Does ‘Could’ Lead to Good? Toward a Theory of Moral Insight
Executive Summary — When people encounter difficult ethical challenges, research has shown, they generally ask themselves the question, "What should I do?" Organizations, too, frame the principles to guide managerial conduct in terms of "should." Despite the pervasiveness of having a "should" mindset when confronting moral dilemmas, however, the authors of this paper argue that a significant class of ethical challenges, often overlooked in efforts to understand misconduct, benefit from the application of unconventional thinking. When encountering ethical dilemmas, shifting one's mindset from "What should I do?" to "What could I do?" generates moral insight, defined as the realization that ostensibly competing values are not entirely incompatible. Moral insight allows for exploration of more possible solutions beyond the apparent constraints of the problem provided, and for the formulation of creative solutions that satisfy multiple moral imperatives. Although our natural inclination is to contemplate dilemmas with a "should" mindset, the authors argue that adopting a "could" mindset opens a broader range of possibilities and brings us one step closer to moral insight. Key concepts include:
- Moral insight is generated when individuals are prompted to consider the question "What could I do?" in place of their intuitive approach of considering "What should I do?"
- Employees and teams might devise practical solutions that resolve the inherent tension in a dilemma. Rather than assume a fixed contest that requires adjudication and a tradeoff, the research indicates that with some unconventional thinking, managers can generate solutions to ethical dilemmas.
We introduce the construct of moral insight and study how it can be elicited when people face ethical dilemmas-challenging decisions that feature tradeoffs between competing and seemingly incompatible values. Moral insight consists of discovering solutions that move beyond selecting one conflicting ethical option over another. Moral insight encompasses both a cognitive process and a discernible output: it involves the realization that an ethical dilemma might be addressed other than by conceding one set of moral imperatives to meet another, and it involves the generation of solutions that allows competing objectives to be met. Across four studies, we find that moral insight is generated when individuals are prompted to consider the question "What could I do?" in place of their intuitive approach of considering "What should I do?" Together, these studies point toward a theory of moral insight and important practical implications.