Ethically Fluid

A recent snow day gave me the opportunity to catch up on watching some of my favorite television shows sitting on my DVR.  The storyline on one of these shows was about a doctor who took it upon herself to harvest organs from children who died without getting parental consent, all in the name of providing a much-needed medical service to critically ill children.  While organ donation is of course not a crime, removing organs from children without the consent of their parents is.

What motivates an otherwise gifted doctor to break the law, in the process causing harm to others, utilizing an excuse that doing this is saving countless lives of children in desperate need of organ transplants?  While some people have fairly consistent motivations, others have motivations that are constantly changing, which in turn causes their ethics to be challenged (Penn State University, 2018).  In the case of our doctor on TV, we find out that she had a child who died because he could not get a life-saving transplant in time.  This caused her to want to make things right for others even though she knew that she may not be able to get consent from grieving parents.  The result was that she felt compelled to forge consent forms, convincing herself that her motivation for saving lives outweighed any ethical violations.


According to the Five-Factor Model of Personality, motivation to do such an act may involve aspects of five different areas of personality.  Neuroticism, or emotional stability (Penn State University, 2018), would most likely be illustrated in our example, since “neuroticism is not necessarily a bad thing”.  While our doctor’s behavior may seem neurotic to a parent whose child has just died, she seems like a saint to those whose child may now live.  Conscientiousness might also be a factor as it is often used to describe someone who is not only reliable and efficient, but ethical as well.

While we may believe that we understand how our individual ethics work, we truly don’t know until we’re faced with a situation which requires us to look deep into ourselves and then are forced to make a decision as to how we are going to act.  Our ethics can take us only so far before our personality takes over, and then our ethics may need to be adapted to fit the new reality of our personality.


Works Cited

Penn State University. (2018). Ethics and Leadership. University Park, PA.

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth Louise Hoover March 25, 2018 at 1:46 AM #

    Hi Robert,

    You brought up an interesting point when you discussed us not really knowing our true ethics until we are faced with a particular situation. This is something I have become a broken record on over the years in the financial industry when coaching staff. Too often in this industry, people will become excessively complacent and trusting with their co-workers. One example that comes up fairly regularly is when co-workers feel comfortable with one another to the point of being lax about securing their passwords and cash drawers. I hear over and over “but I know them and they would never steal or watch while I enter a password.”

    I constantly reiterate that we only truly know what people want us to know and that we may never know what is actually happening in their personal lives. For instance, maybe they have a gambling issue or a loved one has been diagnosed with a disease and they do not have the financial means to pay for treatment. When faced with what can seem like a dire situation, people’s ethical choices can shift based on circumstance. This idea falls in line with Barsky (2011) who suggested “people neutralize their wrongdoing by appealing to higher loyalties, or necessary evils. That is, people construe that ethical norms have to be sacrificed for more important causes” (p. 62).


    Barsky, A. (2011). Investigating the effects of moral disengagement and participation on unethical work behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 104(1), 59-75. 10.1007/s10551-011-0889-7

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