors] seek answers not in philosophy, but through analysis of cognition and behaviors, such as “ethical fading.”

Ethics interventions have failed and will continue to fail because they are predicated on a false assumption: that individuals recognize an ethical dilemma when it is presented to them. Ethics training presumes that emphasizing the moral components of decisions will inspire executives to choose the moral path. But the common assumption this training is based on—that executives make explicit trade-offs between behaving ethically and earning profits for their organizations—is incomplete. This paradigm fails to acknowledge our innate psychological responses when faced with an ethical dilemma.

Findings from the emerging field of behavioral ethics—a field that seeks to understand how people actually behave when confronted with ethical dilemmas—offer insights that can round out our understanding of why we often behave contrary to our best ethical intentions. Our ethical behavior is often inconsistent, at times even hypocritical. Consider that people have the innate ability to maintain a belief while acting contrary to it. Moral hypocrisy occurs when individuals’ evaluations of their own moral transgressions differ substantially from their evaluations of the same transgressions committed by others.

Traditional approaches to ethics, and the traditional training methods that have accompanied such approaches, lack an understanding of the unintentional yet predictable cognitive patterns that result in unethical behavior. By contrast, our research on bounded ethicality focuses on the psychological processes that lead even good people to engage in ethically questionable behavior that contradicts their own preferred ethics.

If ethics training is to actually change and improve ethical decision-making, it needs to incorporate behavioral ethics, and specifically the subtle ways in which our ethics are bounded. Such an approach entails an understanding of the different ways our minds can approach ethical dilemmas and the different modes of decision-making that result.

 Of course I have not read the entire book, so my evaluation is merely based on the excerpt, but while I at first thought the idea of bounded ethicality sounded interesting, on second thought I’m not so sure. Of course it is always interesting for a philosophy of human nature to figure out why people can’t live up to their own moral standards, in the business world or elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on those standards. For one thing, dismissing the entire tradition of moral philosophy because (business) people can’t live up to their own ideals is sort of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater–a waste, and hardly rational. For another, this supposed realization that people aren’t very ethical is hardly news. From “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” to “Do as I say, not as I do,” humans have struggled with that internal battle for as long as we’ve had records of human behavior. The difficulty of maintaining our moral ideals under pressure is precisely the raison d’etre for ethics—moral values are traditionally hard to live up to. If it were easy to be ethical, it wouldn’t be a perennial topic for our arts, stories, religions, and other cultural expressions.  It seems to me that the behavioral ethics project, as described here, amounts to (1) a mere psychological analysis of what people actually do, instead of discussing the normative concept of what they ought to do, and why, and (2) an excuse for not even trying to live up to a set of challenging moral standards. If the authors don’t want to do philosophy, that’s fine.  But if you don’t want to include the concept of prescription in a study of ethics, well, then you’re simply not studying ethics in the traditional sense.



1. Paul J. Moloney - April 2, 2011

If ethics are subordinated to business then they are no longer ethics. If ethics are to be subordinated to anything, it is reason. Business is not necessarily subordinated to reason. To subject ethics to business is to corrupt them. Corrupted ethics are no longer ethics. People being trained in business ethics are not being trained in ethics at all. It is no surprise, then, that people do not feel bad when they transgress some business ethic, even though business ethics, apparently, are meant to make one feel good about unjust business practices.

The so-called traditional training in ethics does not belong to philosophy. We do not train people to be ethical. The pursuit of philosophy itself makes one ethical, if anything does. Some people do not seem to know the difference between ethics and non-ethics. Business ethics have nothing to do with philosophy, in that they do not present any philosophical arguments. This must be why business people make up their own ethics distinct from the ethics of philosophy. If there are two distinct sets of ethics, there must be an essential difference between them. If there is an essential difference they cannot be the same. The first clue to the matter is that we have ethics and then we have business ethics, which seems to indicate a double-standard.

Some of us may think it is unethical for someone to abandon the pursuit of philosophy, or intellectual fulfillment of some kind, for the sake of money as an end in itself. No one has ever been ethical for the sake of money. People are unethical for the sake of money. There are no ethics based on unethical pursuit. The making of money as an end in itself has no moral value.

There is no human behavior caused by itself. There is always some thought that precedes behavior. Without thought there is no human behavior. One can analyse human behavior to death without knowing the meaning of it. Human behavior of itself is meaningless. Two people can have the same behavior motivated by contrary intentions. What gives meaning to behavior is purpose and purpose belongs to thought. This is why in philosophy we primarily study thought rather than behavior. We analyse thought for its logical consistency and its correspondence to fact.

Having moral shortcomings is not the same as being a hypocrite. Moral shortcomings are understandable while hypocrisy is not. Hypocrisy is another form of not having any moral standards. It is better to fall short of one’s moral standards than to have no moral standards at all.

2. forrest noble - April 5, 2011

“In the wake of troubling decisions—cooking the books at Enron, going to war in Iraq on suspect grounds, making mortgage loans to indigent borrowers and passing the risk on to others—scholars in many fields are examining how individuals and organizations conduct themselves relative to ethical standards.”

One point not discussed is simply that what appears to be immoral to one is totally moral to another. Taking for example the above quote:

The cooking of the books at Enron may not have started that way. Some bad business decisions made with honorable intentions may have “gone south” and monies lost or inadvertently mismanaged. To cover this up the books might have been cooked thinking that the investments might recover and no one would realize the bad judgments that were made. Maybe only the cooking of the books as a cover up was immoral and not necessarily done by the same persons or management.

The second example was going to war in Iraq supposedly was for spurious reasons. This is solely conjecture. I believe it was certainly a possibility that faulty intelligence was involved in this decision. Intelligence sources have been one of the sources of both good and bad decision making.

The third example was making mortgage loans to indigent borrowers and passing the risk on to others. This certainly was done but much of it was a government mandate that lending institutions must lend to all borrowers in all areas. Banks and lending institutions have known for centuries that making loans in poorer neighborhoods is a much more risky business than the some loans in well-to-do neighborhoods. The government called this redlining and required lenders to loan to all borrowers that appear to have the equivalent credit regardless of the areas. This was mandated by the federal government with the best of morals and intentions as part of the civil rights and affirmative action and similar programs. The banks knew that many of these loans would default but could not convince the government which acted out of good morality but poor judgment.

Much of morality works this way. What is often believed to be moral by one person or group, is sometimes misunderstood as immoral by another person or group.

Even an ultimate morality such as religion can have many different interpretations of its writings resulting in individual opinions of morality. I believe that each person must determine their own morality and try to live in harmony with oneself by making honest decisions concerning one’s self proclaimed morals and hypocrisy.

3. Nina Rosenstand - April 5, 2011

Paul, just wait until you see my next post, about drugs manipulating people into being “moral”!

Forrest, welcome back, and kudos for taking the opening paragraph of the excerpt apart. I didn’t have time to address it myself. Indeed, it raises more questions than it answers.

4. forrest noble - April 14, 2011

Thanks Nina,

As to the idea of drugs vs. moral behavior, I think legal drugs have their place in society, but ultimately what is the meaning of moral behavior? There is at least one legal drug that by some standards can reduce inhibitions which control ones self imposed “moral behavior,” namely alcohol. Illegal drugs are commonly thought to decrease moral behavior according to common standards which include those things which are against the laws of a particular state or country.

Legal drugs might help a person control their passions which many might conclude, help them enhance their “moral behavior.”

Ultimately I think that moral behavior has different definitions according to the society, religion, country, individual, etc. and that there is no other meaning to it other than these differing definitions and perspectives.

5. Dave NJ - July 25, 2011


I write a blog on the ethics of behavior modification, also known as Applied Behavior Analysis. If the ethicists want people to behave ethically, they should be incorporating the knowledge base of this field. There are many principles of behavior that can be used to shape ethical behavior.


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