Do Our Better Angels Stand beside Us?



Thomas, Robert C

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This thesis draws on interdisciplinary literature in moral philosophy, the behavioral sciences, and history to examine the role of organizations in shaping the moral character development of their members in settings of competition and conflict. The first chapter considers the bedrock role of habit and habit formation in establishing moral behavior over time through analysis of the classical work of Aristotle and competing schools of thought in recent experimental psychology. The second chapter considers two additional mechanisms of character formation—the structuring of subjective group identity and the impact of extrinsic incentives on moral behavior—by examining Adam Smith’s work on moral psychology and incorporating a range of recent work from the behavioral sciences into the picture. The third chapter explores how these three mechanisms of moral character formation appear to have functioned in a series of historical case studies that consider different forms of organizations and different kinds of conflict settings, including economic competition in the case of Enron, political competition in China’s Cultural Revolution, and military competition in the context of American prisoners of war in Vietnam. These analyses support the claim that these mechanisms do shape moral character over time, that these processes are evident in important ways in organizations engaged in competition or conflict, and that effectively understanding and responding to each of the three mechanisms under consideration requires careful attention to the interactions between them.



Moral psychology, Organizational psychology, Organizational ethics, Moral character, Conflict ethics, Applied ethics