The character of conscience

When faced with moral dilemmas, recognizing your own moral fallibility can help protect against unethical behavior.

By: Louise Lee
photo of Professor Isaac Smith next to an illustration of a silhouette of a boy juggling red, yellow, and green circles under the silhouette of a traffic light

Professor Isaac H. Smith served as an assistant professor of management and organizations at Johnson, 2014-19. Photo by Jesse Winter. Illustration by Alex Nabaum/The

Admit it: Everyone, including you, is sometimes tempted to behave dishonestly or unethically. Sometimes you even act on those impulses.

Still, most people are generally well-intended and would like to avoid behaving in objectionable ways. So how can you help yourself act virtuously in your personal and professional life?

An important step in the right direction, says Isaac H. Smith, assistant professor of management and organizations at Johnson, 2014-19, lies in first acknowledging that you’re vulnerable to mistakes in moral judgement — in other words, that you’re morally fallible. In a recent paper written with Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Smith notes that once you’ve accepted that you’re morally imperfect, you become open to learning and more vigilant about your behavior. In short, you develop moral humility, a characteristic that’s linked to real consequences in daily life. (“Moral humility: In life and at work,” Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 38, 77–94, 2018.)

“Several decades of research have shown that good people with good intentions often violate their own values,” says Smith, who researches ethics and morality within organizations. “Good intentions alone are not necessarily enough to keep you safe, to keep you from doing things you might regret, or, in extreme cases, even to keep you out of prison.”

“Good intentions alone are not necessarily enough to keep you from doing things you might regret.” — Professor Isaac Smith

In their paper, Smith and Kouchaki draw from their own and others’ previously published studies to present a theoretical perspective that explores the potential effects of varying levels of moral humility on individuals and the organizations around them. The paper aims to provide a theoretical framework for future research into moral humility’s effects on an individual’s decision-making process and subsequent behavior.

While moral humility is a virtue in itself, it also has practical value in guiding behavior.

portrait of Professor Isaac Smith
Isaac H. Smith, assistant professor of management and organizations at Johnson, 2014-19.

Smith and Kouchaki argue that individuals with insufficient moral humility are more likely to have moral “blind spots” and may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior because they don’t recognize the behavior as unethical. They may feel unjustifiably confident in themselves, making them less likely to avoid compromising situations and more likely to succumb to temptation. And they may attempt to justify bad behavior, perhaps by blaming others or telling themselves that “everyone else does it.”

Low moral humility can easily spill into the workplace. A company led by people with little moral humility may not have strong organizational safeguards and thus be prone to conflicts of interest or self-dealing, the researchers say. And company managers with little moral humility may come off as self-righteous and condescending, which can undermine their attempts to promote ethics at work.

By contrast, says Smith, people who have greater levels of moral humility, accepting that they’re morally imperfect, are more likely to be aware of and thus attentive to the moral implications of their behavior. They approach sticky situations with vigilance and ask “morally relevant” questions. Is an action fair or unfair? Who might be harmed? Because they have humility, they want to learn and develop their moral character.

Companies led by people with adequate moral humility are more likely to have a “tone at the top” that encourages employees to consider the ethical consequences of their actions and be on guard against excessive risk taking and overconfidence, says Smith. That type of corporate culture also allows employees to admit their mistakes more freely, thereby increasing learning and development. And the effect of moral humility on workers’ actual behavior is likely to be positive, Smith says. Employees with sufficient moral humility are, for instance, more likely to treat all parties involved in a business transaction, including customers, investors, suppliers, competitors, and the larger community, in an ethical manner.

“Demonstrating moral humility in the workplace has a lot of interpersonal benefits and practical benefits,” Smith says.

Can you have too much moral humility? In a word, yes. Someone with too much humility likely doesn’t hold any particular moral standard at all and thus may have an “anything goes” attitude toward behavior and decision-making. That stance leads to excessive permissiveness, indecision, or apathy about ethical behavior. Employees with too much moral humility may, for instance, be more likely to unquestioningly follow the orders of an unethical boss.

Like other human virtues and characteristics, moral humility grows over time with experience and personal reflection. “Moral development should be something that we’re aware of and actively pursue,” says Smith. “And moral humility is one of those key attributes that, if developed, can help you along that journey of trying to become your best moral self.”