People’s ethical behavior is complicated.
On the one hand, we have situations in which we are strongly consistent. For example, many vegans I know will not eat any animal products, they will avoid buying products with leather or animal ingredients, and they give time and money to causes to protect animals.
On the other hand, there are times when our ethical actions may balance each other out. I know people who give money to environmental causes, but then buy gas-guzzling cars that they know are harming the environment. They recognize the contradiction in behavior, but accept the contradiction.
An interesting paper by Gert Cornelissen, Michael Bashshur, Julian Rode, and Marc Le Menestrel in the April, 2013 issue of Psychological Science explores the roots of these behaviors.
As these researchers point out, there are two dominant modes of ethical reasoning. Consequentialist reasoning focuses on outcomes. When reasoning consequentially, you focus on whether the end result of an action is one that is acceptable. Deontological reasoning focuses on principles or rules. When reasoning deontologically, the key issue is whether a particular ethical principle was enforced.
Consider the “trolley dilemma,” which has been used in many studies of ethical reasoning. In this dilemma, a runaway trolley on a track is on a collision course that will kill five people. You are standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley to another track that would cause only one person to be killed. Do you pull the lever? Consequential reasoning suggests that one dead person is better than five dead people, and so you should pull the lever. Deontological reasoning suggests that killing anyone with an action is a bad thing, and so it is better to let the trolley run its course than to commit an action that would cause someone to die.
The researchers suggest that if you reason about outcomes, then you may be likely to balance outcomes across decisions, but if you reason about moral rules, then you may be likely to maintain consistency across your behavior.
In one study in this paper, participants were induced to think either consequentially or ontologically. One group was asked to remember an ethical situation in their past. The consequential group focused on doing something because it benefitted or hurt other people. The other group was asked to remember an ethical situation in which they followed or failed to follow a principle or norm.
Within each of these groups, some people were asked to focus on a case in which they did something ethical (they helped people or followed a principle). Others were asked to focus on a case in which they did something unethical (they hurt people or failed to follow a principle).
After recalling a situation, participants played the “dictator game.” The dictator game emerged from research on behavioral economics. In this task, two participants are introduced to each other. Then, one participant is given money (in this case ten coins). They are told that they can give as many coins as they want to their partner, and that they get to keep the rest. The more coins they give to their partner, the more fairly they are acting toward someone else. In this study, participants met their partner, then went into separate rooms where the dictator game was described. Each participant was told that they were playing the role of the dictator, so data was actually collected from every participant.
When participants were asked to think about ethical situations that were focused on outcomes, they balanced their outcomes. The people who thought about a situation in which they helped someone gave fewer coins to their partner than the ones who thought about a situation in which they hurt someone else.
When participants thought about ethical situations that were focused on principles, they maintained consistency. Those who thought about following a principle gave more coins to their partner than those who thought about a situation in which they failed to follow a principle.
Another study in this series obtained a similar finding, except that participants were given the opportunity to cheat. Those who thought about consequences were more likely to cheat if they thought about an ethical action they took in the past than if they thought about an unethical action. Those who thought about principles were more likely to cheat if they thought about an unethical action than if they thought about an ethical one.
You can use these mindsets to help you in ethical situations. If you find yourself in a dilemma where you are tempted to do something unethical, focus on situations in your past in which you stood up for a principle that was important to you. This focus will help you to do the ethical thing in the future.