Where Do Ethical Values Come From?

Where Do Ethical Values Come From?

Ethics refers to standards and practices that tell us how human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find themselves – as friends, parents, children, citizens, professionals, etc. Ethics is also concerned about our character. It requires knowledge, skills, and habits. 

To understand ethics better we need to remember that our ethical values come from a variety of interlapping places; any of which are not the only source. Understanding that ethics is complex, we can learn more about its source if we start with what ethics is not:

Ethics is not the same as feelings.

Feelings do provide important information for our ethical choices. However, while some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, others feel good even though they are doing something wrong.

Ethics is not the same as religion.

Many people are not religious but act ethically, and some religious people act unethically. Again, there can be much overlap, but the questions arise about which religion are we talking about? Some religious beliefs are diametrically opposed to each other And what about those people who don’t belong to any religious organization? Are they off the hook from following ethical behaviors? 

Ethics is not the same thing as following the law.

Generally, laws come about by some form of a governing body (elected or not) that creates the laws for the good of the people and the nation. A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt – a function of power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow groups. It can also be defined by the majority vote, which may be misguided. Law may also have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas and may be slow to address new problems.

Ethics is not the same as following culturally accepted norms.

Cultures can include both ethical and unethical customs, expectations, and behaviors. While assessing norms, it is important to recognize how one’s ethical views can be limited by one’s own cultural perspective or background, alongside being culturally sensitive to others.

Ethics is not science.

Social and natural science can provide important data to help us make better and more informed ethical choices. But science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Some things can be scientifically or technologically possible and yet unethical to develop and deploy.

If our ethical decision-making is not solely based on feelings, religion, law, accepted social practice, or science, then on what basis can we decide between right and wrong, good and bad? Bret Hood has some ideas.

Why You May Not Be as Ethical as You Think

Bret Hood was less concerned about the foundations of ethical decision making and more about why people make the decisions they do. He focused on the actions more than the values and beliefs, although these clearly play a major role in heading down the right or wrong path.   

This is a summary of his Ted Talk presentation. He starts with a comparison between what a person believes about their ethical decision-making and their actions.

Start by rating yourself on an ethical scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being totally unethical, and 10 being extremely ethical. Most people will rate themselves at about a 7.

Then see how that ethical foundation plays out in real-life decision-making. He found the best way to understand a person’s perspective on ethics was to ask how serious is each situation from an ethical perspective. Using the same 1-10 scale above, how serious is each of the following:

1.     How bad is it to share your Netflix passwords outside your family?

2.     How bad is it to go into a restaurant and leave without paying?

Both are stealing, yet many people will score the second statement as much more serious than the first. There are several reasons to support that decision, but in most cases the decision is based on a concept called separation between the decision and the consequences.

Most people will say going into a restaurant and leaving without paying is much more serious than sharing a Netflix password. The rationale? Netflix is a company without a face or personality with a consequence that is viewed as nominal compared to the live person who waited on you a few minutes ago, is probably paid very little and may have to make up the loss from his/her own paycheck when you are gone. The distance between me and the company is much greater than between me and the server. At the same time, the consequences of my actions are perceived to have greater impact on the server than on the large, faceless company.

So, how can people who would not consider stealing from an individual come into work and be friendly and even speak highly of the company and yet steal them blind? It is a separation between the decision and the consequences. The more we see the company as a thing and not someone’s business or our co-worker’s livelihood, the more likely we are to steal. Also, the more likely we can rationalize that the theft has little consequences (e.g., it doesn’t cost Netflix anything when I share my password) the more we are likely to steal from Netflix.

In the same way, if you see a person drop a wallet and, upon picking it up learn that it is loaded with cash, do you give it back? How is that different from when you find three $100-dollar bills on the sidewalk? Many people will feel obliged to return the wallet but will pocket the cash because psychological distancetells them there is no victim. The person already lost the money.

Looking at another situation, how bad is it to exceed the speed limit?

How do people go home after exceeding the speed limit, sometimes by quite a lot to the point of driving recklessly, and not feel bad about it?

To understand this better, there are two distinct, internal systems we use to determine our actions. System 1 is called reactionary (we see a deer in front of you and react – hit it, brake, swerve). We must think quickly. In System 2, we have time to use our brains to think rationally about what to do (for instance when we are buying a car). Which system do you think you spend most of your time each day? Most people spend their time in System 1 (Reactionary).

Reactionary thinking causes us to make mistakes and do things we wouldn’t normally do. If 95% of decisions are made each day in a reactionary mode, we don’t have time to think ethically. That is called ethical fading. Essentially, when you use System 1 to make decisions, you have taken ethical decisions out of the situation completely.

Many businesses take ethical thinking out of decisions. Business schools teach that decision-making is about cost-benefit analysis. That means decisions are made by the likelihood of consequences. In other words, the decision about whether or not to go in a certain design way that is known to have certain risks, consider the cost of taking the risk and the estimated potential of the negative consequences happening verses the cost of not fixing the problem.

As an example, Ford decided to sell Pintos even though they knew there was a design flaw. When hit from behind at 30 mph or more, the car would explode. They did a cost-benefit analysis and determined that to fix the problem would cost $11 per car. The cost to fix the Pinto was more than the anticipated lawsuits. They manufactured and sold Pintos.

Now imagine that you are a Ford executive that knows this background and your son wants a Pinto for his 16th birthday. That response would be “no way!”

Help for ethical fading is to generate multiple perspectives. Ask yourself, what would happen if I made the exact opposite decision? Or what would happen if that was me and I had to suffer the same consequences? Have someone you trust be your devil’s advocate. Make it their responsibility to provide different perspectives that are the exact opposite of how to act, even if they don’t agree with their positions.

Research shows that when people put up pictures of moral leaders, unethical behavior drops. When we are reminded of our morality, unethical decisions drop. In order to stay true to your ethical values, become the person you think you are.

Remind yourself you are a moral person and most likely, you will be.