Being Your Best Self, Part 2: Moral Decision Making

Moral decision making is the ability to produce a reasonable and defensible answer to an ethical question.

Discussion Questions

1. Professor Marianne Jennings noted in the wake of the Enron-era scandals: “[n]o one within the field [of ethics] looks at Jack Grubman [the scandal-ridden former telecom industry stock analyst]…, the fees structures, the compensation systems, and the conflicts [of interest] and frets, ‘These were very nuanced ethical issues. I never would have seen those coming.’” Do you agree or disagree that most white collar criminals that we read about in the newspapers and see on TV should have known that what they did was wrong?

2. How is it that respected members of the community who have been very successful in business make decisions to engage in inside trading, pay bribes to get business, and fudge earnings numbers?

3. Why is it that most people can easily see how conflicts of interest affect other people’s decisions, but many people have faith that they themselves can remain objective even in the presence of such conflicts?

4. This video talks about how the self-serving bias can make it difficult for people facing a decision with ethical dimensions to make the right choice when their interests are involved. What other factors that are illustrated in Ethics Unwrapped videos can make it difficult for a well-meaning person to make the right choice?

5. When you do use the cognitive processes in your brain to try to resolve ethical dilemmas, are you a deontologist who focuses more on rules or a consequentialist who focuses more on outcomes? Or are you both? How do you decide which approach is decisive in any particular setting?

6. Tilly is a pathologist. Late one night she was alone in the lab performing an autopsy. She was extremely hungry, but wanted to finish her work before she left for the evening. She notices some strips of flesh left from an earlier autopsy. She cooked the flesh on a Bunsen burner and ate it, then finished her work. Did Tilly act immorally? Why or why not?

7. Is it right to pay a bribe to induce a government entity to approve a program that will benefit people? How would you decide? How would you ensure that your self-interest was not unduly affecting your decision?

Case Studies

Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig

In 2003, a research team from prominent laboratory the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research in Ithaca, New York published an article in the prestigious academic journal Cell. It was considered a breakthrough paper in that it answered a major question in the field of plant cell biology. The first author of this paper was postdoctoral researcher Meena Chandok, working under her supervisor Daniel Klessig, president of BTI at the time.

After Chandok left BTI for another job, other researchers in the laboratory were unable to repeat the results published in Cell, following exactly the same methods described in the article. Klessig, suspecting possible scientific misconduct, requested Chandok to return to the laboratory to redo her experiments and confirm the authenticity of her results, but she declined. An institutional investigation into the experiment concluded there “was no conclusive evidence that Dr. Chandok achieved the results reported,” but also that there was “no conclusive evidence” of misconduct or that Chandok had fabricated the results. Klessig and the other co-authors retracted the article without Chandok’s agreement. Chandok subsequently sued Klessig for defamation, claiming the retraction had caused significant damage to her career and reputation within the scientific community.

Over several years in court, the case drew attention to a number of issues in scientific research and publishing. John Travis, an editor at Science magazine, wrote of the case’s consistency with “the National Institutes of Health’s grant policy that researchers should come forward with concerns about possible misconduct.” John Dahlberg, director of the Office of Research Integrity’s Division of Investigative Oversight, believed the case could encourage anyone with fear of being sued for defamation to come forward. Science writer Eugenie Reich described Klessig as a “whistle-blower,” while philosopher Janet Stemwedel raised questions surrounding the collaborative responsibility of the coauthors and Klessig with regard to quality control for the research. She asked, “If credit is shared, why isn’t blame?”

In 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York dismissed the case. It ruled that Klessig’s statements were legally protected because they were “matters as to which the speaker [had] a legal or moral obligation” to notify the journal that his laboratory could not replicate the results they had published and were made between “communicants who [shared] a common interest.” The court found there was no proof of malice toward Chandok and that the investigation and attempts requesting Chandok to replicate her work left the question of scientific misconduct open.

Discussion Questions

1. The retraction did harm Chandok’s ability to pursue a career in science. Do you think Klessig should have retracted the article published in Cell without conclusive evidence that Chandok had fabricated the results? Explain.

2. Do you think Chandok had a moral obligation to return to the laboratory at Klessig’s request to replicate her results? Why or why not?

3. If the article had been published in a less prominent journal and the results were of much less significance, do you think this would have altered the decision to retract the publication? Explain.

4. Klessig’s decision to retract the article was based only on the inability of his laboratory to replicate Chandok’s results, not specifically on the credibility of her character. Do you think Chandok was ethically justified in suing for defamation? Why or why not?

5. There were four authors on the Cell paper, including Klessig and Chandok. If another of the authors besides Chandok also opposed the decision to retract the article, should this have changed whether or not Klessig should have gone ahead with the retraction? Why or why not?

6. In collaborative research projects involving multiple authors or researchers, how should responsibility ideally and ethically be shared? How would you approach collaboration in this situation?

7. If Klessig had no reason to doubt Chandok’s abilities or honesty, would he have a moral obligation to write letters of recommendation for her explaining that his retraction did not in any way reflect on her potential to do quality research and be a significant asset to whatever laboratory or institute she joined? Why or why not?


NIH Grants Policy Statement [see “Research Misconduct” in section 4.1.27, page IIA-40]

Scientist Wins Legal Skirmish After Fulfilling ‘Moral Obligation’ to Speak Out

Chandok v. Klessig (2011)

NO-Making Enzyme No More: Cell, PNAS Papers Retracted

US free-speech law offers protection — at a price

Legal and scientific burdens of proof, and scientific discourse as public controversy: more thoughts on Chandok v. Klessig.

Retractions sparks lawsuit

Court Finds Qualified Immunity for Whistleblower (page 2)

Flying the Confederate Flag

On July 9, 2015, Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill requiring the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina State House grounds. The flag and the pole on which it was flown were both removed the following day. Leading up to this removal was heated debate concerning whether or not the Confederate flag should be taken down. Similar discussions occurred across the United States in places where Confederate flags or other Confederate symbols were on display, ranging from governmental properties and university campuses to NASCAR venues and popular television series.

Prior to the flag’s official removal from the front of the South Carolina State House, police arrested activist Brittany Newsome for climbing the flagpole and removing the flag herself. The activist explained her act of defiance, stating, “because it was the right thing to do and it was time for somebody to step up. Do the right thing. We have to bury hate; it’s been too long.” South Carolina Representative Jenny Anderson Horne, an ancestor of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, argued that the Confederate flag should no longer fly in front of the State House. She chastised her colleagues in an emotional speech, stating, “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful—such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.”

On the other hand, Confederate sympathizers contend that the flag is a symbol of historical pride, not of hatred. They claim that efforts to remove the flag are a misplaced reaction to photos of Dylann Roof posing with a Confederate flag. Roof had been recently charged with the racially motivated killing of nine black people in a Charleston church. South Carolina State Senator Lee Bright noted that symbols have been misused throughout history. Bright said, for example, that he believed the Ku Klux Klan abused the symbol of the cross, but there has not been a push to remove all crosses. Similarly, Kenneth Thrasher, the lieutenant commander of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, urged decision makers not to act in haste because, “The flag didn’t kill anybody. It was a deranged young man who did.”

Discussion Questions

1. Do you believe that flying a Confederate flag is ethically prohibited? Why or why not?

2. In what ways is displaying a Confederate flag similar or different to displaying other types of flags? A tribal flag? A national flag? A corporate flag? A sports team flag? A rainbow flag?

3. Should retailers bow to public pressure to discontinue sales of controversial items even if they are not illegal, such as toy guns, fur coats, or Native American headdresses?

4. Is it possible to make an objective decision in the case of the Confederate flag? How might you come to a decision that is both reasonable and defensible?

5. Can you think of an example of another situation in which there were two views that were strongly opposed to each other? How was the situation resolved? Do you think the ethically ideal decision was reached? Why or why not?


Confederate Descendant’s Scathing Address In S.C. Flag Debate

Activist Arrested For Removing Confederate Flag At South Carolina Statehouse

Flag Supporters React With a Mix of Compromise, Caution and Outright Defiance

Bright will fight the ‘Stalinist purge’ of the Confederate flag

A Guide to Moral Decision Making

Ethical Decision Making and Moral Behavior

Thinking Ethically: A Framework for Moral Decision Making

Ethics, theory and practice

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics concept known as moral decision making. Moral decision making is the ability to produce a reasonable and defensible answer to an ethical question.

Moral decision making is such a broad topic that it can hardly be captured in a single video. Many ethics teachers sensibly spend much of their time contrasting deontological (rule-based) approaches to deciding ethical issues to consequentialist approaches. Understanding these approaches is critical, but it is also important to understand that many ethical decisions are made intuitively before the brain’s cognitive processes can implement these approaches and that people are often deontologists in some settings and consequentialists in others. With the exception of known cognitive biases and the effects of organizational and social pressures, it is unclear why people choose one approach in one setting and the other in a different setting.

This video is the second of a four-video package that addresses how people can be their best selves. Looking at the entire process, it seems sensible to conclude that a person who wishes to act ethically must (1) recognize ethical issues when he or she runs across them (see Moral Awareness); (2) have the ability to reach a defensible resolution of the question as to what is the right thing to do in that setting (this video, Moral Decision Making); (3) desire to do the right thing (see Moral Intent); and finally, (4) be able to act on that intent (see Moral Action). The four videos in this package address these four aspects of leading a moral life. As the video notes, these four steps were originally enunciated by Professor James Rest and colleagues, although they have been adapted slightly in these four videos.

To learn about a related behavioral ethics concept that is one of the most prominent cognitive biases affecting moral decision making, watch Self-serving Bias.

The case studies on this page explore the difficulties and stakes of making a moral decision. In “Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig,” a researcher makes the difficult decision to retract an article after the results of the original research cannot be reproduced. “Flying the Confederate Flag” examines the heated debate over the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. For a case study about the struggles of making a  moral decision when taking care of a patient deemed legally incompetent, see “Patient Autonomy & Informed Consent.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: consequentialism, deontology, moral absolutism, moral cognition, moral imagination, and self-serving bias.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Cathcart, Thomas. 2013. The Trolley Problem Or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?. New York: Workman Publishing Company.

DeSteno, David. 2014. The Truth about Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Edmonds, David. 2014. Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Greene, Joshua. 2013. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. New York: Penguin Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“Being aware that an issue presents a moral dimension is step one in being your best self. Step 2 is Moral Decision Making. Moral decision making is having the ability to decide which is the right course of action once we have spotted the ethical issue. Sometimes this can be very difficult, as multiple options may seem morally defensible (or, perhaps, no options seem morally acceptable). Sometimes people face difficult ethical choices, and it is hard to fault them too much for making a good faith choice that they think is right but turns out to be wrong. However, most white collar crimes–over-billing, insider trading, paying bribes, fudging earnings numbers, hiding income from the IRS, and most other activities that lead people to end up doing the perp walk on the front page of the business section–do not present intractable ethical conundrums. They are obviously wrong. The problem is not that we haven’t read enough Kant or John Stuart Mill.

More commonly, the problem is that we are unaware of psychological, organizational, and social influences that can cause us to make less than optimal ethical choices. Our ethical decision making is often automatic and instinctive. It involved emotions, not reasoning. When we think that we are reasoning to an ethical conclusion, the evidence shows that we typically are simply rationalizing a decision already made by the emotional parts of our brains.

Our brains’ intuitive system often gets it right, but not universally. So, we should never ignore our gut feelings when they tell us that we are about to do something wrong. But, our intuition does not always choose the ethical path. An important reason that the intuitive/emotional part of our brain errs is the self-serving bias, which often leads us to unconsciously make choices that seem unjustifiable to objective third party observers.

As a simple example, a U.S. News & World Report survey asked some people: “If someone sues you and you win the case, should they pay your legal expenses?” Eighty-five percent of the respondents thought this would be fair.  The magazine asked others:  “If you sue someone and lose the case, should you pay their costs?” Now, only 44% of respondents agreed, illustrating how our sense of fairness is easily influenced by self-interest. If we are not careful, we will not even notice how the self-serving bias influences our ethical decisions.  Authors Bronson and Merryman report that “if you’re a Red Sox fan, watching a Sox game, you’re using a different region of the brain to judge if a runner is safe than you would if you were watching a game between two teams you didn’t care about.” So, how can we combat the self-serving bias?

There is some experimental evidence that if we know about the self-serving bias, we can arm ourselves against it and minimize its effects. We must focus not just on being objective, but on doing what it takes to ensure that others see us as objective. We will naturally judge our own decisions with a sympathetic eye, but we know that others will not necessarily do so. So if we do what it takes to cause objective third parties to trust our judgments, we should go a long way toward overcoming the impact of the self-serving bias.

We should also pay especially close attention to our profession’s code of conduct and our employer’s code of ethics, because such standards are normally aimed primarily at minimizing conflicts of interest and their unconscious impact on our decision making. The self-serving bias is far from the only psychological or organizational factor that can cause us to make the wrong ethical choice, but it is certainly a big one!”