Ethical Character: Is a Standardized Assessment Possible?

“In order to good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II.q57.a5


By Dr. Samuel B. Condic —In the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas, a large part of our mission is to develop and educate ethical business leaders. Therefore, an analysis of ethical character and how it can be measured is an important discussion for students and faculty alike.

The iconic 1960s book (and movie) A Clockwork Orange tells the story of Alex, a British street thug who has a passion for senseless violence (and also Beethoven; but I digress).  To make a long story short:  Alex is eventually arrested for his thuggery and, rather than being incarcerated, he is “cured” of his violent ways via a Skinnerian-style operant conditioning procedure (this is set in a futuristic, dystopian universe, after all).  The Authorities strap Alex into a chair and force him to watch scenes of violence until his psyche and his senses are utterly oversaturated.  What was first rather enjoyable to little Alex now becomes panic-inducing and nauseating.  Following his rehabilitation, even the slightest thought of violence is sufficient to make Alex violently ill, and his only remedy is to push such thoughts aside through the doing of good deeds.  Hence, where before Alex would have gleefully accosted the Little Old Lady crossing the street for the sheer pleasure of it all, instead he now rushes to assist said Lady so as to dissipate the nefarious thought (and to stop the dry heaves).

The question this scenario raises is this:  Would we say that Alex is now a good man, since all he ever does is good deeds?  As judged by the quote that started this blog entry, St. Thomas would say “no,” and certainly most would agree that Aquinas gets this right.  It’s not enough merely to do good deeds; one must do them because of their goodness.  What we do does matter, but why we do it matters, also.

Measurement of the Effects

That moral goodness requires the recognition of some good act as good creates a difficulty for a standardized assessment of ethical character.  In every case, assessment is a measurement of an effect and not of a cause.  We do not in any literal sense “see” what drives a person to make a certain choice.  Rather, we infer something about the nature of the motivation based on the character of the action.

The problem of course is that nearly every effect can be produced by more than one cause, and the more standardized the effect, the more easily different causes can produce it.  For example, the devoted husband might bring his wife flowers to express his love.  But the unfaithful scoundrel might present the same roses to his wife as a means of concealing his infidelity.  Once it is established that giving flowers is the accepted sign of devotion, the sign can be readily faked.  As a result, the observation of the effect in isolation leaves us no way of divining whether the motivation is love or deception.


Nor does adding to the list of variables or changing them regularly resolve the problem, assuming the variables remain meaningful and are added in a standardized way.  If the cheating scoundrel knows that his wife will consider not only the flowers, but also his posture, facial expression, and tone of voice when judging his sincerity, he will be sure to control for these variables, as well.  Even if the variables are changed regularly they must still be variables of a certain sort in order to remain meaningful, in which case the efforts of our would-be Don Juan merely switch to producing effects of a certain type rather than something specific.  The underlying point remains valid:  To the extent a metric is standardized, the easier it is to “game the system” and produce the desired outcome through alternative causes.

In such situations, the only way to separate the causal sheep from the goats is to make appeal to non-standardized factors such as context, circumstances, or history.  The scoundrel is revealed not by the sub-standard quality of his bouquet or the slouch in his shoulders but by his reputation for a wandering eye and the fact that his old high school girlfriend was in town the night before.  Things like moral character and raw intelligence are causes, not effects and are most reliably revealed when the non-standardizable factors (what Aristotle might call “accidental factors”) make it difficult to substitute one cause for another.  This can be seen clearly in the case of intellectual aptitude.  Every teacher develops a sense of which students “get it” and which ones don’t, and this recognition comes not so much from the grades on the students’ exams but from unique events, and by definition what is unique is non-standard and non-reproducible as such.

For example, a professor might think some student “gets it” because of his spontaneous response to an in-class question, or by his follow-up question.  But once students know that spontaneous questions are part of the evaluation process, they can prepare for them in advance.  And if they prepare in advance, how “spontaneous” is their answer?  And if they are not spontaneous, do their answers reveal raw intelligence, or rehearsal?  The case of moral character is exactly parallel.  Returning to the moral realm and our earlier example, we can see clearly that Alex’s actions were moral, but he wasn’t.

Another example from the academic world of assessing causes is the open-ended essay or term paper.  Such methods do indeed give insight into the thought processes of the student, but only to the extent that they are open-ended.  Theoretically, the ideal open-ended essay question could produce as many A-level responses as there are students in the class.  But by this very fact the use of a truly standardized rubric is excluded since such a rubric, to the extent that it is standardized, must look for specific things.

What is the Remedy?

Is there are remedy to this situation?  Can we devise a meaningful test of Alex’s moral character?  The answer is twofold.  First, to the extent that standardized testing is necessary, we should accept the results for what they are.  A standardized test principally measures the capacity to produce a desired effect.  This information is often useful, and in some cases is what matters most.  The primary interest of the quality control manager is that parts coming off the assembly line are as close to nominal specifications as possible.  While the how does matter, the emphasis is on whether or not they do.  Similarly, the calculus professor accepts that his students might not actually “get” calculus until they have used it daily for many years.  For the purposes of assigning grades in a course, the ability to arrive at the correct answer by the prescribed method is sufficient.  In parallel fashion the same is true for assessment in ethics.  Standardized testing might reveal the students’ ability to identify and apply ethical principles, for example, but it tells us very little regarding their moral character –what they will or will not do in a given situation.

Second, we must recognize that any judgment of Alex’s moral character (or his raw intelligence, for that matter) will come through non-standardized –and non-standardizable—methods.  Just as the spontaneous question or open-ended essay reveals intelligence, so too will Alex’s moral character be revealed through his thoughts and actions in non-standard situations.  Alex, just like the rest of us, will show that he “gets it” in and through his ability act morally when the criteria are not established in advance and he must figure out and do the right thing for himself.


When generalized, the above observations also have relevance in a business context.  For example, businesses routinely rely on standardized metrics for hiring and performance appraisals.  While such benchmarks are quite necessary –especially in a large enterprise—organizations would do well to incorporate the use non-standardized (but still objective) metrics, so as to avoid an over-emphasis on effects at the expense of causes.


Samuel B. Condic, Ph.D.
Visiting Asst. Professor – Management & Marketing

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