The ethical pitfalls of certainty

This is the tenth posting in our series on behavioral ethics. Other posts in this series are collected here.

Judge Learned Hand famously said:  “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” And perhaps something similar should be said about the spirit of compliance and ethics.

I suggest this based on various behavioral ethics studies showing that being sure that one is right can, in fact, lead one to do what is wrong. We saw this in research discussed in a recent posting which showed that having done good deeds (in terms of charitable giving, environmental protection and gender equality) seemed – through the phenomenon of “moral licensing” – to increase the likelihood of subsequently doing bad deeds.

This danger may be even higher with respect to senior managers.    For instance, in one study, those in power were not only more likely to condemn cheating in others but also more likely to engage in cheating themselves than were others.

This is no surprise, of course. It has been 125 years since Lord Acton famously said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But here – as with other behavioral ethics findings reviewed in this series – being able to prove the point with data may make it easier to accept.

And what should be done with that proof?  The point is not, of course, to make employees of an organization feel bad about themselves (or to incite class warfare in the workplace).  Rather, it is to emphasize the need for all employees – and particularly senior ones, who are more likely than others to be overconfident – to seek help from the C&E office or other appropriate resource when faced with ethical challenges.  Indeed, this information can help make the case – in training or otherwise – for the need for managers to have “heightened ethical awareness.”

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