The Psychology of Ethics

On the role of ethics in personal development and the need to develop a comprehensive psychology of ethics

Ethics is a very relevant area in the study of psychology as ethical values on what is wrong and what is right relate directly to an individual’s moral standing in society. Our ethical standards could closely associate with our moral standards although morality is more individualistic and moral standards could vary between cultures, societies and religions. Ethical standards are however more general as they depend on our basic human nature and human values and ethical values are more human and thus more about psychological dynamics than the moral values. Yet ethics is considered as a branch of moral philosophy

In a study of the Psychology of Ethics it is important to distinguish between ethics and morality and a Psychology of Ethics would be more about values of being human whereas Moral Psychology specifically deals with questions of morality. Moral psychology or psychology of morality is thus considered a part of the broader psychology of ethics. Ethics deals with morality as well as questions of right and wrong, moral and immoral, virtue and vice, good and evil and responsibilities of being human.

Ethical philosophy also shows how ethical judgments and ethical statements or attitudes are formed. Ethics was studied in philosophy from the days of Socrates and Aristotle and was related to self realization about the needs of the human condition. Doing the right thing at the right time and in the right manner for the right reason is considered virtuous and ethical. Yet a psychology of ethics would involve more than just understanding moral values and appreciation of the human condition. The psychology of ethics is about our basic beliefs and attitudes and the formation of these beliefs as also how our value systems are shaped in childhood through moral development. Psychoanalysis and social and developmental psychology could use a range of theories to explain ethical development in children and adults.

Freud has used the concepts of Id, Ego and Superego to suggest that the superego serves as a moral filter and helps individuals to decide what is right and what is wrong. The id, ego and superego are described as the three parts of the psychic apparatus with the id being the instincts and base desires, the ego is the realistic part that balances the desires and the superego is that which monitors and controls and the part that has a strict moral dimension. The superego is thus the part of the psyche that deals moral values and triggers us towards moral justification. This means we seek an ethical explanation of behavior or tend to consciously or unconsciously behave in a certain way because of the underlying ethical needs.

Apart from psychoanalysis that would explain ethics mainly as a mechanism controlled and directed by the Superego so that all dark unethical desires are somehow filtered, ethical development is also explained with social and moral psychology.

In social psychology belonging to a group would mean following basic standards of conformity and conformity determines the extent to which social behavior would be in accordance with what the society accepts or considers as standard. Standard behavior would in fact be closely related to ethical behavior thus within the context of social psychology, ethics is about conformity and doing what is right according to social standards or values. If we consider developmental psychology, individual needs are met through social conformity as following ethical standards and engaging in ethical behavior would be continually rewarding to an individual and would encourage or reinforce ethical standards. Ethics fulfils our social and recognition needs and our moral needs of regulating our desires. So psychoanalysis would consider ethics as the moral aspect of our psychic structure and according to social psychology theories ethics is essential to group behavior and conformity as ethics according to social theories is an important social developmental process in our interaction. Some of the questions that would be central to the psychology of ethics are the stages related to the development of ethics. This would be similar to moral development although ethical values and beliefs would be distinct and unlike general morality can be shaped even at old age.

The slight distinction between ethics and morality apart from the fact that ethics is a part of broader moral psychology is that ethics could be changeable or related to attitudes that may change with time. For example euthanasia is an ethical decision and doctors or nurses who face such a situation in their profession depends on their ethical stance and this could be affected by what they have learnt in their profession, their years of experience and their personal upbringing or value systems.

In some cases, circumstances could determine ethical choices as also social systems and individuals and their thoughts are influenced by others in ethical development providing the social theory of ethics. However specific theories such as cognitive dissonance theory could explain ethics as a change of behavior or attitudes through discomfort with a specific view of things. If certain actions are basically incongruent with attitudes held then the individuals will either have to change their actions or their attitudes and thus personal ethics would also change. Evolutionary psychology also explains our moral and ethical development as when we are constantly rewarded by society for certain behavior, we would naturally consider these as positive and this would then be socially acceptable and ethical. Behaviors rewarded over time are finally seen as ethical and ideal.

The psychology of ethics will have to encompass theories from psychoanalysis, evolutionary psychology and social and developmental psychology to provide a comprehensive understanding of moral development and changes in the development of ethics. Ethics would be affected by the unchangeable element of basic values that we hold and the changeable element of experience as ethics are values shaped and even changed by experience.

The stages of ethical development will have the general structure of social and moral development as individuals go through guilt in childhood (of mischief etc.) through group conformity and learns what is right and what is wrong. This is developed further in adolescence which is marked by identity crisis (as suggested by psychologists including Erikson) and ethics is formed in young adulthood as part of this identity consolidation. When a 20 year old man says to himself ‘I believe cheating is wrong’ he is suggesting that his sense of ethics is connected to his sense of identity. Finally in middle and late adulthood experiential changes may lead to change of ethics and the final stage of reflection and evaluation in which there is evaluation and the need to defend one’s own ethical beliefs and attitudes. The stages of ethical development could be thus given as guilt-group conformity-identity crisis- identity consolidation-experiential change-evaluation or defense.

Psychoanalysis and the role of superego could suggest why ethics are formed in humans and the general interplay between the psychic structure and the formation of ethics. Evolutionary psychology shows the interplay of the biological structure or human body systems and ethics formation and suggest how ethics are formed over many years of evolution and social psychology shows the general interplay of social structures and formation of ethics or value systems and highlights the basis of ethics in society telling us what ethics are formed according to the demands of society. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality with an emphasis on social systems could also provide insights on the study of the formation of attitudes, values and ethics.

Along with the social, developmental, psychoanalytic and evolutionary dimensions of ethics, it is important to delineate the types of ethical decisions for example ethics from a legal perspective, ethics from a moral perspective, ethics from an educational perspective, ethics from medical perspective and so on. Business ethics, legal ethics, medical ethics and all branches of ethics will have to consider the psychological stages of ethical development with social, psychoanalytic, evolutionary theories.

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