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Behavioral Ethics: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Moral Judgment and Dishonesty

An interesting paper by Max Bazerman on the malleability of morality and behavioral ethics.

Bazerman defines behavioral ethics as “the study of systematic and predictable ways in which individuals make ethical decisions and judge the ethical decisions of others that are at odds with intuition and the benefits of the broader society.”

By focusing on a descriptive rather than a normative approach to ethics, behavioral ethics is better suited than traditional approaches to address the increasing demand from society for a deeper understanding of what causes even good people to cross ethical boundaries.

Some juicy tidbits:

Together, these studies point to surprising inconsistencies between people’s desire to be good and moral and be seen as such by others and their actual unethical behavior, and provide evidence consistent with the argument that morality is malleable.

Moral hypocrisy

…research has examined an inconsistency in the way we judge our own unethical actions versus those of others, a tendency called “moral hypocrisy.” More precisely, moral hypocrisy refers to people’s desire to appear moral without bearing the actual cost of being moral …

We act worse than we anticipate

…Although different, all the studies described in this section share a common message: they demonstrate the surprising ways in which we act worse than we would have anticipated when we face ethical dilemmas, and they demonstrate inconsistencies in the way we judge unethical behavior depending on whether we or others engaged in it.

We do things we would condem

People engage in behaviors that they would condemn and consider unethical upon further reflection or awareness. That is, they are boundedly ethical. Bounded ethicality takes a variety of forms, including overclaiming credit for group work without realizing that you are doing so, engaging in implicit discrimination and in-group favoritism, over-discounting the future and harming the environment, and failing to realize that you hold overly positive views of yourself

Outcome Bias?

Research also shows that we are far more likely to condemn unethical behavior when the behavior leads to a bad rather than a good outcome –even when controlling for the action of the actor being judge


Another factor that leads us to ignore the unethical behavior of others is the presence of intermediaries …

Improving Ethics by Using a Behavioral Ethics Perspective

Behavioral decision research makes a distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking that can be useful in understanding these inconsistencies in our moral preferences

The critical result from research on System 1 versus System 2 thinking, and from joint versus separate preference reversals is that shifting the modes of thought can lead to profound differences in how we make ethical decisions. This has implications at the individual and at the societal level. The decisions we make can create great harm. We certainly believe that there were some greedy actors involved in creating the recent financial crisis who engaged in clearly illegal and unethical behavior. But, we also need to address the behavior of thousands who contributed to the problem without realizing that they were doing anything wrong or who did not understand what situational and social pressures was leading them to move away from their moral compass. Greater awareness of behavioral ethics can help on that front.

In conclusion

Rather than teaching students how they should behave when facing ethical dilemmas, or informing them about what philosophers would recommend, the behavioral ethics perspective suggests a different approach. Behavioral ethics sees an opportunity in helping students and professionals better understand their own behavior in the ethics domain, and compare it to how they would ideally like to behave. We believe that only by reflecting on their ethical failures and the inconsistencies between their desire to be moral and their actual behavior they can rise to the actions (and ethical standards) that their more reflective selves would recommend.

Read the full paper.

Do you want to learn more? Read Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What's Right and What to Do about It. Bazerman is also the author of my favorite book on decision-making: Judgment in Managerial Decision Making.