Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behavior occurs when people act to benefit others rather than themselves. Altruism, cooperation, and caregiving are a few examples of prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior is a central part of morality. As social psychologist Daniel Batson notes, much of interpersonal morality involves “giving weight to the interests and desires of others in situations in which our interests and theirs conflict.”

Research reveals that those who act prosocially tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer. Those who don’t act prosocially tend to suffer the psychological cost that comes with guilt.

Prosocial behavior is contagious. Studies show that people who see others act prosocially are more likely to do so themselves.

People also seem to have an innate preference for prosocial behavior. For example, in one study, even babies preferred to play with a doll that they saw act in a helpful way over another doll that they saw act in a selfish way.

Law professor Lynn Stout observes, “unselfish prosocial behavior is so omnipresent in American society that it often goes unnoticed.” Indeed, consider how frequently people help each other, donate to charity, and volunteer. For example, in 2014 charitable giving reached an all time high with more than $358 billion in donations. And overall, 45% of Americans volunteer, making the United States third in the world for offering time and talents to help others.

So, while prosocial behavior may often go unnoticed, it can be argued that it is the cornerstone of a just and decent society.

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Moral Reasoning

Moral reasoning applies critical analysis to specific events to determine what is right or wrong, and what people ought to do in a particular situation. Both philosophers and psychologists study moral reasoning.

How we make day-to-day decisions like “What should I wear?” is similar to how we make moral decisions like “Should I lie or tell the truth?” The brain processes both in generally the same way.

Moral reasoning typically applies logic and moral theories, such as deontology or utilitarianism, to specific situations or dilemmas. However, people are not especially good at moral reasoning. Indeed, the term moral dumbfounding describes the fact that people often reach strong moral conclusions that they cannot logically defend.

In fact, evidence shows that the moral principle or theory a person chooses to apply is often, ironically, based on their emotions, not on logic. Their choice is usually influenced by internal biases or outside pressures, such as the self-serving bias or the desire to conform.

So, while we likely believe we approach ethical dilemmas logically and rationally, the truth is our moral reasoning is usually influenced by intuitive, emotional reactions.

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Moral Imagination

Moral imagination, according to philosopher Mark Johnson, means envisioning the full range of possibilities in a particular situation in order to solve an ethical challenge. Johnson emphasizes that acting morally often requires more than just strength of character. For example, moral action requires empathy and the awareness to discern what is morally relevant in a given situation.

Moral imagination, as defined by Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy, is the ability to be simultaneously ethical and successful by envisioning new and creative alternatives. In other words, can people look beyond the dollars-and-cents impact of a decision to see how it affects others?

For example, consider Nestle Foods. The company refused to target young children with advertising for its high sugar, high fat products. Instead, to keep the company competitive in that market, it innovated and created new, healthier products to advertise to young children.

Indeed, moral imagination, combined with creativity and moral courage, enables both individuals and businesses to act more ethically in society.

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Moral Emotions

Emotions – that is to say feelings and intuitions – play a major role in most of the ethical decisions people make. Most people do not realize how much their emotions direct their moral choices. But experts think it is impossible to make any important moral judgments without emotions.

Inner-directed negative emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and shame often motivate people to act ethically.

Outer-directed negative emotions, on the other hand, aim to discipline or punish. For example, people often direct anger, disgust, or contempt at those who have acted unethically. This discourages others from behaving the same way.

Positive emotions like gratitude and admiration, which people may feel when they see another acting with compassion or kindness, can prompt people to help others.

Emotions evoked by suffering, such as sympathy and empathy, often lead people to act ethically toward others. Indeed, empathy is the central moral emotion that most commonly motivates prosocial activity such as altruism, cooperation, and generosity.

So, while we may believe that our moral decisions are influenced most by our philosophy or religious values, in truth our emotions play a significant role in our ethical decision-making.

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Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral ethics is the study of why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Its teachings arise from research in fields such as behavioral psychology, cognitive science, and evolutionary biology.

Behavioral ethics is different from traditional philosophy. Instead of focusing on how people ought to behave, behavioral ethics studies why people act as they do. Arguably, it is more useful to understand our own motivations than to understand the philosophy of Aristotle.

Research in behavioral ethics finds that people are far from completely rational. Most ethical choices are made intuitively, by feeling, not after carefully analyzing a situation. Usually, people who make unethical decisions are unconsciously influenced by internal biases, like the self-serving bias, by outside pressures, like the pressure to conform, and by situational factors that they do not even notice.

So, behavioral ethics seeks to understand why even people with the best intentions can make poor ethical choices.

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Altruism

Altruism means acting in the best interest of others rather than in one’s own self-interest. Some people believe altruism constitutes the essence of morality.

Although we often act selfishly, we also seem to be wired to cooperate with others. For example, studies show that when people look for mates, they tend to look for kindness more than any other quality.

People’s moral judgments are often driven by emotion. And empathy for others seems to encourage altruism. Another emotion, called “elevation,” appears to inspire altruistic behavior, too. We feel elevation when we see another person act virtuously, such as by helping someone in need.

Altruism also builds social connections. For example, studies show that people who are altruistic tend to be happier, to be healthier, and to live longer.

So, while altruism leads us to do what’s best for others, it also makes us feel good in the process.

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