Moral Distancing and Project Management

Benedict Carey of the NYT writes on how people cope with doing morally questionable tasks (e.g. performing capital punishment) by ‘morally disengaging’.

Things I learned here:
1) That whatever the reason for performing the dubious action, your mind copes by turning down or adjusting your morality temporarily. I’m guessing this also leads to guilt, depression and sucide.

2) There’s a concept called ‘diffusion of responsibility’ where the task of killing is shared around several people – one person straps the left leg, another the right (and so on), another brings the lethal injection, another administers the lethal injection.

Firing squads draw on this same idea. Everyone in the squad fires but no one can be sure whose shot was deadly.

3) Cheating students use moral evasion techniques like:

“I think it’s hard for people not to look at the answer manual if it’s available,” said one student. “Maybe you should have taken the problem off so people wouldn’t be tempted.”

I see language like this in the workplace all the time. People performing in a workplace where multiple competing goals are set seem to morally disengage. Missed dates and broken promises cause moral distancing.

Corporations use the moral system to get their work done – missing a date isn’t ‘insufficient planning’ or ‘random events’ but a ‘broken promise’ and therefore a morally poor event that will cause pain to do and so motivates the employees to work extra hard to avoid.

I’ll be thinking about this all day.


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