Welcome to the first blog post on the Ethics Unwrapped website.
We at the McCombs School of Business hope the videos that we have posted and will post in the future on this website will be a valuable (and FREE!!!!!!!!) resource for all people wishing to teach ethics or to learn about ethics on their own.
Ultimately, this website will host educational ethics videos of different lengths, different formats, different approaches, and different topics, all aimed at providing a portfolio of valuable teaching and learning tools. The purpose of this blog is to create additional value for Ethics Unwrapped.
Because concepts within the field of behavioral ethics are the subject of many of the Ethics Unwrapped videos posted in our first offering, I thought would use this first posting to introduce the topic. One of the most enduring questions in the field of ethics is why good people do bad things. It’s not a mystery why good people do good things or why bad people do bad things, but we have all heard the testimonials about white collar criminals from relatives, friends and neighbors who insisted that the recently-convicted fellow loved his family, was a wonderful neighbor, was active in his church, and so on. There are innumerable cases of good people doing bad things. How does that happen?
The field of behavioral ethics is largely a descriptive field. Using an enormous literature on decision making arising from fields such as psychology and cognitive science, behavioral ethics attempts to explain why people make the ethical (and unethical) decisions that they do. The evidence is overwhelming that in addition to conscious self-interest which is always lurking, good people can make epically immoral decisions due to organizational pressures, social forces, unconscious decision making heuristics (short-cuts), and even inattention.
Many decision making errors are illustrated in the videos posted on this website. For example, people are sometimes so focused on pleasing the authority figures in their lives that they do not use their independent ethical judgment to make decisions and, indeed, may not even see the ethical dimensions of a choice they are facing. And people are generally loss averse, meaning that they will take risks to avoid losses that they would not take to obtain gains. Therefore, a person who would not lie to get a job may find herself lying to avoid losing it. Obedience to authority and loss aversion are just two of the behavioral factors that can lead to unethical decisionmaking.
Because behavioral ethics can help us understand why people make the decisions they do, it can also help individuals to guard against common errors and can give employers information on how to design reward and compliance systems to improve the ethical decision making and behavior of their employees.
But, can behavioral ethics, which is largely a descriptive enterprise, have relevance for a normative discussion? Can behavioral ethics help settle disputes over what should be considered right and wrong?
This post is growing too long for a thorough discussion of the normative relevance of behavioral ethics. But consider whether it makes any common sense to view masturbation as immoral when few, if any, teenage boys can completely resist the practice despite best intentions to the contrary. If not, can illicit music downloading, which seems similarly ubiquitous among teens, be thought of similarly?
The overarching question is whether you agree or disagree with the recent claim that “a judgment expressed in the language of morals that we systematically do not conform to in our practical behavior cannot be trusted as one to which we really attach moral meaning”?
Pedro Frances-Gomez, Lorenzo Sacconi & Marco Faillo, ”Behavioral Business Ethics as a Method for Normative Business Ethics,” July 2012, p. 18.