Man in suit crossing fingers behind his back

Dr Alistair Ping, 25 October, 2019

Recent times in Australia have presented us with a variety of examples of unethical behaviour such as the cricket ball-tampering scandal, the poor practices of the banks and financial advisers and some worrying insights into the aged care sector. It would be reasonable to hope that, with hundreds of millions of dollars of government money spent on Royal Commissions, real change is possible. The problem is that when we see or hear of bad things being done, we assume that behind the event is a bad person with ill intent, scheming and plotting for personal gain. The solution, we assume, is to weed out the bad apples, re-educate those with bad values and character, and increase deterrents to ensure the things never happen again.

The reality, unfortunately, is far away from this. Statistically, the percentage of the population that is habitually bad – that is acting in an anti-social way and against the values of mainstream society – is only about 4-5%. About 90% of fraud in organisations is perpetrated by first-time offenders with no criminal record. The truth, unfortunately, is that good people do bad things – the real question to ask is why?

Over the last 30 years, mountains of research have been done into ethics based on the assumption that ethical decision making is a rational, logical process and that it can be taught. More recently, research in the fields of social psychology, criminology and neuro-cognitive science has challenged this assumption and the implications are significant.

When presented with an ethical dilemma in a classroom setting all of us, even sociopaths, have the ability to logically work through the problem. But research shows that when faced with challenging personal, situational and contextual influences our ability to think rationally, or even to recognise the ethical dilemma in the first place, is significantly diminished. It is the relationship between intentions, actions and justifications that gives a greater insight into why good people do bad things, rather than simply a focus on ethical decision making.

We may intend to do a good thing – such as winning a cricket match – but if we perceive that things are unfair and our moral obligations are threatened our rational mind can justify unethical behaviours using a range of flawed justifications. Everybody else is doing it – undermines our freedom to choose – our excuse is we had no choice. They deserve it – undermines our consideration of others – the justification is that what goes around comes around. It’s not hurting anyone – denies the rights of the victim. It’s a stupid rule – puts us above the law. I deserve it – makes us self righteous. I’m doing it for you – absolves us of responsibility as does – I was just following orders.

At the heart of all of this is what’s called self-identity theory. Simply put – we all have a story about who we are and whether or not we are good moral people. If something happens that tempts us to do something that is outside of our moral boundaries, as determined by our values, our rational mind jumps in to protect our moral self-identity. It does this by invoking a flawed justification such as those listed above. Our rational mind can thus allow us to do a bad thing without having to reassess ourselves as being bad.

The implications of looking at unethical behaviour this way are huge. No amount of training in character or values will prevent an unethical outcome if a person is willing to justify their behaviour using a flawed justification because these justifications neutralise the values. Additionally, someone who believes that their moral self-identity is goodwill view any compliance or ethics training as simply a tick in the box. The challenge is to show people how their rational mind can compromise their ability to create ethical outcomes and to explore the relationship between intentions, actions and justifications. By improving the ability to recognise flawed justifications and understanding how intentions can have moral boundaries a person will have the ability to apply their rational mind to preventing unintentionally creating bad outcomes rather than justifying unethical actions.

Join us on Tuesday 26 November 2019 for “Why Good People Do Bad Things“, presented by QUT Business School and the Colin Brain Governance Fellowship.


Alistair Ping

Dr Alistair Ping

Adjunct Professor, QUT Graduate School of Business


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