President Biden and behavioral ethics

One of the key findings of the behavioral ethics field is that it is easier to act unethically to an anonymous individual than a known one. As described in this paper by Deborah A. Small and George Loewenstein,  in one study “subjects were more willing to compensate others who lost money when the losers had already been determined than when they were about to be” and in another “people contributed more to a charity when their contributions would benefit a family that had already been selected from a list than when told that the family would be selected from the same list.”    

Like a lot of behavioral ethics findings, this one seems pretty common-sensical.  But it is still good to know that there is data behind it.

And it is particularly encouraging to know about this when one considers the powerful – indeed almost unique – empathetic feature of President Elect Biden’s character. To Biden it seems like there are no strangers.

Over the next four years we will see if Biden’s empathetic words correlate with ethical deeds. But in a sense we already know the answer – because we have seen how his immediate predecessor’s unempathetic words are strongly correlated with unethical actions.

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