As he recently indicated in a column in the Washington Post, Paul Woodruff–our friend, colleague, and University of Texas emeritus professor of philosophy and classics–is nearing death after a long and fruitful life. As he also indicated, he plans to spend every day he has left sharing his considerable wisdom. His recent book Living Toward Virtue: Practical Ethics in the Spirit of Socrates (Oxford University Press 2023) prompts this blog post.
Aristotle is most identified with the concept of virtue ethics, but Woodruff’s book presents a “neo-Socratic approach” to the concept. Woodruff mines what Plato has to tell us about Socrates to develop three foundational proposals. First, “we should all take on the self-care of our souls, our moral selves” which Socrates called epimeleisthai tes psyches. Second, “we should keep up a kind of relentless self-examination that maintains human wisdom—which consists largely of an understanding of our cognitive limitations in ethics, that is, of our lack of any wisdom or knowledge that could guarantee our virtue.” Third, [e]pimeleisthai also entails the third proposal, that we should pay utmost attention to avoiding moral injury.” (LTV, p. xi)
Woodruff knows of moral injury (defined by Nash and Litz as “[t]he lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that can transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”), having served as a junior officer in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. Most significantly, he was tasked with reporting on the progress of Project Phoenix and slowly became aware that he was being fed misleading information and that the reports he filed were therefore inaccurate. He tried to correct the situation but was blocked by superior officers from doing so. A reported battlefield success was actually an abject failure. While lying in ambush during the war and ever since, Woodruff has struggled with the question “What makes the difference in a human being between acting ethically and not?” (p. 1)
We here at Ethics Unwrapped emphasize behavioral ethics, the science of ethical decision-making. Like Woodruff, we believe people must “understand their cognitive limitations in ethics.” Like him, we often ask: “Why do people make moral mistakes? Why do good people do bad things?
We recognize the value of philosophy, because sometimes people face difficult moral dilemmas and the right thing to do is not clear. Philosophy can help people find the right path. But it is our contention that when good people err, it is usually not because they didn’t read enough Kant or Bentham. In the business world, for example, most moral errors are, frankly, pretty obvious. You don’t need John Stuart Mill to tell you that fraud, tax evasion, or insider trading are wrong. Woodruff agrees, writing: “Of course there are cases in which we find it hard to know right from wrong even in the ordinary sense, and here philosophers may be of help. But many ethical failures especially in the business world, are not due to ignorance of right and wrong. Those who falsified accounts for Enron cannot have been in doubt, and the same goes for the false guarantee of the safety of the O-rings before the Challenger disaster.” (p. 2 n.2)
In contemplating the moral challenges he faced in Vietnam, Woodruff, with a philosophy PhD from Princeton, concludes: “I had studied philosophy with some of the greatest minds of the day. But I did not feel that I had learned a single thing that would help me through a moral dilemma or protect me from the effects of fear or anger.” (p. 2)
We believe that people err mostly because social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and various situational factors facilitate poor moral decision-making. In his book, Woodruff recognizes the impact of many of these influences (that we explore in our videos).
There’s the conformity bias, the tendency people have to take their cues as to how to act from the people around them, meaning that if the folks around you are cutting ethical corners, it will be difficult for you not to do so as well. (pp. 3, 20, 54) Woodruff emphasizes that if you are not careful you may be “simply swept along by the examples around you” (p. 3) and that “[n]one of us are immune to the effects of our culture.” (p. 20)
There’s the overconfidence bias, people’s tendency to believe that they are more moral than those around them and that they will handle ethical challenges because they are “good folks,” which can lead them to make decisions without proper reflection. Woodruff repeatedly emphasizes the danger created when people are overly confident regarding their morals. (pp. 6, 10 n.10, 109-110, 203-204)
There’s incrementalism, the slippery slope: when we cut a small ethical corner, which can be really easy to do because the departure from norms is so small, that can become the new normal and then it becomes much easier to cut a larger corner the next time. (pp. 3, 17, 84) When we cut corners, Woodruff tells us, “good habits wither and bad habits grow.” (p. 17)
There’s the self-serving bias, our tendency to gather, process and even remember information in a self-serving way which makes what is best for us seem to be what is best. This makes it easy for us to rationalize the pursuit of our selfish interests. Woodruff warns that because of this bias, our desires and ambitions can override our goal of being a good person. (pp. 3, 32)
There’s moral licensing, a component of moral equilibrium. Moral licensing is our tendency, after we have done something good or at least convinced ourselves that we are going to do something good, to give ourselves permission not to live up to our own moral standards (just this once, of course!)–to take a “moral vacation” in Woodruff’s words. (p. 81)
There’s the in-group/out-group bias, that leads us to unfairly favor in-group members (friends, family, fellow soldiers, etc.) at the expense of out-group members (pp. 139, 150). Woodruff warns: “History shows that we are especially vulnerable to making ruthless decisions when we are swayed by membership in a group in which the worst elements egg each other on.” (p. 139)
There’s moral disengagement (p. 119), which are processes by which people manage to divorce themselves from responsibility for their own wrongdoing by a variety of mechanisms categorized by the late Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura. One of those mechanisms is the use of euphemisms or metaphors to disguise (even from ourselves) an action’s true nature. Companies don’t fire people, they “right size.” Firms don’t commit accounting fraud, they engage in “financial engineering.” An episode from the war that still haunts Woodruff is his conversation with an 18-year-old helicopter door-gunner who said that he loved shooting up hootches with innocent civilians inside. Woodruff opines:
“What the door gunner needs is not a course in ethical theory. All he needs (to get this sort of case right) is to call things by the correct words—to call things by the correct words—to call human beings “human,” and the killing of innocents “murder.”… In the same way O. Henry [who embezzled money from a bank, but convinced himself that he was only “borrowing” it] did not need to study philosophy in order to recognize that his taking of money was theft. And a Hollywood mogul should not need theory to help him see that his process of casting by forced intercourse is rape. Why then do philosophers argue over theories?” (p. 122)
Rationalizations, the excuses we give ourselves for not living up to our own moral standards, are also a means of moral disengagement. Rationalizations, Woodruff reminds us, make up one leg of the “fraud triangle.” (p. 109, n.4)
Willful ignorance, consciously or unconsciously keeping ourselves in the dark about what might be uncomfortable truths, is a third mechanism for moral disengagement, one which Woodruff admits to falling victim to during the war. (p. 205)
One of our constant messages here at Ethics Unwrapped is that character is wonderful. It is definitely better to have good character than bad character. But psychological research demonstrates that having good character is not a guarantee that you will always do the right thing because our character can be overwhelmed in given situations by the various influences identified by behavioral ethics research. Woodruff agrees, noting: “we would be unwise to suppose that we can protect ourselves from moral injury simply by cultivating habits or character traits.” (p. xii) He agrees with us that “[v]irtue is not a “stable and reliable trait,” (p. 63) and notes: “situations matter, especially human ones. The character you think you have may not stand up to heavy social pressures or to the necessities imposed by an unjust society.” (p. 49)
At the end of the day, we agree with Woodruff that philosophy can help you tell right from wrong in the classroom, but “[i]t’s much harder to do what you have judged to be right and do it consistently than it is to make the right judgment.” (pp. 2-3) And the reason for this disconnect are the various influences studied in behavioral ethics research.
We frequently counsel the viewers of our videos and readers of our blog posts that one of the best things that they can do to live the most ethical life possible is to study behavioral ethics in order to learn about all these social and organizational pressures, cognitive heuristics and biases, and situational factors and how they adversely impact human moral decision making so that as the readers and viewers go through life they can constantly guard against these malign but natural and ubiquitous influences.
That is, in many ways, the essence of Woodruff’s message. He knows that Aristotle is most identified with virtue ethics, but he believes that Aristotle’s approach is too “static.” (p. xi) You can’t just develop what you perceive to be good character and then conclude: “OK, I’m good to go.” Rather, Woodruff relies upon Socrates to suggest “a lifelong activity” (p. xi) that involves realizing our own moral shortcomings, learning about the cognitive weaknesses and knowledge deficits that hobble our moral decision-making, and engaging in a constant process of moral self-improvement which involves, especially, avoiding the overconfidence bias. This is the essence of epimeleisthai. Woodruff describes it as a form of “moral self-care” (p. xi) by which we can enhance and preserve our “moral souls.”
Ultimately, Woodruff tells us: “So the practical question turns out to be this: How may we guard against moral failure? The answer—which I knew was an ancient one—is a question: What sort of person must I be in order not to be blown off track into moral failure? The ethics I had been taught in philosophy classes did not address this question.” (p. 3) Behavioral ethics does address this question. As Woodruff writes: “Science tells us a lot, but it does not tell us how to live our lives or even how to make a given ethical decision. It does, however, give us information that is useful for us in making decisions. It is especially good to know about our vulnerabilities to ethical failure.” (p. 125)
We do not mean to denigrate philosophy. Woodruff testifies that it helped him heal his soul that was fractured during his time at war. Reading Woodruff’s philosophical analysis in this book will also make you a better person.
Though we have undoubtedly failed to do it justice, we strongly recommend that you read Paul Woodruff’s Living Toward Virtue. You will learn a lot of philosophy (and a lot about its limits) from a kind, thoughtful man with a giant intellect and a lifetime of practical experience and sober contemplation about what makes good people do bad things and how we all might take our best shot at self-caring for our souls (our moral selves) and living lives that we can be proud of.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2021).
William Nash & Brett Litz, “Moral Injury: A Mechanism for War-Related Psychological Trauma in Military Families,” Clinical Child Family Psychological Review 16(4): 365-375 (2013).
Paul Woodruff, Toward Virtue: Practical Ethics in the Spirit of Socrates (2023).
Paul Woodruff, “My Death is at Hand. But I Do Not Think of Myself as Dying,” Washington Post, April 27, 2023.
Paul Woodruff, “How I Learned to Heal My Soul, with Help from Love and Socrates,” Washington Post, January 2, 2023.
Behavioral Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/intro-to-behavioral-ethics.
Conformity Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/conformity-bias.
In-group/Out-group Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-group-out-group.
Moral Equilibrium: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium.
Overconfidence Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias.
Virtue Ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/virtue-ethics.
Moral Injury: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/moral-injury.