Wednesday, February 08, 2006

As Morality Slips Away

An interesting piece in yesterday's NY Times examines the shifting moral compass of penitentiary guards working with death row inmates across the nation. The article provides interesting insights into the moral codes utilized by the prison guards, and suggests that the practice of 'moral distancing' is commonly employed as a coping mechanism.

For those of us who aren't charged with administering lethal injections to death row inmates, the notion of 'moral distancing' remains of interest. The study also examined members of the support staff - individuals not directly involved in the execution itself, including counselors - and concluded that, over time, their mere proximity to the executions produced a form of moral ambivalence.
The finding stands as a caution to the millions of people who work in the service of organizations whose motives they mistrust, psychologists say: shifts in moral judgment are often unconscious, and can poison the best instincts and intentions.

As a student contemplating the merits of transitioning to life in corporate America the finding is particularly discomfiting. Long have I feared the slow slippage of my moral compass, by immeasurable degrees, only to look in the mirror after a decade of following instructions and no longer recognize myself.

Often I imagined (hoped?) that this fear bordered on paranoia. "To the degree that I am cognizant of the danger," I reasoned to myself, "then I must run a correspondingly low risk of succumbing to it." Further, what sort strength of morals do I truly possess if my morality is unable to survive the stresses and the demands of corporate America?

But these arguments were advanced with the hope that 'moral distancing' was more imagined than real, a boogeyman imagined and not a true enemy. If that is not the case, as the article suggests, then it is time to investigate much more carefully the problem of moral distancing, and whether or not it is best combated by the bright light of awareness, or the prophylactic measure of avoidance.


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