Are You Ethical? The Truth Isn't Exactly Clear

Politics, circumstances, excuses can blur what's right.

May 14, 2015, 10:40 AM

Feb. 21, 2002 — -- 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?

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."

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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."

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?

"I'm very, very cautious about making judgments about people's character," Wildes said. "I think there are a lot of good people who make moral mistakes all the time. I don't think making a moral mistake means that you're necessarily a bad person."

Most experts would call those patients' cases ethical lapses, but personal ethics can be even harder to define than obscenity — which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said was difficult to spell out, but, "I know it when I see it." With ethical questions, two different observers can sometimes see two different things.

For example, while some people might put President Clinton's dalliances in office at the height of unethical behavior, another person could see it as virtually nothing.

"It depends upon your personal frame of reference," Ford said. "Personally, I don't care about what a person does in their closed office, as long as it doesn't affect other people."

People find it easier to cheat what is perceived as a large, faceless entity like a corporation or the government than to cheat a friend or acquaintance, experts say. But even there, perception can make a difference. Take the example of the person who fails to point out when a clerk gives too much change.

"Do they realize that it's generally not the store they're taking from, but the salesperson who has to reconcile their accounts at the end of the day?" Ford asks.

People also find their behavior easier to justify as parts of groups, experts say. Slobodan Milosevic, the deposed Yugoslavian leader on trial for war crimes, last week argued accusations against him were "lies" and that some perceived transgressions may have been simply "an expression of the will of the [Serbian] people."

Likewise, Nazi concentration camp commanders notoriously defended their actions as simply following orders. Lynch mobs in the reconstruction-era South committed atrocities against blacks they might not have been capable of as individuals.

Businesspeople might be willing to break with their personal ethical code on behalf of their companies. Sometimes people can act unethically by seeing only a pair of mutual favors, with both sides benefiting, and forgetting about a third party who might get hurt in the process.

So is dishonesty unethical? Not always, some argue.

"There may be some situations where it is ethical to be dishonest," says Len Saxe, a social psychologist and research professor at Brandeis University's Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management. "The line between dishonesty and honesty is nowhere as clear as we think it is."

Most people would argue it would be ethical for a Jew to have lied about his religious identity to the Nazis to save his life, Saxe said. He added a day-to-day example: "It doesn't have to be Valentine's Day for a husband to tell his wife that he likes the way she looks or likes her cooking, even if he doesn't."

So how do you know when you are acting for the greater good, and when you are simply prone to making excuses to reconcile your self-image after serious ethical lapses?

Wildes says trusted friends and family might be sought out to offer an outside view and constructive criticism on behavior.

Debra Satz, an associate professor of philosophy at Stanford University who studies personal ethics, said people also might gain ethical perspective from groups beyond their normal social circle.

"In the teaching of ethics … we get students involved in communities where they have to listen to different perspectives and negotiate from different points of view," Satz says.

Cunningham says it might help to think about the frequency of one's excuses. On honesty tests he has studied, the most dishonest people tended to be evident, he said: "The more 'yes, buts,' they would offer, the more likely they would be prone to doing the wrong thing."

Ask yourself whether honesty is a trait you value above others or whether you'd be willing to sacrifice it to get ahead, and how much you see honesty as a virtue in others, Cunningham adds. In the example of getting too much change, he said, people who value honesty more highly "probably do recall instances where they were given too much money back and did something about it, whereas the dishonest people will see giving the money back as being a chump."

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