Role Morality

Role morality is the notion that people sometimes fail to live up to their own ethical standards because they see themselves as playing a certain role that excuses them from those standards.

For example, say a person views herself as a loyal employee of a company. In that role, she might act unethically to benefit her employer in ways that she would never do to help herself. To paraphrase researcher Keith Levitt, the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat – or occupational role – she may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.

In one study people were asked to judge the morality of a company selling a drug that caused unnecessary deaths when its competitors’ drugs did not. 97% of people concluded that it would be unethical to sell the drug. Then, the researchers placed different people into groups, and asked each group to assume the role of the company’s directors. Acting as directors, every one of the 57 groups decided to sell the drug. They framed the issue as a business decision in dollars-and-cents terms. They ignored the harmful impact their decision would have on others.

So, ethical behavior requires maintaining the same moral standards regardless of the roles we play at home, at work, or in society.