New Research on Morality

Discussion in 'Religion and Ethics' started by Mariner, Feb 8, 2006.

  1. Mariner

    Mariner Active Member

    Nov 7, 2004
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    Boston, Mass.
    Here's a superb piece from the New York Times about recent research into morality:

    The New York Times
    February 7, 2006
    When Death Is on the Docket, the Moral Compass Wavers

    Burl Cain is a religious man who believes it is only for God to say when a person's number is up. But in his job as warden and chief executioner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Mr. Cain is the one who gives the order to start a lethal injection, and he has held condemned inmates' hands as they died.

    He does it, he said in an interview, because capital punishment "is the law of the land."

    "It's something we do whether we're for it or against it, and we try to make the process as humane as possible," he said, referring to himself and others on the execution team.

    But he concedes, "The issue is coping, how we cope with it."

    Common wisdom holds that people have a set standard of morality that never wavers. Yet studies of people who do unpalatable things, whether by choice, or for reasons of duty or economic necessity, find that people's moral codes are more flexible than generally understood. To buffer themselves from their own consciences, people often adjust their moral judgments in a process some psychologists call moral disengagement, or moral distancing.

    In recent years, researchers have determined the psychological techniques most often used to disengage, and for the first time they have tested them in people working in perhaps the most morally challenging job short of soldiering, staffing a prison execution team.

    The results of this and other studies suggest that a person's moral judgment can shift quickly, in anticipation of an unpalatable act, or slowly and unconsciously.

    Moral disengagement "is where all the action is," said Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford and an expert on the psychology of moral behavior. "It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next."

    The crude codes of behavior that evolved to hold early human societies together — taboos against killing, against stealing — would have been psychologically suffocating if people did not have some way to let themselves off the hook in extreme situations, some experts argue. Survival sometimes required brutal acts; human sacrifice was commonplace, as were executions.

    The innate human ability to disconnect morally has made it hard for researchers to find an association between people's stated convictions and their behavior: preachers can commit sexual crimes; prostitutes may live otherwise exemplary lives; well-trained soldiers can commit atrocities.

    Investigators can identify the precise kinds of thoughts that allow people to do things that defy their personal codes of ethics.

    Now, psychologists at Stanford have shown that prison staff members who work on execution teams exhibit high levels of moral disengagement — and the closer they are to the killing, the higher their level of disengagement goes. The trailblazing research grew out of a high school project.

    In the late 1990's, Michael Osofsky, then a teenage student in New Orleans, began interviewing prison guards at the penitentiary in nearby Angola. His father, a psychiatrist who consulted with the prison, collaborated, as did the warden, Mr. Cain.

    By the time Mr. Osofsky graduated from Stanford in 2003, he had conducted in-depth interviews with 246 prison workers from penitentiaries, including Angola, in three states. They included guards who administer the lethal shots, counselors who provide support during the execution, members of the strap-down team, and guards not involved in executions. The people on the execution teams "come together, do the execution, then go back to their regular jobs" in the prison, Mr. Osofsky, now on a fellowship in Asia, said in a telephone interview. "They never really talked about this part of their job, even with their families; even with each other."

    Working with Mr. Cain, Dr. Bandura and Philip Zimbardo, another Stanford psychologist, Mr. Osofsky administered a moral disengagement scale to the execution team members and the guards not on the execution team.

    This questionnaire asked workers to rate how much they approved or disapproved of 19 statements, including: "The Bible teaches that murders must be avenged: life for a life, eye for an eye"; "Nowadays the death penalty is done in ways that minimize the suffering"; and "Because of the nature of their crimes, murderers have lost the right to live."

    In an analysis of the answers published late last year in the journal Law and Human Behavior, the psychologists reported that members of the execution team were far more likely than guards not on the team to agree that the inmates had lost important human qualities; to cite the danger that "they can escape and kill again;" and to consider the cost to society of caring for violent criminals.

    The team members were also more likely than other guards to favor religious support for the sentence: an eye for an eye.

    "You have to sanctify lethal means: this is the most powerful technique" of disengagement from a shared human moral code, said Dr. Bandura, who has expressed serious moral reservations about capital punishment. "If you can't convince people of the sanctity of the greater cause, they are not going to carry the job out as effectively."

    Execution teams are organized so as to divide the grisly tasks, enhancing what researchers call a diffusion of responsibility. A medical technician provides the lethal drugs; a team of guards straps the inmate down, with each guard securing only one part of the body; another guard administers the drugs. "No one person can say he is entirely responsible for the death," Mr. Osofsky said.

    Firing squads draw on this same idea. Everyone in the squad fires but no one can be sure whose shot was deadly.

    The level of disengagement, as measured by the scale, was about as high in prison workers who participated in one execution as in those who had been party to more than 15, the study found. This suggests that, while the job may get easier over time, "moral disengagement is an enabler, rather than merely the result of performing repeated executions," the authors conclude.

    The pattern was strikingly different in members of the execution support staff, particularly the counselors working with the families of inmates and victims.

    These staff members were highly morally engaged when they first joined the execution staff, deeply sympathetic to everyone involved, including the condemned. "I'm in a helping profession, but there isn't a damn thing I can do for these guys," one of them said to Mr. Osofsky. "I hate it, but I do it. I am required to do it."

    That ambivalence seemed to affect the counselors' moral judgment over time, the study found. After they had been involved in 10 executions, the counselors' scores on the disengagement scale almost matched the executioners'.

    The finding stands as a caution to the millions of people who work in the service of organizations whose motives they mistrust, psychologists say: shifts in moral judgment are often unconscious, and can poison the best instincts and intentions.

    "This really gets at the idea of people working in corporate structures that are involved in selling, say, weapons or tobacco, and saying, 'Well, I just keep the books,' " when they disapprove of the business, said Susan Ravenscroft, a professor of accounting at Iowa State University in Ames who has studied business ethics.

    Moral distancing can also be seen in the language of war, politics and corporate scandal. Pilots euphemistically "service a target" rather than bomb it; enemies are dehumanized as "gooks," "hajis" or infidels. Politicians and chief executives facing indictments deflect questions about ethical lapses by acknowledging that "mistakes were made," or that they were "out of the loop."

    These remarks reflect internal methods of self-protection, as well as public evasions, research suggests.

    Yet it is in the mundane corner-cutting of everyday life that moral disengagement may be most common and insidious, and least conscious.

    In a 2004 study, professors at Iowa State University and the University of Arkansas tested the moral judgment of 47 college students who had cheated on a take-home exam, a complex accounting problem.

    Many of the students found a solution to the problem online — posted by another professor who was unaware it was part of an exam — and reproduced the solution as their own, though it used techniques they had not yet learned. Others had clearly collaborated, which their professor had explicitly forbidden. Another 17 students had not cheated, as far as their teacher could determine.

    The professor threw out the test scores and got permission from the students to ask about their behavior. The cheaters' scores on a standard test of moral judgment did not correlate at all with their level of plagiarism or collaboration. On the contrary, it was the most dishonest male students who scored highest on the morals test.

    "Clearly, this is not what you want to find in a test of moral judgment," said Dr. Ravenscroft, a co-author of the study, with Charles Shrader of Iowa State and Tim West of the University of Arkansas.

    Only by conducting in-depth interviews with students about their behavior did the researchers begin to see clear, familiar patterns. One was displacing the blame: "I think it's hard for people not to look at the answer manual if it's available," said one student. "Maybe you should have taken the problem off so people wouldn't be tempted."

    Another was justifying the behavior by comparison: "I really don't consider working with another person that unethical," one student commented. "Taking and copying answers from the key was highly unethical." Many students "rationalized cheating behavior as a necessary defense to the cheating of others," the researchers concluded in their analysis, to appear this year in the Business and Professional Ethics Journal. "Yet in an extreme example of moral exclusion, none of the students discussed this impact on others."

    Recognizing these kinds of selfish evasions in oneself is hardly proof of moral collapse, psychologists say. Rather, they say, moral disengagement is evidence that a sound moral sensibility is trying to assert itself, warning against a situation it finds suspect. As a rule people don't like to cheat or lie, studies find, and they are extremely reluctant to inflict pain on others, no matter the circumstances.

    And moral engagement is dynamic. Once people stop doing what is consciously or unconsciously upsetting them, the research suggests, they engage their conscience more fully.

    That is, if they have the luxury to walk away.

    "I remember the one execution I attended, there was this strange heaviness in the air all day," Mr. Osofsky said. "These guards you knew were somber and detached, keeping to themselves. This wasn't something they gloried in or looked forward to at all. They didn't really seem like themselves."

    Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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  2. rtwngAvngr

    rtwngAvngr Guest

    Jan 5, 2004
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    FUnny you post this Mariner. Libs are the most morally disengaged people I know. They deny life in babies, so they can kill without conscience.

    Though we all sometimes deviate from reasonable standards, that doesn't mean the standard is unreasonable, or that morality is outdated, or that the only way to NOT be a hyprocrite is to renounce standards of any kind.

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