ETHICS & Harvard Researchers Discover Most People Selfless – Until They Think About It

“Selfish behavior comes from thinking too much, not too little. Rand recently verified this finding in a meta-analysis of 51 similar studies from different research groups.2 “Most people think we are intuitively selfish,” Rand says—based on a survey he conducted—but “our lab experiments show that making people rely more on intuition increases cooperation.”

Selfishness Is Learned: We tend to be cooperative—unless we think too much.

by MATTHEW HUTSON, Nautilus, 6/9/16.

…In 2012 he and two similarly broad-minded Harvard professors, Martin Nowak and Joshua Greene, tackled a question that exercised the likes of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Which is our default mode, selfishness or selflessness? Do we all have craven instincts we must restrain by force of will? Or are we basically good, even if we slip up sometimes?

They collected data from 10 experiments, most of them using a standard economics scenario called a public-goods game.1 Groups of four people, either American college students or American adults participating online, were given some money. They were allowed to place some of it into a pool, which was then multiplied and distributed evenly. A participant could maximize his or her income by contributing nothing and just sharing in the gains, but people usually gave something. Despite the temptation to be selfish, most people showed selflessness…

This finding was old news, but Rand and his colleagues wanted to know how much deliberation went into such acts of generosity. So in two of the experiments, subjects were prodded to think intuitively or deliberately; in two others, half of the subjects were forced to make their decision under time pressure and half were not; and in the rest, subjects could go at their own pace and some naturally made their decisions faster than others. If your morning commute is any evidence, people in a hurry would be extra selfish. But the opposite was true: Those who responded quickly gave more. Conversely, when people took their time to deliberate or were encouraged to contemplate their choice, they gave less.

The researchers worked under the assumption that snap judgments reveal our intuitive impulses. Our intuition, apparently, is to cooperate with others. Selfish behavior comes from thinking too much, not too little. Rand recently verified this finding in a meta-analysis of 51 similar studies from different research groups.2 “Most people think we are intuitively selfish,” Rand says—based on a survey he conducted—but “our lab experiments show that making people rely more on intuition increases cooperation.”

Read more at …

PLANNING & A Better Option Than Just Trial-and-error (A Leadership Exercise)

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 9/8/15.

I created this exercise to help leaders see that strategy planning is often undertaken in the church in a emotional and imprecise manner (and that is something we must change).

And so in previous postings, I explained how to rate various plans with a simple SWOT analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet some readers and students (especially those with strategic/operational leadership leanings) sometimes find such quantitative analysis a bit tedious. (I did actually when I was in seminary.  But as I progressed through graduate school I came to enjoy research).

Thus for the above two reasons, sometimes those with strategic/tactical gifts and those with tactical/operational attributes will find this exercise helpful.

A Leadership Exercise

Let’s start by recalling that Baumhart asked business people “What does ethical mean to you?” (Church Leaders MBA, p. 29)  The following were the answers he received:

“What does ethical mean to you?”  Answers:
1)  What my feelings tell me is right.  50%
2)  In accordance with my religious beliefs. 25%
3)  Based on the Golden Rule. 18%

Now, let’s see if this also might be true regarding how Christian ministries pick their strategies (and select programming).  Here is an adaption of Baumhart:

How do churches usually decide upon programming?
#1:  What they feel is a good program.
#2:  In accordance with what other Christians and churches think about a program.
#3:  A program based upon a bible passage.

So, pick either #1, #2 or #3 and tell why it isn’t (or is) a good way to choose a strategic ministry tactic.  And, give an example if you know of one.

For example, you might explain why “relying on your feelings” is not a good way to choose a program.  And, you might site a personal example.  Or you might share why basing a strategy on a merely bible passage could be misleading.  Again, you could give an example from your personal history with the church.

Baumhart, R. (1968). An honest profit: What businessmen say about ethics in business. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Wilson.

Smith, Mark and Wright, David. W. (2011). The church leaders’ MBA: What business school instructors wish church leaders knew about management. Circleville, OH: Ohio Christian University.

ETHICS & Implications of Wesley’s quote: I would not tell a lie to save the souls of the whole world.

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 9/2/10.

John Wesley famously said, “I would not tell a lie, no, not to save the souls of the whole world.” So, I ask my students to grapple with this.

One student remarked that according to a book he read (written by two of my close friends, Gary McIntosh and Charles “Chip” Arn) that “the goal of your financial investing should be to make the greatest number of disciples” (What Every Pastor Should Know).

Subsequently, the discussion turned to a discussion if finances could be used in an unethical way because more people would be saved as a result.  As I mentioned above, I know the authors of the book and this is of course not what they are saying.

But, this reminds us that outcomes can (but should they?) be used to justify the means.

According to John Wesley’s writings, it has to do with our understanding of God’s foundational action in love. Here are some questions that will help our understanding of ethical actions:

  • Would God have us do something unethical to make the greatest amount of disciples (This is part of the question in the story of the “plank of Carneades.”)
  • In other words, should we do something that furthers benefit to ourselves or even someone else’s soul … when that action is unethical?
  • And finally, would God require such action?

What are your thoughts?  If you are a student of mine, you can reply in the discussion forums to garner more points.  For all others, this is a good exercise to keep your leadership team sharp when considering ethical dilemmas.

ETHICS & Honoring Promises in a Small Ministry (a case study)

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 9/2/15.

Once a student remarked that she felt she did not have to worry too much about equal procedures, protecting employee rights and rewarding employees for merit because their church only had a church secretary and a part-time janitor. I often get this question in various forms from my students because many of my students are leading a small organization. But, I shared with her an example that happened to me when I was pastoring a small church. It drove home to me the lesson #4 in my leadership course: Just Actions, honoring of promises.

You see, sometimes we fudge, exaggerate or ignore, and then our church can’t or don’t honor their promises.  I remember when I pastored that we had a local hardware store.  We had an account there.  And sometimes, for instance in the summer when attendance was down, we would get behind in paying our bills. I thought nothing of it, for we always paid the bill eventually and we also paid the extra interest.

But, one day the owner took me aside and told me that as a church we should be setting an example by paying our bills on time.  He told me that we signed an agreement to pay our bills on time, that late payments hurt the store, and that we were not honoring the contract we had signed to pay our bills on time.  I was surprised, for I thought paying late, and paying the interest was standard business practice.  But, I found out the hard way that the world usually holds us to a higher standard and that churches especially need to be careful to “honor” our promises.

If you are one of my students and reading this, do you have thoughts or insights? (This is an optional question for those students who would like to dialogue a bit more – but it is not required 🙂

ETHICS & How Does Jesus’ Call to Self-sacrifice Impact the Plank of Carneades?

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 9/1/15.

In an earlier posting, I described the classic ethical dilemma of the Plank of Carneades.  Read this posting if you have not already done so read my introduction to the Plank of Carneades.  Then undertake the following exercise.

What Part Does Self-sacrifice Play?

When considering what he would do regarding the Plank of Carneades, a student shared the importance of self-sacrifice for a stranger.  He stated,

“If I managed to get to the board first, it would be very hard for me to let it go knowing that I would not survive. It would be different if person B was my wife, or someone else I cared for; I would gladly give them the board. If I could be in a Christian spiritual state of mind in that situation, I know I could give the board to any person B, but, I am just being realistic here, God would have to give me that peace to make that sacrifice. I do think I would be willing to ask God to give me that peace” (student, anonymous).

I especially think it is important to note that he said, “God would have to give me that peace to make that sacrifice.”  That is an important aspect.  And, Church History is replete with examples of persons who gave their lives for others.  And, that “peace” to give up one’s life for a stranger is a powerful and spiritual force.

I often give students a short (optional) exercise for anyone wishing to garner more points (or needs to 🙂 in my courses. This can also be an exercise for your small group or leadership team.  Here is the exercise:

  • Do a quick Internet search,
  • Cut/paste a story about a Christian who gave their life for another.
  • Focus on what it takes to have “peace to make that sacrifice.”

The Key is Preparation for Sacrifice

The reason I think this endeavor important, is because ethical behavior requires self-sacrifice (according to Hill 1997:50-51).  Therefore, how can be prepare for such situations? The key lies in a readiness to deny our self.  Because this runs against our human instincts (except when we have a close, e.g. family, relationship) we must look at how to address this if we are to prepare to act in love.

Thus, contemplating about how to foster self-sacrifice is a crucial part of regular spiritual formation.  I hope all of us will pray and seek God who can prepare us for self-sacrifice in His name.

Here is a verse that sums this up nicely this connection between acting in love and sacrifice:

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.1 John 4:7-10 (The Message)

ETHICS & The Plank of Carneades: An Exercise Every Christian Leader Should Undertake

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 8/30/15.

“The Plank of Carneades” is a classical ethical dilemma.  Read this abbreviated version, look at this ethical dilemma through the lens of Jesus’ words in John 15:11-15 and then answer five short questions.  This is an exercise every Christian leader should revisit every few years in their ministry.

Here is the scenario (described by Khalid Ghanayim in The Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, January 2006 Vol. XIX, No. 1):

“Should a person in a life-threatening situation have a defense when he saves his life by causing death to a person who was not involved in creating the life-threatening situation? Viz., does the perpetrator have an excused necessity defense that negates imposing the punishment? This issue – excused necessity defense – has fascinated the legal world since antiquity and has been described as one of the most complicated issues in criminal law. The well-known case is the ‘plank of Carneades’ or ‘two men and the plank.’

Two men, A and B, are shipwrecked on the high seas; as their strength ebbs and they are about to drown, they see a wooden plank that is just large enough to support only one of them. A reaches the plank first and grabs it, but B, faced with the prospect of certain death, pushes A off the plank, resulting in the death of A by drowning. B then grabs the plank and manages to save his own life. Should B have a defense if he is prosecuted for pushing A off the plank in these circumstances?”

Now, look at this through the lens of Jesus’ statement in John 15:11-15 (The Message):

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

Now, for five questions.  Share a sentence or two about any.

1. What should the secular courts do with Person B?

2. What would you do if you were Person B?

3. What would you do if you were Person A?

4.  What do you think it means that, “the English case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) established that necessity is no defense against a charge of murder?” (Retrieved from

5. What does this tell you about the law and the Christian life?

Here is a bonus question.  Do an Internet search to discover what great philosophers such as Immanuel Kant have said about the “plank of Cardeades.”

ETHICS & Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making

by Molly J. Crockett PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11/21/14.


Concern for the welfare of others is a key component of moral decision making … However, little is known about how people evaluate the costs of others’ suffering… Here we addressed this issue by measuring how much money people will sacrifice to reduce the number of painful electric shocks delivered to either themselves or an anonymous stranger. Surprisingly, most people sacrifice more money to reduce a stranger’s pain than their own pain. This finding may help us better understand how people resolve moral dilemmas that commonly arise in medical, legal, and political decision making.


Concern for the suffering of others is central to moral decision making. How humans evaluate others’ suffering, relative to their own suffering, is unknown. We investigated this question by inviting subjects to trade off profits for themselves against pain experienced either by themselves or an anonymous other person. Subjects made choices between different amounts of money and different numbers of painful electric shocks. We independently varied the recipient of the shocks (self vs. other) and whether the choice involved paying to decrease pain or profiting by increasing pain. We built computational models to quantify the relative values subjects ascribed to pain for themselves and others in this setting. In two studies we show that most people valued others’ pain more than their own pain. This was evident in a willingness to pay more to reduce others’ pain than their own and a requirement for more compensation to increase others’ pain relative to their own. This ‟hyperaltruistic” valuation of others’ pain was linked to slower responding when making decisions that affected others, consistent with an engagement of deliberative processes in moral decision making. Subclinical psychopathic traits correlated negatively with aversion to pain for both self and others, in line with reports of aversive processing deficits in psychopathy. Our results provide evidence for a circumstance in which people care more for others than themselves. Determining the precise boundaries of this surprisingly prosocial disposition has implications for understanding human moral decision making and its disturbance in antisocial behavior.

Read more here … Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences