Dr. X asks a fascinating question (which emerges from The Splintered Mind): does thinking about ethical behaviour lead to less ethical thinking?
It can, he says. Thinking can just make it easier to rationalise unethical behaviour: “Not returning this library book on ethics isn’t stealing, nobody else reads these things anyway…”
Dr. X concludes:
Fruitful self-examination that recognizes the implicit themes, the contradictions, the gaps and the subtleties (or lack of subtlety) in our conscious experience is a capacity that is cultivated over time by consistently applying oneself to a process that can be painful, anxiety-provoking and depressing as we give up the lies we tell ourselves to make our lives more bearable. Rational examination has a role to play in this self-exploration, but deeper familiarity with the much larger role played by irrational, unconscious mental activity is critical to getting the most out of self-reflection.
A couple of points occur to me:
a. Conscious thought can help.
It is possible to end up going, “Aargh, though I don’t feel like doing it, pulling my car over to help that person change a tire is the right thing to do (it’s what I’d want someone to do for me and I’ll like the feeling of ‘being a good person’…). I.e. it can lead to good behaviour, if not to selfless motives.
b. Conscious thought may not help, of course.
We all know about the bystander effect. Presumably all those dozens of people who saw Kitty Genevese being murdered and did nothing rationalised it to themselves: “It’ll be embarrassing if I make a big fuss and I’ve misread the situation; if it is bad someone else will call the cops.”
c. Reflective reflection.
Dr. X’s notion of ‘unreflective reflection’ brings some light to the matter. Ethical reflection that is worth a damn (what matters is ethical behaviour, after all) can certainly benefit from rigourous, honest introspection – asking oneself whether one is pulling the wool over one’s own eyes, rationalising, being defensive…. In this respect perspectival distance can help: “What would I say if someone else was thinking/acting like this?”
d. The problem of male fides – bad faith.
But there is one element that must be added, one proviso made. Yes, it’s my current bugbear – psychopathy. Unless there is good faith, reflection (deep or otherwise) is only going to folded into the determination to get one’s way.