Introducing Moral Monday: The Sadistic Guard

NPR recently published an interesting article on the psychology of fraud. The article essentially argues that when we’re thinking about a decision from one point of view, such as business, we can forget to consider other points of views, like ethics:

Essentially, Tenbrunsel argues, certain cognitive frames make us blind to the fact that we are confronting an ethical problem at all.

Tenbrunsel told us about a recent experiment that illustrates the problem. She got together two groups of people and told one to think about a business decision. The other group was instructed to think about an ethical decision. Those asked to consider a business decision generated one mental checklist; those asked to think of an ethical decision generated a different mental checklist.

Tenbrunsel next had her subjects do an unrelated task to distract them. Then she presented them with an opportunity to cheat.

Those cognitively primed to think about business behaved radically different from those who were not — no matter who they were, or what their moral upbringing had been.

“If you’re thinking about a business decision, you are significantly more likely to lie than if you were thinking from an ethical frame,” Tenbrunsel says.

According to Tenbrunsel, the business frame cognitively activates one set of goals — to be competent, to be successful; the ethics frame triggers other goals. And once you’re in, say, a business frame, you become really focused on meeting those goals, and other goals can completely fade from view.

All of this got me thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea if we were put into an ethical state of mind more often. In order to help facilitate that frame of mind, Philosophy Matters is proud to introduce Moral Monday, in which  we will post a moral dilemma, with a poll where you can give feedback on what you think you would do in such a situation. You can also sound off in the comments. Perhaps this Monday Moral will put you an ethical frame of mind for the week ahead!

And now, for our very first moral dilemma:


You are an inmate in a concentration camp. A sadistic guard is about to hang your son who tried to escape and wants you to pull the chair from underneath him. He says that if you don’t he will not only kill your son but some other innocent inmate as well. You don’t have any doubt that he means what he says. What should you do?

Have some further thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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