Moral Humility & The Ethical Career

From Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith’s “Building an Ethical Career

So how can you ensure that from day to day and decade to decade you will do the right thing in your professional life?

The first step requires shifting to a mindset we term moral humility—the recognition that we all have the capacity to transgress if we’re not vigilant. Moral humility pushes people to admit that temptations, rationalizations, and situations can lead even the best of us to misbehave, and it encourages them to think of ethics as not only avoiding the bad but also pursuing the good. It helps them see this sort of character development as a lifelong pursuit.

We all have a personal opportunity to make being good an active choice. I’ve always loved the view that being an ethical person isn’t a character trait but an endless series of (often challenging) conscious choices. We see so many examples of people who are good in some capacities but not others precisely because it’s sometimes easier and sometimes harder to make what are–at least in hindsight–clearly right or wrong choices.

Preparing for ethical challenges is important, because people are often well aware of what they should do when thinking about the future but tend to focus on what they want to do in the present. This tendency to overestimate the virtuousness of our future selves is part of what Ann Tenbrunsel of Notre Dame and colleagues call the ethical mirage.

Counteracting this bias begins with understanding your personal strengths and weaknesses. What are your values? When are you most likely to violate them? In his bookThe Road to Character, David Brooks distinguishes between résumé virtues (skills, abilities, and accomplishments that you can put on your résumé, such as “increased ROI by 10% on a multimillion-dollar project”) and eulogy virtues (things people praise you for after you’ve died, such as being a loyal friend, kind, and a hard worker). Although the two categories may overlap, résumé virtues often relate to what you’ve done for yourself, whereas eulogy virtues relate to the person you are and what you’ve done for others—that is, your character.

I often wonder how many of my goals or projects fall firmly into the wrong camp.

Many factors go into choosing a job—but in general people tend to overemphasize traditional metrics such as compensation and promotion opportunities and underemphasize the importance of the right moral fit. Our work and that of others has shown that ethical stress is a strong predictor of employee fatigue, decreased job satisfaction, lower motivation, and increased turnover.

And this brings us to a nice medical dovetail. How many physician jobs now exist within a bureaucratic or corporate structure that is counter to how we feel a physician should be forced to practice medicine and that is counter to the best interests of both the practitioner and patient? How did we ever let a 15-minute appointment become normal? For anything?

And lastly, helpful litmus tests: publicity, generalizability, and mirror:

Three tests can help you avoid self-deceptive rationalizations. (1) The publicity test. Would you be comfortable having this choice, and your reasoning behind it, published on the front page of the local newspaper? (2) The generalizability test. Would you be comfortable having your decision serve as a precedent for all people facing a similar situation? (3) The mirror test. Would you like the person you saw in the mirror after making this decision—is that the person you truly want to be?

These are important things to consider before any big decision. Yes, they’re basically all the golden rule–but how often do you forget to use it?

1 Comments

  1. “And this brings us to a nice medical dovetail. How many physician jobs now exist within a bureaucratic or corporate structure that is counter to how we feel a physician should be forced to practice medicine and that is counter to the best interests of both the practitioner and patient? How did we ever let a 15-minute appointment become normal? For anything?”

    Some points related to this, many informed by Nassim Taleb, that I think many people overlook in discussions on morality:

    – in order to make moral decisions [as a doctor] one must first survive [as a doctor]
    — in a world where most doctor jobs are in bureaucracies where one has limited control over policies, this may necessarily involve long- vs short-term moral tradeoffs
    – ISTM that morality is a probabilistic rather than an absolute thing, as clearly what is best for the greater good is often only known in retrospect, and so good intentions are clearly not the same as morality
    — often the opposite: decisions one makes to signal one’s morality to others, consciously or not, can result in outcomes that are profoundly *wrong* morally
    – “if you would be a philosopher-king, first be a king” – Taleb, paraphrased
    — in other words, no one can be fully moral as long as they depend on a paycheck
    — ISTM this is a big driver behind the replication crisis in science; I used to be a biologist but once I realized this conflict of interest, I decided to change careers, applied to med school, and swore I would not publish any more papers until I was financially independent

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