To thine own self be true

Every so often universities perform brilliant and insightful research.

At the University of North Carolina, 85 students took part in what they believed was market research. In fact they were engaging in a study of the link between immoral behaviour and the counterfeit self.

The students were shown images of real and counterfeit products. One group of students was told their choices reflected a preference for counterfeit products. Each of those students was given a pair of ‘counterfeit’ sunglasses to wear for the remainder of the study.

The other group of students was told they had a preference for authentic products and were given designer eyewear. In fact, all of the sunglasses given to the 85 participants were expensive (US$300) and the students (unknown to them) were assigned to the two groups randomly.

Next, the students performed a test where they received monetary reward based on their answers. The test was structured so that it was very easy to cheat. Of those students who believed they were wearing authentic sunglasses, 30% cheated on the test. In the fake sunglasses group, 71% cheated.

The experiment was repeated without telling the participants they had a preference for authentic or fake sunglasses; they were only told they were wearing fake or authentic sunglasses. The results were similar. Those who thought they were wearing fakes were more likely to cheat. Now that’s insightful, don’t you think!

This led the researchers to the concept of the counterfeit self; the aspiration to be something one is not, which was directly linked to the decision to act unethically. So how should we respond to these results? Should we all dress up in authentic, designer and expensive fashion wear to ensure only 30% of us act unethically? Given the absence of designer clothing in my wardrobe I’m hoping this is unnecessary.

This research reveals that if we doubt our own authenticity, if we identify with fakery, then we are more likely to act unethically when the opportunity presents itself. This suggests the ethical path includes each of us getting to know our authentic selves.

Such a conclusion is consistent with the ethical path described by Buddhists and Daoists. Buddhists strive to see their true nature (the inherent good within), which requires an understanding of the nature of the reality in which we exist. Daoists recognise the futility of striving to be what we are not and instead search for a way of living in harmony with all things including our own inherently good nature.

How do we become more authentic persons? In our ethics courses we provide students with the tools to analyse ethical problems. These tools reveal different ways of looking at ethical problems, and sometimes frustratingly different tools suggest different solutions. These differences show the diversity of approaches available to solve any complex problem.

Armed with these new tools we expose students to a myriad of dilemmas to practise their new craft of ethical problem solving. Many of the ethical cases are confronting: children dying from preventable malnutrition, corporate fraud leading to global financial collapse, women sold as slaves in the sex industry, indigenous tribes poisoned by industrial effluent, the amazing benefits and tragic consequences from the commercial release of a new technology.

This process leads to a re-evaluation of our own personal values and along the way we discover something about our own authentic selves.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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