When doing good becomes doing bad: The effects of repeated necessary evil enactment on subsequent unethical behavior

Within the workplace, having to take action that causes harm to others is not uncommon. Certain professions require employees to engage in such behaviors on a daily basis – for example, nurses must often cause physical harm to patients when caring for injuries, and police officers must cause emotional pain when placing a suspected individual under arrest. However, despite the harm they cause, these behaviors are socially acceptable as they are enacted with good intent. Such behaviors are necessary evils – “tasks in which a person must knowingly and intentionally cause emotional or physical harm to another human being in the service of achieving some perceived greater good” (Margolis & Molinsky, 2008, p.847).

Necessary evils are not seen as unethical because they are enacted with good intent, being organizationally-mandated (i.e. a required part of an employee’s job). However, many of the same psychological processes (e.g. distancing, responsibility displacement) that allow individuals to accept the enactment of necessary evils also commonly occur when enacting unethical or deviant behavior. In this study, we argue that in some cases, enactors of necessary evils will become insensitive to the harm caused by their actions and that this insensitivity will thus allow them to make unethical decisions in other realms of activity more easily. Essentially, we explore whether repeatedly being tasked with harm-doing for betterment may lead to harm-doing for selfish motives.

Accepting Students

Data collection, survey management, literature review

Lead Faculty

Meena Andiappan

Meena Andiappan

HSR – Health Services Organization and Management Studies Emphasis Lead

Affiliated Faculty