Six Tips: How to be more fair and ethical

Businessman in dilemma choosing between right and wrong path.
Washington University experts offer tips on how to make more ethical decisions.

Make a more ethical workplace

“Organizations can affect ethical ­behavior through things like rules and ­monitoring, with incentives for ethical behavior and ­consequences for unethical behavior. These are real, and they are powerful. But managers also need to focus on norms and culture — what some people call an ‘ethical climate,’ i.e., ‘the way we do things around here.’ Employees quickly learn how things really work and how seriously ethical guidelines are taken within a given work context.”

— Stuart Bunderson is the George and Carol Bauer Professor of ­Organizational Ethics and Governance and co-director of the Bauer ­Leadership Center at Olin Business School.

Be aware of self-serving biases

“We love to think that bad people do bad things. But when I give talks, I always discuss my own experiences with PTSD and chemo brain, and how easy it was for someone like me with a strong moral upbringing to swerve toward ­malfeasance. We’re all glad that we aren’t bad people until we wake up one ­morning and say, ‘What have I done?’ Our brains are ­hard-wired ­toward ­self-serving bias. A whole slew of ­psychological biases ­facilitates our bad behavior, helping us justify, rationalize, selectively forget and attribute in ways that are self-serving.”

— Lamar Pierce is professor of strategy at Olin Business School and academic director of the joint Olin/Brookings Institution Executive Master of ­Science in Leadership program. His research focuses in part on business ethics and incentives.

Ethical patient care

“The Institute of Medicine published a ­report stating that the cost of unnecessary ­treatments in the United States runs in the hundreds of ­millions of dollars. I wouldn’t say that’s because doctors are being unethical. Many times, doctors and patients think, ‘better safe than sorry.’ But that’s assuming that the benefit is always in favor of treatment or advanced screenings, and I do think that there are some costs. The most serious cost is overdiagnosis and overtreatment. I would say that acting ethically as a clinician means talking with patients about both the costs and the benefits of a treatment or test.”

— Anya Plutynski is an associate professor of philosophy. Her research interests include philosophy of medicine and biomedical ethics.

Ethicists don’t offer easy answers

“Philosophers distinguish between theories
of the good, what makes a life better or worth
living, and what sorts of things are morally correct.
As a ­generalization, what’s good for you is thought to be a ­different question from what’s morally good or right. A hedonistic theory of the good would have no issue with ­living a ­maximally pleasurable life. Whether a life of hedonistic pleasure was morally good would turn on what ethical theory you’re ­looking at. Utilitarians might see this as morally good; Kant would ­disagree. And in ­Aristotelian ethics, pleasure isn’t what ­ultimately matters; rather, it’s developing virtuous traits like honesty and generosity.”

— Charlie Kurth is an assistant professor of philosophy.

How to make the ‘right’ decision

“There are always biases that can affect our decision making, for example, by not considering all the relevant factors or by discounting evidence too quickly. In order to avoid biases, it’s ­important to collect ­evidence in a thorough and ­systematic way, to rely on facts rather than first impressions, and to make sure positive and negative factors receive appropriate ­weighting and consideration. It can be helpful to run one’s reasoning by others, who might be able to spot errors and omissions in one’s weighing of the options.”

— Julia Staffel is an assistant professor of philosophy and specializes in epistemology and philosophical logic.

The logic of fairness

“The question of fair resource allocation is a difficult one. Take a simple example: You have two children, and you have saved money to pay for their college education. One fair way to divide the funds would be to give an equal amount to each child. However, suppose that one of the children wants to go to a more expensive school than the other. Perhaps it is more fair to give each of the children the education they most want, rather than giving one child more money for college than they need and the other one less than they need. The main message is that one must be aware that there might be more than one way of allocating resources that could be considered fair, so one should map out the possibilities before settling on one of them.”

— Julia Staffel

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