Are You Ethical? The Truth Isn't Exactly Clear

Ever keep the change when you're undercharged — but only because the prices were outrageous? Ever grab pens, pads and reams of paper from the office supply closet — but only because your boss shafted you on that raise?

Now ask yourself: Are you ethical and honest?

In recent weeks, the subject of ethics has been a subtle undercurrent to many stories in the news: the investigations into the collapse of the energy-trading company Enron and its longtime auditor, Arthur Andersen LLP; allegations of vote-swapping among Olympic ice skating judges; and the disturbing discovery of nearly 200 bodies on the grounds of a Georgia crematory, where the owner says he couldn't dispose of the corpses properly because the incinerator was not working.

While actual wrongdoing hasn't been formally or legally established in any of these cases, the actions of many individuals are being questioned and debated. One of the central questions — why do people do what they do?

Desire to Be Good

Researchers on ethics and honesty say just about everybody — even those who routinely lie and cheat — has an uncanny ability to convince themselves they are forthright, a process called "rationalization."

"One of the things about humans, and one of the things that makes the ethics business interesting and difficult, is we have a great ability to rationalize anything," says Rev. Kevin Wildes, a Jesuit priest and senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. "We just have this view that nobody's really getting hurt, so there's nothing wrong."

Ethicists agree that by and large, people try to be good.

"Most people think they're doing things for good reasons," says Michael R. Cunningham, a professor of psychology at the University of Louisville. "Very, very few people think they're doing things for evil reasons."

At the root of the matter, said Cunningham, is that people perceive themselves differently than they perceive others.

"We evaluate other people based upon their behavior; we evaluate ourselves based upon our intentions," he said. "When we're speeding, it's because we were in a hurry for a very important reason. When somebody else whips by and wipes us off the road, they're speeding."

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

Complicating things further is the difficulty of defining what's ethical — particularly in the face of different viewpoints, evolving public mores, and trying circumstances that occasionally might turn dishonesty into a more ethical course.

All the complications can make it hard to know if you're a bad person rationalizing ethically bad behavior, or an honest one trying your best to navigate life's ethical shoals — especially with just about everybody giving excuses, the experts say.

Psychologists say they hear lots of excuses: The affair is good for my marriage, because it allows me to vent excessive sexual energies. It wasn't adultery because I was stationed abroad for my job in another time zone. I cheated on taxes or insurance — but only to get the money I rightly deserved.

"If we do things that are not consistent with our idealized view of ourselves, then, in order not to lose self-esteem or to feel extremely guilty, we have to close that gap through rationalization or explanation," says Charles V. Ford, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and author of the book, Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit.

So are those excuse-making patients really just liars and cheats?

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