Role Morality

Role morality is the tendency we have to use different moral standards for the different roles we play in society.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree that a person should have one set of morals for family and church and another set for his or her employer?

2. Have you ever done anything that made you feel uncomfortable to please an authority figure or to help your company that you would not have done to help yourself?  Have you been tempted to?

3. Have you ever broken some rules to help out a friend in ways that you would never have done to help yourself?  Have you been tempted to?

4. Have you ever seen someone act unethically and justify his or her actions by saying “I’m just doing my job?”  What did you say or do in response?  What should you have said or done?

5. Has an employer ever explicitly asked you to set aside your own ethical standards?

6. How can you guard against being the victim of role morality?

Case Studies

Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work

Mental health clinicians are taught to introspect about the degree to which their own background, culture, values, and beliefs may affect their reactions to their clients, and to strive to maintain objectivity in the process of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Clinical social workers are the largest professional group providing mental health services in the United States, providing services in urban and rural outpatient and inpatient settings. Social workers are seen as different from clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and other occupational groups that provide therapy in the emphasis that social work places on social justice, cultural competence, and respect for diversity. According to the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, the social work profession requires its members to “act to prevent and eliminate…discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability.”

An ethical dilemma may arise when the religious or moral beliefs of the social worker interfere with the duty of all health care professionals to provide optimal service to clients and to “do no harm.” This issue made national headlines in a related context, when Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, was jailed after defying a federal court order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Her action was based on her contention that to do so would violate her religious beliefs. In his ruling, Judge David L. Bunning of the United States District Court stated, “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.” In defense of Davis, Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation wrote, “Ms. Davis felt she had to follow her conscience… That, after all, is what religious freedom and religious accommodations are all about: creating the space for citizens to fulfill their duties, as they understand them, to God—regardless of what the rest of us think.”

A similar conflict between religious faith and the requirements of one’s job or one’s profession may be seen in social work practice in the following scenario:

A clinical social worker has been treating a 25-year-old man for depression and anxiety. In the fourth session, the client reveals that he is gay, and that he has not “come out” to his family. He states that he has been involved in a committed, monogamous relationship with another man, and is contemplating marriage. He would like to inform his parents of this good news, but is fearful that they may angrily reject him. He is seeking counseling around this issue. The social worker belongs to a faith tradition that believes that homosexuality is a sin, and whose leaders have been prominent in opposing same-sex marriage. The social worker, who had up to this point believed that treatment was going well, is concerned that his own religiously based objections to homosexuality will interfere with his ability to provide unbiased mental health treatment services. The social worker contemplates informing the client that he will have to transfer him to another therapist.

Discussion Questions

1. In what ways is role morality evident or not evident in the case of Kim Davis? Explain. Do you think role morality would be ethically permissible in this situation? Why or why not?

2. In what ways is role morality evident or not evident in the case of the social worker? Explain. Do you think role morality would be ethically permissible in this situation? Why or why not?

3. Do you think mental health providers should be able to decline to provide services to individuals whose lifestyle they find morally wrong? Should clinicians have the freedom to select who they wish to treat on the basis of their own values or beliefs? Why or why not?

4. Is it fair to a client if mental health services are provided by a social worker who harbors animosity or condemnation toward the client on the basis of the client’s sexual orientation? Would the client be better served by a clinician who did not harbor such beliefs? Why or why not?

5. Should clients be asked to identify their sexual orientation upon admission to mental health facilities so that appropriate provider assignments may be made? If the client does not divulge that he or she is gay until treatment has begun, does it risk harm to the client if a transfer to another therapist is made? On the other hand, does it risk harm to the client to continue work with a clinician who has antipathy toward him on the basis of his sexual orientation? Explain your reasoning.

6. What should be done in cases where it is not possible to refer the client in the above scenario to another therapist due to limited staffing options, such as in rural mental health clinics? Explain your reasoning.

7. In the Davis case, officials of the Mormon Church asserted that the duty to obey the law supersedes any religious objections that Mormon county clerks may have to gay marriage. Do you think requirements included in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics to advocate for oppressed minority groups outweigh sincere religious objections that may be held by some social workers? Why or why not?


Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers

Issues and ethics in the helping professions

Clerk in Kentucky chooses jail over deal on same-sex marriage

We don’t need Kim Davis to be in jail

Mormons say duty to law on same-sex marriage trumps faith

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as role morality. Role morality is the tendency we have to use different moral standards for the different “roles” we play in society. For example, we may follow one set of standards when among our co-workers and a different set of standards when among our friends.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Conformity Bias and Obedience to Authority. For a closer look at how role morality affected the behavior of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, watch In It to Win: Jack & Role Morality.

The case study on this page, “Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work,” examines how role morality may affect social workers’ ability to properly do their job when their personal values come in conflict with the clients they are meant to serve. For a related case study about a medical doctor who facing a conflict at work because of role morality, read “Healthcare Obligations: Personal vs. Institutional.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, morals, obedience to authority, and role morality.

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

Bingham, John B., W. Gibb Dyer, Isaac Smith, and Gregory L. Adams. 2011. “A Stakeholder Identity Orientation Approach to Corporate Social Performance in Family Firms.” Journal of Business Ethics 99 (4): 565-585.

Gibson, Kevin. 2003. “Contrasting Role Morality and Professional Morality: Implications for Practice.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 20 (1): 17-29.

Jackall, Robert. 1988. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

“Sometimes organizational and psychological pressures cause even good people to act unethically. In a lawsuit over a car wreck, an insurance company representing the defendant demanded the right to have its doctor examine the plaintiff. When he did, the doctor found that the plaintiff had a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Because it would have disadvantaged the insurance company’s defense, the doctor did not tell the plaintiff, who did not find out for two more years. Why would a doctor keep this vital information from an injured man? Obviously, the doctor viewed his job as protecting the insurance company’s financial interests, Hippocratic Oath be damned. This is an example of something ethicists call role morality.

Role morality has been defined as feeling that you have permission to harm others in ways that would be wrong if it were not for the role that you are playing. Role morality often involves people acting in ways that they would view as clearly unethical if they were acting on their own behalf, but because they are acting on the behalf of their employer or a client, they view their actions as permissible.

In a detailed study of a corporation, sociologist Robert Jackall found that many employees segregated their personal beliefs from the ethics of their workplace. He quoted an officer saying: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.”

When people check their personal moral code at the door, they can suddenly become capable of doing horrendous things. After World War II, Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, said that he viewed his role as an “administrator.” As a mere administrator, he convinced himself that matters relating to human beings, including, of course, the Holocaust, were not his concern. This man checked his humanity at the door.

A study by professors at Brigham Young University found that family businesses are more likely to act in a socially responsible way than bigger companies. The family name is on the door and officers want to act in ways that reflect well upon their family. However, people working in bigger corporations find it easier to separate their personal feelings of how business should be done from their role inside the company. We cannot leave behind our personal beliefs as to right and wrong when we walk through our office doors.”