Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, in press)

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Citation: Neeru Paharia, Karim Kassam, Joshua Green, Max Bazerman (2009/01/12) Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, in press). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.2139/ssrn.1205304
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.2139/ssrn.1205304
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.2139/ssrn.1205304
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Dirty work, clean hands: The moral psychology of indirect agency (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, in press)
Download: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/GreeneWJH/Paharia-DirtyWorkCleanHands-OBHDP-09.pdf
Tagged: Psychology (RSS) morality (RSS), moral psychology (RSS), ethics (RSS), business ethics (RSS)


Companies and people often do "bad things" through intermediaries such as hire "hit men," subsidiaries, other companies, etc. to do their bad deeds. In this paper the authors investigate how ethical judgments differ when harms are carried out directly or through intermediaries. In the first study research participants read about a hypothetical pharmaceutical company that had either raised the price of cancer drug directly by three times, or sold the rights to make the drug to another company who then raised the price of the drug by five times. When participants were evaluating each scenario individually, they felt it was more unethical to raise the price of the drug directly, however when they viewed both scenarios together they felt it was more unethical to sell the drug through the intermediary. Past research has shown that when things are evaluated in isolation we are more likely to make emotional decisions, however when items are evaluated jointly, we have the ability to compare and contrast and thus are more likely to make more rational decisions.

The first study left some ambiguity of how much foreknowledge and control the original company had. The authors address these issues in the second study where rather than selling the rights of the drug to another company, the company hired another company as an intermediary to brand and distribute the drug as a service for an arranged price. Even in this case, when the company had foreknowledge and control of the price, participants felt the company was more unethical when they raised the price of the drug directly than when the intermediary did it. In the third study, the authors show that perceived motivation underlies the effect to a certain degree. In the last study the authors show the effect of indirectness in consumer decision-making. The authors show that consumers are more likely to hire an underpaid domestic worker if they can hire them through an intermediary than if they have to hire them directly.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This work is based on past work done in moral psychology where they have found that more direct harms trigger more emotional reactions whereas more indirect harms trigger more cognitive reactions. The trolley problem illustrates some of these effects.

That fact that society is able to tolerate indirect harms has wide implications for how our social infrastructure may be contributing to negative outcomes. Social systems are organized on principles of division of labor, subcontracting, etc. Therefore, those making decisions to harm don't often carry out the deed themselves. From a consumer perspective, companies do harmful things for us so we may enjoy the benefits without suffering the emotional consequences.

The paper was also summarized on this blog: http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2009/07/28/when-it-comes-to-laying-blame-bias-gives-master-minds-a-pass/