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Moral Blindness

Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things

The noted moral psychologist James Rest developed a Four-Component Model of Moral Development that identifies four essential characteristics of moral behavior. If we examine the model, we can see why good people sometimes do bad things. I'm talking about people who would otherwise act ethically but for pressures either self-imposed (i.e., desire to be a "team player" even though you are asked to do something you know is wrong) or imposed by an outsider (i.e., a superior who threatens your job if you don't go along with something you know is wrong).

In order to make an ethical decision and act ethically, the first step is to identify that an ethical issue exists for you, or what Rest called ethical sensitivity. This is not so easy since many people who want to do the right thing -- try to do the right thing -- do not realize they are involved in an ethical situation. I tell my students a good perspective is that you are faced with an ethical issue whenever your actions affect others. These are the stakeholders potentially affected by what you do or do not do. It is a matter of ethics how you treat them (remember "The Golden Rule"). If you treat others with respect, caring and empathy, fairness, and with honesty and trustworthiness, then you are sensitive to the ethical issues. Since Accounting is my field a good analogy is to recognize that the financial statements must be accurate and reliable to protect the position of shareholders and creditors.

Once the ethical issues have been identified, the next step is to apply moral judgment to reason out what is the most ethical action to take. We should consider how our actions affect others using ethical reasoning methods such as harms and benefits (Utilitarianism) and not violate the rights (Rights Theory) of others. It would be wrong for an accountant or auditor to go along with materially misleading financial statements because it violates the rights of shareholders and creditors to receive accurate and reliable financial information. These stakeholders make decisions based on the information so it must be in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles and be transparent.

It is not enough to have the skills to reason out what is the most ethical action. Rest points out that ethical intention must follow ethical reasoning to turn decisions into action. In other words, do you want to be an ethical person? Do you want to do the right thing? Let's be honest, not everyone is concerned about whether they make an ethical choice/decision. Some people don't care -- John Edwards is a good example. Others believe they won't get caught so they ignore ethics. I believe Tiger Woods works well here.  Also, you can pick any one of a number of corporate executives involved in financial fraud at Enron, WorldCom, and so on.

Even the desire to do the right thing and act ethically is not enough because of the pressures previously mentioned. Young people get caught up in giving in to peer pressure and they go along with something they know is wrong. In accounting, a supervisor (i.e., Chief Financial Officer) might pressure an accountant (i.e., Controller) to go along with materially misstated financial statements. The accountant knows his or her job may be on the line. An expected promotion may be withdrawn or a demotion forthcoming unless that person agrees to manipulate the statements or at least be silent about it.

So how can an otherwise ethical person combat these pressures and follow through with ethical judgment and action? The key is integrity. Integrity is an ethical value that summons up the courage to take an ethical action despite pressures to do otherwise. It means we have the courage to act in accordance with our principles which should be to:

Treat Others the Way We Want to Be Treated.

Respect the Rights of Others.

Never take an Action that Does More Harm than Good.

I could go on but you get the point. Ethics is not easy. Being committed to your values takes moral strength. The key is not to take the first step down the proverbial ethical slippery slope. Once we agree to be silent; to go along with wrongdoing; and go along to get along; then we have begun the slide and it becomes very difficult, should we gain a conscience, to turn around to reclaim the high road.

I leave you with something said by W. Clement Stone, a businessman, philanthropist, and self-help book author: "Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity."

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 3, 2012