As I was going through my favourite blogs today and avoiding work, I came across this report in Psych Central News: Moral Compass Shifts as Roles Change. It describes research with individuals working in a dual role; like army medics, for example, who perform the role of soldier and doctor. The subjects were tested to see if their moral decisions were influenced by their social roles. The results were affirmative: ask a guy about the sanctity of human life and he'll give different answer depending on whether he is thinking as a soldier or as a medic.
So the traditional belief, that moral integrity is a fixed character trait, seems rather inaccurate; actually our ethical thinking (and the decisions that follow) is influenced or even mediated by the social roles we are performing at the time. This reminds me of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment where mild mannered undergraduate students became brutal prison guards or recalcitrant prisoners within days of having those roles randomly assigned to them. By the way, there was a good article in the Stanford Magazine last year, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Zimbardo's famous experiment available here.
So these two pieces of research answer the question I asked myself last month as I followed the Judge Rotenberg Center trial and blogged about it here. I had wondered if the staff at the Center, using aversive therapy, had left their morality at the door when they arrived for work. These two articles remind me that morality is not a fixed thing to be taken on and off like a coat, rather it shifts and changes with the roles we play and the environments in which we operate. Would a member of staff working at the Rotenberg Center apply electric shocks to the skin of their own defiant children? Probably not. But in the 'clinic', where aversion therapy is given legitimacy and moral authority, where it forms part of the individual's work role, then aversive therapy becomes an acceptable form of 'treatment'.
There must be thousands of similar institutions that have become detached and isolated from the norms of society - like that Scottish island in the 1973 film, The Wicker Man. As social norms change, as the tide of liberalism and tolerance advances, islands of traditional belief are left behind as craggy old outcrops - very much like Lesley Pilkington. It's why we need regulation, accountability, professional standards, openness, public scrutiny and democratic controls - because the culture within an institution and the role an individual performs, has such a powerful influence on the identity, morality and behaviour of the staff who work there.