Ethics of lying: When loyalty trumps honesty

Gillian Smith
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Ethics of lying: When loyalty trumps honesty

Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – Can lying be ethical? Some people seem to think so, especially when it comes to loyalty.

A new Cornell University study shows people who are dishonest out of loyalty feel they are acting ethically and morally but outsiders disagree, seeing those actions as immoral and wrong – unless they lie out of loyalty.

Angus Hildreth, assistant professor of management and organizations in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, was interested in what happens when loyalty clashes with values like honesty and fairness. The study, “Does Loyalty Trump Honesty? Moral JJournal of Experimental Social Psychologyudgments of Loyalty-Driven Deceit,” appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Hildreth and his co-author, Cameron Anderson of the University of California, Berkley, worked with nearly 1,400 participants over the course of four studies.

The researchers asked a group of online study participants to read about an actor who took part in a study. Some were told he had signed a pledge of loyalty to a group; others were told he signed a pledge to be fair or simply promised to complete the study. Some participants were told the actor had misrepresented his scores on several tasks, which benefited his group; others were told he had reported his scores honestly. The participants then answered questions about whether the actor behaved ethically.

A different group of participants was placed in those exact scenarios in real life and given the chance to lie to benefit their group. Participants were then asked to judge the ethicality of their own behavior.

The researchers found when people were called to be loyal, their moral views of deceit and honesty flipped. Loyal liars viewed their deceit as ethical, even though their actions harmed others. And disloyal truth-tellers viewed their behavior as less ethical, despite acting honestly. Independent judges viewed loyal lies differently, and as less ethical than honesty.

“When loyalties apply – when you’re surrounded by your family, organization or political party – those loyalties influence the way you judge your behavior,” Hildreth said. “You might be doing something harmful to others. But that doesn’t matter to you, because you feel you’re fulfilling a higher value: your loyal duty.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.




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