There are several basic approaches to ethics. One is utilitarian. This is a kind of calculus that attempts to create the greatest good for the greatest number. It looks at the end results of the actions taken.

Another approach to ethics is that of rights. An action is right (or wrong) independent of outcomes. Its focus is on the inherent worth of every individual. There is no calculation. Each person is an end in him- or herself.

We tend to think that we are consistent in our own approach, but a study published in the Academy of Management questions this assumption. The authors conclude that the approach we favor is influenced by the setting in which we find ourselves.

The study examines how people choose a moral course when they are in conflicting roles. They take army medics as an illustration. A soldier’s job is to kill, when necessary; a physician’s job is to save lives, if at all possible. In the first instance, a human life is dispensable, part of a cost/benefit equation; in the second instance, the value of a human life is incalculable.

Which norm is primary if a person is in two roles simultaneously? In this study, by Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University and others, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests. One group of soldier/medics were given cues that hinted that they were either acting as a medic or a soldier.

When the cues indicated that respondents were soldiers first, respondents were utilitarian, willing to kill for some greater good, whereas those whose cues indicated that they were medics first were unwilling to put a price on human life. In philosophical terms, the first group used a utilitarian approach while the second acted on a moral principle of the inherent worth of each individual.

The Leavitt study demonstrates that moral evaluations vary according to the roles in which individuals are engaged. The same person who refuses to put a price on human life while in one role (doctor) may well make a very different moral calculation when assuming a different role (soldier).

One interesting finding of the study is that respondents adopted either the doctor or physician perspective based upon subliminal cues. Researchers didn’t tell them that now they were soldiers and now doctors. The cues were at a subconscious level.

Few of us are Army medics, but most of us are involved in multiple roles on a daily basis. We are part of families, workplaces, neighborhoods and nations. We think about ethics one way with our friends and we think differently when we are employees. Professionals are guided by codes of ethics, which tend to be based in ethical principles, while in our personal lives we are more often guided by matters of loyalty. Each role comes with moral expectations. We are lucky when the role obligations are consistent but it isn’t unusual to find that they are not.

We need to be aware that the moral choices we make may well be shaped by external factors. If we admit that we our moral sensibilities aren’t unitary but multiple, influenced by the various roles we play, then we are in a better position to negotiate a better moral choice when faced with conflicting occupational and personal roles.

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