Monday, June 4, 2007

Test Your Ethics (or Lack Thereof)

Did I just plagiarize that title? Anyway, John Tierney at NYT has posted this about a survey on ethics administered by Carnegie-Mellon. It takes about 10 mins, so try it out if you want, and then read the rest of this post.

The survey presents certain actions in different scenarios and you're asked to specify (a) how ethical it is and (b) how often you do it. You're also given a chance to specify whether it is even an ethical issue at all. I found myself answering that, very generally speaking, most of the things listed were not ethical issues. (Though, there were some definite exceptions.) On the other hand, I also answered that I almost never do most of those things. This is profoundly confusing: "If those things aren't even ethical issues, then why don't I do more of those things?" At first I thought, "Oh, those aren't ethical issues, they're moral issues." But I don't feel comfortable with that distinction either. When taking the survey, my reasoning often went something like this:
Only a dick would do that and I'm usually not a dick, so I wouldn't do that/haven't done that....but it's not like it's a moral or ethical question. If I saw someone doing those things, I would think, "they're probably dicks, but you never know, maybe they're having a bad day."
Since I probably don't know what they mean, I looked up morals and ethics in wikipedia. Even though the entries were different, I really can't tell the two apart. Is there any difference? If so, what it is? (This is straight out of Election.) For whatever reason, I associate morality with big (traditionally) religious questions of good and evil (should i steal/kill/etc.) and ethics with professional/business questions of right and wrong (should i give that person credit for their ideas/steal my work computer/etc.). Are these kinds of questions completely separate or are they different applications of one larger abstract fundamental concept? Is there a word for the "smalller" stuff? In other words, does there exist a concept for actions for which the consequences aren't really that big of a deal, but if you do it, you're a dick/douche/appropriate slang?

For "big" situations, a person has probably thought about it beforehand. Therefore, their response has probably been orchestrated based on a personal "worldview." However, I suspect that, in the heat of the moment and in a split second, for scenarios that haven't been thought about ("small stuff"), one probably tries unconciously to minimize the future potential for feeling guilt. To do this well, one probably has to have some sense of whether a particular action will lead to guilt. If so, presumably one get "better" with time after accumulating more experience. Maybe it's like muscle memory? Does feeling guilt and/or regret have anything to do with things that are considered wrong/evil/not okay/etc.? Is there a relationship or mapping among right/wrong, good/evil, and okay/not okay?

Does the degree of an action even play a role in whether it's okay or not? For example, kicking one ugly, loud, obnoxious, anti-social, disfigured puppy into the middle of an empty road late at night when you're drunk can, from a certain point of view, be rather funny (i.e. it's okay). On the other hand, throwing a box of cute puppies into a busy intersection during rush hour is probably not cool (i.e. it's not okay). Maybe that's not the best example, but hopefully it gets the point across. (note: I don't kick dogs of any kind.) How much weight should be given to the motivation of an action versus the consequences of the action? What, if any, are the moral/ethical absolutes? (Never kick puppies...) In other words, is it always possible to cook up a realistic situation that presents mitigating circumstances for any kind of action? (...unless it's for self-defense) Personally, I can think of only one thing that you should never do under any realistic circumstances (which I'll leave unsaid to encourage discussion); but there could certainly be others. (I know, I know: define "realistic"...)


Alan Rosenwinkel said...

My understanding is that ethics is the formal study of morality. Thus moral tends to refer to self-evident societal expectations while ethical refers to a more elaborate set of agreed-upon rules.

dave hiller said...

When I took the survey, 49% of respondents had an advanced degree. Wonder what they're going to do with those results.

dave hiller said...

"Personally, I can think of only one thing that you should never do under any realistic circumstances"

I know - take advantage of another member of the Caltech community!

Alan Rosenwinkel said...

Only one thing you should never do huh? Lets see, some of the 10 commandments are about god, so I'm guessing it's not one of those. That leaves honoring you parents, murder, adultery, coveting, stealing and lying. I'll add rape as the 11th commandment.

I'm gonna go with rape as the one thing you should absolutely never do under any circumstances.

jaideep said...

Alan: i see what you mean about the diff between morality and ethics. in different words, you're saying:

ethics deals with an agreed upon mode of conduct in formal systems constructed by people. examples of formal systems in this sense might include: sports, journalism, accounting. agreed upon rules for these systems might be: rules against performance enhancing drugs, the size of your restrictor plate, full disclosure of your relationships to the individuals in a news story, GAAP.

on the other hand, morality deals with some innate sense of how one should behave oneself. alot of these morals are so widespread over many time periods and various cultures that they feel self-evident. this underlying universality and consistency of morality is what distinguishes it from the somewhat arbitrariness and convention dependence of ethics. another difference is that ethics exist to make our formal systems fair, efficient, and useful; whereas, morality just is.

To that last thought, a non-spiritual person might argue that morality is a byproduct of evolution. On the other hand, a spiritual person might argue that it is given to us by a "prime mover" of some sort. Of course a postmodernist might argue that morality is as much of a social construction as ethics. (but who cares what postmodernists think about anything!)

Dave: yeah, i wouldn't be surprised if there is all sorts of selection bias in their study. one could imagine that if they are trying to make conclusions about an average person in the US, they might form a weighted average of their raw results. i suppose the validity of that totally depends on how much participation they get in the different groups. either way, the whole thing proved to be a useful distraction.

Alan: yup. i remember thinking about it a long time ago and it took me a long time to come up with that. however, thinking it about now, i think that it might be a tautalogical cheat. for example, suppose there was a word defined as "killing a baby for the sole purpose of amusement against the will of the baby's family." presumably that word would be another moral absolute: something that one should never do under any realistic circumstances.

thinking about it some more, maybe this question about "whether moral absolutes exists" is less a philosophical question and more a question of language. "kill" is an amoral word. it just means to cause death. it is purely objective; in fact, it is probably purely objective by definition! on the other hand, the word "murder" has the morality built into i never thought about it like that before!

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