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How and Why Good People Make Bad Choices

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Loyola University

How and Why Good People Make Bad Choices

Jennifer Everett

Business Ethics & Corporate Social Responsibility

Fall 2018

30 September 2018

How and Why Good People Make Bad Choices

        Every minute of every day, whether big or small, we are faced with choices that determine the direction of where we will end up in life. Many of us probably don’t understand or realize what contributes to the decisions we make and how and why it affects us and others around us. One might consider himself to be a genuine and frequently good person but, when faced with a difficult decision, might make a choice that ultimately leads to negative repercussions. It is because of the lack of knowledge on how and why people make bad choices that authors have written books and articles about how to improve ourselves when it comes to decision-making in the future.

        Our book Managing Business Ethics, by Linda Trevino and Katherine Nelson, states “one important explanation for both ethical judgement and action based on individual characteristics comes from the moral reasoning research of Lawrence Kohlberg.” Kohlberg developed a cognitive moral development theory that suggests that moral reasoning develops successively through three broad levels. Each level includes a different stage of reasoning, and the higher the level, more ethical decisions are made. He argues that cognitive development can occur from practice, but mostly occurs through contact with peers and life situations that challenge individuals’ way of thinking. Kohlberg also argues that, the actual decision is less important than the reasoning process used to come up with the final decision. Charles Van Doren in the movie Quiz Show, clearly was in stage one, preconventional, because he made a decision thinking about himself. When Charles was asked the winning question, he knew the question sounded oddly familiar, yet he answered it anyway. He acted in self-interest and knew that by winning this show, he was proudly representing his Dad’s name, and winning money.

        Another reason why good people can make bad decisions is through moral disengagement. The idea behind moral disengagement is that we all have an internalized standards of good and bad conduct and we judge our behavior against those standards. Through moral disengagement, when individuals make a decision, they have the ability to separate from their standards and participate in unethical behavior without feeling bad about it. Charles continued to make unethical decisions by meeting with his managers and reviewing the questions and answers that were going to be asked. At one point he asked his manager to stop giving him the answers to the questions and allow him to research the answers on his own. For Charles, by asking his manger to stop giving the answers, he justified he was not cheating and was playing fairly. Charles disengaged with his own sets of standards and made an unethical decision without feeling bad about it. Another example of moral disengagement is with the Pinto Fires Case located in Managing Business Ethics. Gioia states “I would argue that the complexity and intensity of the recall coordinator’s job required that I develop cognitive strategies for simplifying the overwhelming amount of information…The best way to do that is to structure the information into cognitive “schemas” that guide understanding and action when facing common or repetitive situations.” When Gioia was faced with the Pinto explosions, he justified the accidents as situations that did not fit his original cognitive “schemas.” Gioia was able to morally disengage from his normal cognitive strategies and make a decision that was ultimately an unethical decision.


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