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Why Good People Do Bad Things

There are educational and psychological roadblocks to doing what is right.

Key points

  • Impediments to moral behavior can be philosophical and psychological.
  • Fear can keep a person from doing the right thing.
  • Conformity can prevent a person from doing what they know what they ought to do.

Psychology and ethics are often viewed as discrete subjects: psychology is descriptive while ethics is prescriptive; the former looks at what is while the latter examines what ought to be.

A useful analogy regarding the difference between descriptive and prescriptive is this: a person visits a doctor where she is told that she has acid reflux. That’s a description. Next, the doctor tells the patient what to do for the condition. That’s a prescription.

This analogy assumes that the doctors’ description and prescription are correct. It also assumes that patient understands the situation and can make a reasonable decision based upon the information.

Using the medical analogy, the physician’s diagnosis may be wrong. It wasn’t acid reflux at all but some other underlying condition. Ethical reasoning may be faulty in the same way. The prescription, therefore, is incorrect. So if someone’s understanding of a given situation is faulty, they may think they are acting ethically when in fact they are not. This is where learning how to analyze a situation correction from an ethical point of view is important. The most accessible and valuable educational tool in ethical thinking I know is the weekly Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine.

Another factor that can interfere with doing the right thing is fear. According to the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota, “Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically.”

Fear impedes ethical decision making in another way. Fear of physical harm is obvious; less obvious is the fear of being different. Our lives are bound by social norms and expectations. While some norms are morally positive (don’t lie), others neutral (don’t use your hands when eating), some can be harmful (some groups are inferior). To go against group norms is difficult as it may lead to ridicule and exclusion. Knowing what is right and acting upon it can be set aside in order to belong.

The power of conformity makes it hard to act morally when others around you disapprove. As explained by the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas, “The conformity bias is the tendency people have to behave like those around them rather than using their own personal judgment.”

Perhaps the most insidious impediment to ethical behavior is implicit bias, “a form of bias that occurs automatically and unintentionally, that nevertheless affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors.”

Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt explores how implicit biases shape our perceptions and behavior particularly in regard to race. In her book, Biased, she shows through numerous studies how hidden prejudice “affects all sorts of decisions we make during the normal course of our lives—the homes we buy the people we hire, the way we treat our neighbors.” Eberhardt points out that hidden prejudices, ones that we don’t know we hold, apply as well to biases related to “age, weight, ethnic origin, accent, disability, height and gender.”

While there are other reasons why people with good intentions don’t act ethically besides having wrong information, being afraid to go against the crowd and having biases of which they aren’t aware, these three are perhaps amongst the most important. Recognizing these three fault lines in ethics also opens the way to education (how to make good ethical decisions) and empathy (putting yourself in place of another), the groundwork of a moral life.

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