Tricking Yourself Into Being More Ethical

Cracked 5 waysOver at Cracked, the website that excels at developing clever factoid lists and debunking conventional wisdom, they have posted a list of “5 Scientific Ways To Trick Yourself Into Being A Good Person.”

Uh-huh. As usual for this site, the headline is just a bit overstated. “Trick” is a misleading word here: most of the devices involve the phenomenon of priming, which basically means that we are more ethical the more something focuses our attention on the ethical implications of what we are doing. By Cracked’s definition of “trick,” Ben Franklin’s morning and evening questions are tricks.

Skepticism is also warranted because we are just getting summaries of studies, and brief, non-technical, non-critical ones at that. It is impossible to know what extraneous factors might have polluted the results, or what biases the researchers brought to their research. Social science research is notoriously fallible and subject to design flaws, particularly regarding sample size. Such research is also prone to confuse cause and effect. I am especially dubious of #2 on the list, “Washing Your Hands Makes You Less Prejudiced.” Yes, researchers found that those who chose to use sanitary wipes on their hands when given the option during a flu epidemic scored better after doing so than those who declined to sanitize when they were asked to answer a survey designed to measure prejudice. I think it is a logical stretch to conclude that the act of ridding their hands of germs washed away the subjects’ biases; it is more likely that those who were more considerate of people around them, as indicated by their interest in sanitizing their hands during a flu outbreak, were also the most empathetic, tolerant and unbiased to begin with. That result isn’t nearly as startling as the claim that handwashing magically heals one’s prejudices, but Cracked apparently needed something to fill out a list of four.

It’s still an interesting article, even though ethical conduct takes a lot more cognitive effort than “tricks.”. You can read the whole thing here.

Unethical Thought of the Month: Me

Of course,  I am likely to be the only one who can get this “award,” since I am not privy to everyone else’s unethical thoughts. Nonetheless, this was a thought that  deserves a special rebuke, and that raises many questions.

I have always been fascinated by unethical thoughts, because thoughts are not really ethical or unethical. Being ethical often requires transcending our worst instincts and selfish thoughts; one recurring theme in Julian Baggini’s collection of thought experiments, “The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten” is whether a person who automatically does the right thing is more, or possibly less, virtuous than the person who engages in the same conduct despite unethical thoughts that urge him to do otherwise. While some misguided social architects think that the way to a more ethical society is to make unethical thoughts more difficult to have through such measures as censorship and hate crime legislation, that strategy is itself unethical, offending the principle of human autonomy. An evil thought that is recognized as such, rejected and not acted upon has no true ethical implications at all.

Or does it? Continue reading