Psychological Obstacles to Acting Ethically

Introduction

Most undergraduate students want to be morally good people, and most ethics instructors want to help them be morally good people. Part of accomplishing this task is teaching students how to engage in moral reasoning and examine difficult moral questions, which is what most ethics courses emphasize. Yet no matter how familiar one is with controversial moral issues or the complexities of contemporary ethical theorizing, this knowledge alone is not enough to overcome the myriad of psychological tendencies that can cause people to act unethically even when these people have good intentions. This unit reviews those psychological tendencies, highlights how they pose challenges to behaving ethically, and considers the ways that they can be overcome.

Courses

  • Contemporary Moral Problems
  • Professional Responsibility
  • Business Ethics
  • Introduction to Ethics
  • Ethical Theory
  • Moral Psychology

Assigned Texts & Videos

Additional Texts for Instructor

Recommended Schedule

Day

Topic

Reading / Video

1

Introduction to Behavioral Ethics, Part 1

Blind Spots, Ch. 1

2

Introduction to Behavioral Ethics, Part 2

Blind Spots, Ch. 2

3

Prejudice and Bias, Part 1

Zootopia

4

Prejudice and Bias, Part 2

Blind Spots, Ch. 3 (pp. 38–48); Uhlmann & Cohen, “Constructed Criteria”

5

Other Failures to Live Up to Our Values

Blind Spots, Ch. 3 (pp. 49–60)

6

Why We Aren’t as Ethical as We Think

Blind Spots, Ch. 4; Danziger, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions”; Ariely, “Our Buggy Moral Code”

7

Ignoring Unethical Conduct

Blind Spots, Ch. 5

8

Integrity

McFall, “Integrity”; Calhoun, “Standing for Something”

9

Improving Moral Behavior

Blind Spots, Ch. 8 (pp. 152–159); Tropp & Godsil, “Overcoming Implicit Bias and Racial Anxiety”; Johnson, “When Online Shaming Goes Too Far”

This schedule assumes that class meetings will take place for 75 minutes twice per week and that Zootopia will be screened outside of class time. Day 3 is reserved for open discussion – not a film screening. (Instructors should note that the film’s runtime, excluding credits, is about 100 minutes, so it could not be shown in a single class session.) The two TED Talks can be shown during class time, since both are about 15 minutes in length.

Overview

This unit lasts for 5 weeks, assuming that a final day is devoted to an exam over the material. As a whole, the unit is designed around the premise that there are a variety of psychological obstacles to acting ethically and that an awareness of them is essential to learning how to overcome them.

Day 1 serves as an introduction behavioral ethics – the field of study that examines how people actually behave when the face ethical dilemmas. Day 2 covers why it is important to study behavioral ethics and why studying ethical theory alone will not automatically result in better moral behavior. On days 3 and 4, the focus shifts to discussion of contemporary prejudice, and additional ways that we fail to live up to our moral values are covered on day 5.  Days 6 and 7 are devoted to examining the ways in which we often overestimate the quality of our own moral character and ignore the unethical behavior of others. On day 8, these various psychological obstacles to acting ethically are unified as challenges to acting in accordance with our beliefs, and the concept and value of integrity becomes the main topic of discussion. On day 9, the focus finally shifts to how we can overcome these psychological obstacles to acting ethically. Since most of my students use social media, I include a TED from Ron Johnson about online shaming on the final day to get them thinking about the dangers of using social media as a tool to shame people into better behavior.

The first two class periods can serve as both an introduction to behavioral ethics and a review of material covered previously in the course. This approach will work best if some endeavors at moral theorizing or the application of moral theorizing have been pursued earlier in the course.

My proposed model for teaching this unit puts the spotlight on prejudice and integrity more than some of the other issues covered. These emphases could be changed to better suit certain courses. Those that  cover ethical obligations in business or organizations may benefit from substituting chapters 6 and 7 of Blind Spots (which focus specifically on those areas) in place of some of the other material, for example. Even so, here are a few important details that instructors should keep in mind if they adopt something that closely resembles my model.

First, for instructors unfamiliar with Zootopia, I want to highlight how thoroughly it intertwines with the material covered on days 4-9. Zootopia’s main themes concern the pervasiveness and harmfulness of bias, and the film does an admirable job portraying the psychology of how biases form and persist (often without our knowledge). In this manner, the film syncs up nicely with the readings for day 4. Furthermore, since protagonist Judy spends much of the film unaware of her own biases, the film also illustrates one way in which we can overestimate our own moral character, which is the topic of day 6. The importance of integrity, the topic of day 8, also plays a prominent role in the film. At the risk of minor spoilers, there is an important moment in the film where Judy resigns from her position as a police officer because she believes she has compromised her integrity – because her words and actions have contradicted the values she claims (and wants) to hold, both as a person and as a police officer. Last, and perhaps most importantly, Zootopia raises intriguing questions about both moral character (e.g., the extent to which Judy is a morally good person despite her biases) and how we might improve our moral shortcomings, topics that come into focus on day 9. Instructors who include the film can revisit it during subsequent class periods to illustrate new concepts using material the students already know.

Second, while Blind Spots has many virtues as a text, it does have some shortcomings with its conclusion. Much more attention in the book is devoted to explaining the ways in which psychological tendencies can lead us astray than to explaining how they can be overcome. Some of the assigned materials I have included beyond Blind Spots provide solutions to the problems they present. For example, after presenting experimental evidence that gender bias can influence hiring decisions, Uhlmann and Cohen discuss ways in which this bias could be eliminated from the hiring process. Discussions of solutions also emerge in “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions” and Ariely’s TED Talk. These findings should be revisited on day 9 as reminders that there are clear solutions for some of the problems that have been discussed.

Third, the implicit association test, which is mentioned in chapter 3 of Blind Spots, was subjected to substantial criticism in early 2017. I recommend at least acknowledging the potential limitations of the test when it is covered. (For an overview of the criticism and some rebuttals, this roundtable discussion at The Brains Blog might be helpful.)  Alternatively, instructors can emphasize research that does not rely on the implicit association test to draw conclusions about the presence of bias. Uhlmann and Cohen’s studies, for instance, do not rely on the implicit association test.

Discussion Questions

  • Bazerman and Tenbrunsel are skeptical that studying theoretical ethics really improves moral behavior. Do you share their perspective? Why or why not?
  • Can people be morally good even if their actions are influenced by implicit biases? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been the victim of bias or prejudice? How did you react to this experience? How did it make you feel?
  • If you see someone else behaving unethically, what’s the proper way to confront them? If they are unaware that they have done something wrong, how do you bring it up to them without making them hostile or defensive?

Activities

  • Chapter 2 of Blind Spots includes a discussion of the Trolley Problem. If that thought experiment hasn’t yet been discussed, this provides a good opportunity to do so, and it has already been covered, then the authors’ coverage can serve as a refresher of that material.
  • I recommend giving the students an assignment over Zootopia that forces them to think about the film’s thematic content. One option is to have them identify the characters in the film that fit their species stereotype and others that do not fit their species stereotype. Another is to ask them to appraise the moral character of Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde. Although they are the film’s heroes, they are also deeply flawed characters and harbor some deep prejudices, which means this exercise should provide good material for discussion.
  • Students could take an online version of the Implicit Association Test and reflect on their results in a short written assignment. This could be especially effective if the students are assigned to read Singal’s (2017) article that criticizes the Implicit Association Test.
  • Blind Spots highlights many well-known psychological experiments and case studies. These include (among many others) the Milgram experiment, the Ford Pinto recalls, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and the Bernie Madoff investment scandal. Each of these provides an opportunity for group discussion, short writing assignments, and other fruitful in-class activities.

Author Information

Trevor Hedberg (University of South Florida)
tgh1@usf.edu