June 09, 2012
Ethical Beliefs Shift When Roles Shift

Many people flatter themselves that they've got firm, unchanging, and incorruptible moral compasses. Yet people can be easily swayed to adopt different moral positions by what role they think they are playing.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An individual’s sense of right or wrong may change depending on their activities at the time – and they may not be aware of their own shifting moral integrity — according to a new study looking at why people make ethical or unethical decisions.

Focusing on dual-occupation professionals, the researchers found that engineers had one perspective on ethical issues, yet when those same individuals were in management roles, their moral compass shifted. Likewise, medic/soldiers in the U.S. Army had different views of civilian casualties depending on whether they most recently had been acting as soldiers or medics.

One wonders: As assorted occupations get automated out of existence and people shift into other occupations what is the net effect on moral perspectives? What ethical positions are people becoming more likely to take because of growth in some occupations? Which moral positions are becoming more of rarities as factories get automated or because functions previously done by people meeting face-to-face are now done on the phone or thru web pages?

Just hints to a person about what role they should use as their perspective caused them to take different ethical positions.

The researchers conducted three different studies with employees who had dual roles. In one case, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests, which included subliminal cues that hinted they might be acting as either a medic or a soldier. No participant said the cues had any bearing on their behavior – but apparently they did. A much larger percentage of those in the medic category than in the soldier category were unwilling to put a price on human life.

In another test, a group of engineer-managers were asked to write about a time they either behaved as a typical manager, engineer, or both. Then they were asked whether U.S. firms should engage in “gifting” to gain a foothold in a new market. Despite the fact such a practice would violate federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who fell into the “manager” category said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to 13 percent of those in the engineer category.

Are more people thinking like managers? Do they compensate for their managerial ethics by becoming more altruistic in other areas? Or does managerial ethical thinking pervade their ethical calculations in other aspects of their lives?

Do you find your ethical positions more influenced by online communities where you play a role? Do you have more or less contact with humans than you did in your job 10 years ago? Do you sense your ethical perspective shifting? If so, in what directions?

One thing I see changing: As people work with and online chat with people who come from distant places people are growing their in groups. There is less local focus and more of a recognition of the need to form and maintain relationships with people in distant places and to incorporate perspectives and interests of distant groups into one's own moral calculations.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2012 June 09 09:42 PM  Brain Ethics Law

PacRim Jim said at June 10, 2012 2:41 AM:

Do you not mean situational ethics?

Bernardz said at June 10, 2012 6:14 AM:

A person in the public service once commented to me that it did not take long for a person who used to work for the education department and now for the treasury to change their mind on spending on education.

jxs said at June 10, 2012 9:37 AM:

@ PacRim: I think both (situational ethics and role shifting) deal with the same thing: Compartimentalization. Intelligence is the ability to adapt to patterns, when we are young we learn that touching fire or an electric socket is bad, but when you're older you may want to look cool to your friends by putting your hand to the fire for some seconds, or that you can fix an electric socket by fixing it with a screwdriver.
The same thing happens for ethics, you adapt to the situation/ role you're in. But the most important part of this piece of information is not the passive knowledge "oh, this is interesting!", but the applications (for good, or evil): Knowing that most people's brains don't have their ethics in a rigid prioritized hierarchy, you can make a person see oneself as the type of person that does X (this archetype/ role carries with it its own values/ ethics) and then expect one to do X, and one will do X most often than not. But if you don't make one see oneself as the type of person that does X, one can be in any kind of other role, thus there would be many possibilities of you not getting what you want.
There was a movie which I don't remember if it was based in a real story or not that reflects this change beautifully: In the movie there was a jury trial of how many years a white man that had raped and beaten to death a little black girl would get for his sentence. It was in a time and place of great prejudice, and the lawyer said to the jury (which was all white (I think)): "Close your eyes. ok, now imagine you're seeing this girl... (then he goes on telling all the horrible things the white man did to the little black girl) (then he pauses)... now, imagine she is a little BLONDE girl". And you can see in the jury the effect those words cause, as they start opening their eyes. All the time they were thinking of her as "just another" little black girl. Someone they really didn't care about. It was bad what had happened to her, but not that big a deal to them, so they probably would give the white man just a couple of years of prison. But with these last few words, he got people's emotions aroused. They felt outraged that a man (any man) would do that to a little girl they would consider of their own. They saw their children, and their grandchildren in that little black/ blonde girls eyes now. And after the outrage, they probably also felt a little manipulated by the speaker, and finally ashamed of not having the same feelings toward a little black girl, then they would have towards a little white/ blonde girl. Then, of course, in the end, they give the man a very big sentence, and the victim's family is happy.

ASPIE said at June 11, 2012 12:00 PM:

Really wish people would stop moral posturing when they have no idea how they'd really act in a situation. Personal psychology should be in middle school health curriculum along with "How to floss."

Black Death said at June 13, 2012 7:31 AM:

One of the areas where role reversal occurs all the time is health care. The sky is always the limit when the insurance company or the government is picking up the tab. Let's say Grandpa is in the ICU and things aren't looking too great for him. The family wants to "do everything." Every procedure, every test, every X-ray, every consultation that might remotely help the old boy - spare nothing! His life is on the line! Then they find out that Medicare or the insurance company won't pay any more or will require a big co-pay. Does the family break out the check book or start spending their inheritance? Not a chance! "He's had a good, long life. We don't want to see him suffer any more. Let him go in peace." Happens every day. Think there's a lesson here on how to reduce health care expenses?

Phillep Harding said at June 14, 2012 9:42 AM:

Where "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes" comes from, too bad it does not stick very well.

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