Synaptic Sunday #4

This Sunday, links on the flexibility of our moral choices:

1) Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

I wonder what the definition of a bad person would be within the framework of the article. Someone who’s instructed to think ethically (given an ethical framework about a set of choices) but still makes unethical choices? Someone who’s never sincerely repentant? This line also jumped out at me:

In general, when we think about bad behavior, we think about it being tied to character: Bad people do bad things. But that model, researchers say, is profoundly inadequate.

I think it’s still tied to character, but not in a cartoonish way – shining superheroes vs. dastardly supervillains (though there are individuals who closely resemble each). Everyone has various weaknesses and temptations, not to mention the capacity for self-delusion – to think about an evil act in a more benign way, rationalizing it. The ability to fight rationalizations and temptations, and recognize them before they take root and become mental habits, is an essential part of having a stronger character. The success may be mixed. It’s usually not as simple as thinking of character having two settings: pure good or pure evil.

So the question ‘Why do Good People Do Bad Things?’ still brings you back to the point on what the authors here mean by a ‘good person’ (or a ‘bad person’). Good people may do bad things, but they also do good things? They do certain kinds of bad things but not other kinds? They do bad things from a good motive that they sincerely feel minimizes the bad or makes it a grudging ‘necessary evil’ rather than something undertaken with supervillainish glee? (But so much destruction and evil have stemmed from well-intentioned policies, ideological principles and motives.) They operate out of ignorance more than cold calculation? (A line from the article: (“and if we want to attack fraud, we have to understand that a lot of fraud is unintentional.”) How ignorant are they? How unintentional is it?

The article ends with some proposals to make people in business environments less susceptible to perpetrating fraud. After listing some proposals the article ends with:

Or, we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.

Well, shouldn’t they know? That doesn’t mean that people aren’t more susceptible in some situations to committing evil, even outside of their awareness. Developing awareness of those susceptibilities and temptations, developing the discernment to see them even when they seem to slip unknowingly into one’s behavior (including when they’re in the guise of good deeds), and rectifying their ill effects as soon as possible are all at the heart of having a good character.

2) Wearing Two Different Hats: Moral Decisions May Depend on the Situation

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

The scripts can be different depending on the role we’re playing (are we thinking like a medic or a soldier?) More on this research here.

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