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How to live ethically

Are Women More Ethical Than Men?

The evidence that women are more ethical than men is mixed.

Are females more ethical than males? Some studies point in this direction. A Newsday opinion piece wrote that they were. The author points to a study by Roberta Bampton and Patrick Maclagan, which states that women tend to justify actions based on an ethics of compassion while men adhered more to proper procedures or law and rules.

Two examples are given: women find it unacceptable for a company to manufacture equipment used by police and military to extract information from prisoners, while many more men didn’t object to the practice. Given the choice of an organic farm buying cheaper products overseas that would harm the environment because of carbon emissions and use of fuel, nearly all men in the survey would make the switch to increase profits while about half the women did.

Does this mean that women have the ethical edge? No. The reason is that there are times in which compassion is the ethical standard but there are times when adherence to rules is better.

Take the situation with which I am familiar: giving grades. Every semester there are students who have genuine hardship stories. But can I give grades based on their personal set-backs or do I adhere to more objective standard? What about a student who did little work because of an on-going illness in the family but needs to pass this required class for graduation?

There are many other examples where compassion and adhering to rules (or justice) come into conflict. Which path is more ethical isn’t answered by pointing to compassion or rules but by using your judgment or, as Aristotle and others call it, practical wisdom.

So are women more ethical than men? The evidence from hundreds of studies is mixed. One study finds that females will act unethically when they are able to make excuses for themselves about why it is acceptable to break laws or rules, or when they fail to see the consequences of their actions as important.

The reason for the mixed results is that most situations don’t rely upon one moral value alone. Ethics is about values but it is also about reason; it is about emotions and it is about judgment.

Women may be more inclined to compassion than men and that’s good. And men may be more inclined to more impersonal considerations and that’s good. Taken together we can reach more ethical decisions. Each taken by itself is insufficient.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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