How Do You Avoid Making Immoral Decisions?

This is an interesting question; now, the word “immoral” will probably offend everyone who grew up in the slipstream of the “do your own thing” sixties, but even if you have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with the word “moral,” you have a set of unspoken, moral beliefs: that it is preferable to tell the truth than to lie, to play fair than to cheat, to do the hard right rather than the easy wrong.

Turns out, scientists study this stuff, with clever experiments designed to see what conditions break people loose from their integrity and encourage cheating. Some people will never lie, cheat or steal, no matter what; others will always lie, cheat and steal, even when it’s obviously not in their best interests. But most of us are somewhere closer to the center of a bell curve of behaviors centered between those outlying points of Never and Always.

The Art of Manliness has a profound post on this research and what it means for the man (or, equally, woman, even though men are the target audience) who wants to do the right thing and be known for that.

Some things, some conditions, some choices, increase the likelihood of success in that endeavor. Consider the “honor group.”

Become a member of an honor group.…[T]he more you consider the person you see being dishonest to be a member of the same social group, the more they can influence your ideas of right and wrong. Somewhere in your subconscious you think, “They’re like me and they think doing that is okay, so maybe it’s okay for me to do that too.” We’re even more vulnerable to an example of bad behavior from an authority figure we respect, like a parent, coach, or pastor; these should-be mentors aren’t just like us, they’re people we aspire to become and look to as exemplars.

Courtney Massengales may be born, not made, but their very existence spawns imitators. But it also spawns… resistance!

The really interesting thing, however, is that it also works the opposite way; seeing someone act immorally who we consider outside our social group can inspire us to be better.

In one of the most interesting [studies], instead of the actor/confederate being someone who seemed like all the other student participants, he wore a sweatshirt from the college’s rival school. In this so-called “outsider-Madoff” condition, the participants claimed to solve 6 fewer matrices than in the straight Madoff group. When we see someone act badly whom we consider to be from a different and morally inferior social group than our own, we are reminded that we don’t want to be like them and increase our good behavior in order to distance ourselves from identifying with them.

It’s distancing, not scapegoating, but the same dynamics of human/group psychology are at play.

Honor groups are essentially premised on this principle; the group compares itself to other groups and considers itself to be better/stronger/more moral than any other. The group competes to maintain this reputation and members police each other to uphold standards that will buttress their claim to pride. This kind of “us vs. them” mentality isn’t very popular these days, but I believe it can counter-intuitively be quite healthy in bringing out the best in us.

Wow. But wait! Where have we seen this before? Why, certainly, in military training. Doesn’t every unit and branch of service try to inculcate both a feeling of separateness and righteousness in its members? You’re better than the other platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, and everyone’s better than those bell-bottomed sailors. (Of course, the Navy has its own version.

In a way, it’s a bleak outlook for humanity, because the tincan sailors whomping on the guys from the next DD over will join together if faced with the submariner threat, and they’ll all fight the Marines or Army, but how is that any different from the Afghan tribesman’s, “me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and cousin against the next village; us and our village against…”?

Well, psychologically, it isn’t. But you can deplore it, or you can exploit it. You can even ignore it, but you can’t make it go away. It is. 

Of course, group morality only works if you have a group. In or out of the group, a personal code is a rock you can lean upon.

Know and be firm in your honor code. While we all may be influenced by our friends to varying degrees, the firmer and clearer we are as to our principles and standards, the less swayed we will be by the actions and examples of others. Is your personal honor code vague and squishy, or is it set in a firm foundation and as clear as the noon-day sun? Have you taken the time to reflect on your principles? Do you know how and why you arrived at embracing them or are they unexamined beliefs you have absorbed from your upbringing and culture?

Whether you are amongst members of your honor group or far afield with those who do not share your values, your personal honor code will act as a constant source of direction so that you act as the same man wherever you go and with whomever you meet.

They conclude with a reminder that this morality stuff is real and solid:

There is a popular viewpoint these days that ridicules the idea that one individual’s personal decisions and behavior could possibly have an effect on the behavior of others. But what the scientific research on the subject tells us is that it is in fact ridiculous not to realize that each person’s actions have an ever-so-subtle ripple effect that influences others and the culture at large.

…and if you put it to work for you, the benefits will redound to you, of course, but will spread far and wide. The concept of immoral thought, expediency and misconduct as contagious pathogens is something that has broad and deep application.

This thoughtful article is Part III of a series that has four parts so far.

10 thoughts on “How Do You Avoid Making Immoral Decisions?

  1. bobby b

    What seems to have worked for my boys (now in their early twenties) was long involvement in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts – both of which are very much the “honor groups” of which you speak.

    We’re confronted daily with choices, many of which involve questions which a defined sense of personal honor can simplify. Having a structured code of honor that is emphasized and repeated until rote allows you to quickly make honorable choices for the bulk of situations that come up, leaving you free to work out the more complex ones on your own – but with a firm grounding in the thought process that ought to be involved.

    Now their younger sister, who never got to experience the Scouting world, has entered her own honor group (one involving uniforms and large ships) and the longer she’s been in, the more I can see the sort of personal growth in discipline and confidence that comes, not just from becoming competent, but from experiencing life with a defined code of honor.

    It’s not that an honor code and an honor group make you more judgmental or rigid. They teach you that there actually is a thing called honor, that there are wrong choices (not just different ones), and that it’s good to have expectations of honor from yourself and others.

    I’ve long considered that the health of the Scouting program is a good indicator of the “honor” outlook for our nation.

    1. Caffer

      December 1951 I enlisted in the USMC and found myself at Parris Island. A 16-year-old high school drop out recently released from the Dade County jail, I took to the culture. During Boot Camp we were taught, to put it mildly, that we were better then any body else, certainly better than the other branches of the U.S. military, and in many ways, including loyalty, dependability, and honesty, among others. Wanting very much to be a Marine, I bought into that system, a system when changed by life, I believe, much for the better.

      Later, serving at Marine Barracks, USNB, Key West, surrounded, but not intimated by over 20,000 sailors, including submariners, we joyfully fought White Hats in the bars of Key West and maintained absolute control of the gates and the brig. But believe me: we, I, would have defended any Deck Ape from attack by any Doggy, given the opportunity; just as I would have defended any soldier against any civilian. Air Force people weren’t considered military, so were treated as civilians: beneath contempt.

      I retired after 42 years with a warrant, a PhD, one wife, and sufficient wealth. I now raise cattle in Texas. I attribute what success I have had to the value system I was taught by SSGT Daniel L. Clausen, Plt 5, 2d RTB, MCRD, Parris Island. He even worked his magic on the Puerto Rican draftees (SSV) out of New York in the Platoon, or at least some of them.

      Submitted as real world evidence of the described theory.

  2. John Distai

    I’ll need to read the whole thing later, when my family is gone and I won’t experience frequent interruptions.

    I’m especially interested in the dynamics of what happens when someone who was raised with an honor code interacts with someone who was not. I’m certainly no saint. However, I have a conscience, and try to “do the right thing” consistently, even if it is unpleasant. In my naivety, I believed that most others were brought up with this same moral code. That is not the case, and it is an extremely difficult thing to internally reconcile when you encounter it.

    Either as an analogy, or a non-sequitur, I am reminded of a scene in “Saving Private Ryan”. The squad comes across a German machine gun emplacement and they have the choice to eliminate it or sneak past and leave it as is. The
    “honorable” Captain decides to divert from his mission to eliminate the problem at the behest of the enlisted. Taking this action may be detrimental to his overall mission, but the internal cost of leaving a known danger for someone else to encounter conflicts with his sense of honor. He has to eliminate the threat now because he has no way to reconcile leaving it.

    When you are raised with honor and then go out into the big world, you eventually learn (I’m slow) that not all act with the same sense of honor. Your “honorable” spouse looked good initially, but as the relationship deepens you see they would rather take the path of least resistance rather than do the hard but necessary “work” required of a marriage. Contractors will bill themselves as “high quality” and “competent”, but their work will be subpar and lack longevity. Coworkers view employers as a beneficent aristocrats who are there to provide them with fatherly subsistence, regardless of how little value they add to the business.

    What eventually happens to the honorable man when others realize that they can use his honor against him?

        1. Y.


          It’s not uncommon for men to fail to spot what was wrong with Ayn Rand. The book reflects the author.

          Also: I’m sure there is a good deal of literature now considered classic pertaining to the very question.

          Your “honorable” spouse looked good initially, but as the relationship deepens you see they would rather take the path of least resistance rather than do the hard but necessary “work” required of a marriage. Contractors will bill themselves as “high quality” and “competent”, but their work will be subpar and lack longevity. Coworkers view employers as a beneficent aristocrats who are there to provide them with fatherly subsistence, regardless of how little value they add to the business.

          A man has many levers. Honor is only one of them, thanks to the victory of democracy, not a very useful one anymore. There is always fear.

    1. Caffer

      For the last several years of my service I taught Military Ethics at AFIT, a technical graduate school. The question you ask is unavoidable and answerable. Testing the answer is, of course, much more difficult. Nevertheless, my answer is as follows: The ethical commander has a distinct, if not overwhelming, advantage.

      I could list the various factors of that advantage, but time/space does not allow that here and now. As an example, I cite the increased non-supervised cooperation of other men that the ethical man enjoys; call it trust and confidence, which I would argue is more important to success than technical competence, a notion not popular at AFIT.

  3. Docduracoat

    Never having served in the military, my honor code is called the 10 commandments
    I try my hardest to model it for my children
    My work ethic comes from wanting to do my best for my patients and my employer
    As a salaried physician the perverse incentive is do do the least amount of work possible.
    I would get my full salary even if I cancelled and delayed cases
    Call me old I fashioned but I want to do an honest days work to earn my dollars

  4. Tom Stone

    A bad attitude, according to some.
    I actually had someone tell me they didn’t use my services as a Broker because I “Lacked Ethical Flexibility”. And I do.
    I’ve lived with chronic severe pain for more than 25 years, without self respect life would not be worth living.
    And part of it is definitely a “Fuck You” to the people I have met who have no conception of Duty or Honor, those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  5. Kirk

    The issues raised here just go to serve as more evidence for what I’ve been saying for years: We do not know what the hell we are doing, at a fundamental level, with regards to military training.

    Research such as what is detailed in these articles is precisely what we ought to be doing, in order to discover the precise things to do and not to do, in order to foster the growth and management of primary groups within the military. Yet, we do not do this; I would wager that we have a better idea of what is going on inside of Trobriand Islander marriage customs than we do what is happening in the inter-personal dynamics of the various forms of military primary groups. Hell, I dare say that nobody could even sit down and lay out what the differences are between the Marine Rifle Squad, the Army version of the same, and then the various other similar primary groups that have sprung up around in the course of military operations. And, make no mistake–They are different. A rifle squad is not the same as a section in a trucking company, nor should it be. But, we cannot even really discuss these issues, because we don’t look at the whys and wherefores of what these separate yet similar primary groups do.

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