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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.