Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ya Think?

The latest entry in the "You needed a study to tell you THAT?" category: "Study: Sense of moral superiority might lead to rationalizing bad behavior."

I felt cheated myself when I realized that I'd just spent several minutes reading about a study in which researchers found that people who feel that they can cheat without compromising their overall ethical framework will do so. I understand the idea of using the scientific method to test conventional wisdom, but it's getting to the point where I'm waiting for a study to tell me that water is wet.

A more interesting study might be into the nature of ethical exceptions, and how we determine them. Understanding where and when our concepts of morality and ethics transcend the "rules" of morality and ethics seems to be a more useful scientific endeavor than simply telling us that this is the case. We all understand that the people who hid the Frank family from the Nazis most likely lied to the Germans on several occasions. We don't feel a need to rationalize this behavior, even though we normally understand lying to be unethical.

On the other hand, when a number of American airmen were shot down in Borneo during the Second World War, they needed to hide among the non-Christian Dayak tribesmen. The Christian tribesmen had been converted by Evangelicals, and had been taught that lying, even to save the lives of others from a common enemy, was a mortal sin. Despite our normal disdain for lying, I expect that most everyday people would consider this to be an unreasonably rigid interpretation of Christianity, rather than laudable ethical stance.

The degree to which we understand an outcome to be either ethically acceptable, or tainted by the actions that are taken to arrive at it differs from person to person (duh). And is governed by a wide array of factors, including who benefits most from the outcome, the acceptability of the status quo, the level of risk undertaken, the subjective feeling that a loophole is being exploited, et cetera. An understanding of the personal and social factors that influence the way we weight those factors strikes me as a very valuable tool, much more useful than a reinforcement of simple truisms.

1 comment:

Dawn Coyote said...

I understand how motivated we are to resolve psychological distress in the form of unpleasant information about our own character, so I'm always a bit taken aback by the things people do to each other, and to companies and animals and children, etc. I often find myself trying to imagine a person's rationale for, say, sexually abusing a child, for example. I imagine the projective identification with the "seductive" child, the privileging of one's own needs, and it's not that hard to see how that could a motivated individual to justifying such behaviour to himself. This sort of rationale works well under all kinds of circumstances: "The movie studios make too much money. I can't afford to spend a lot on entertainment, therefore it's okay for me to download films from the internet." Or, "it's a victimless crime."

Doesn't it seem like social order is maintained through a little more than a series of superstitions and encouragement to avoid punishment? If morality is a social construct, what would it take to dismantle it? I often wonder how far outside the social compact I might stray, given the right set of circumstances.