Can Micro World Simulations Assess and Stimulate Ethical Competence?

Mikael Laaksoharju and Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos


Organizations often have policies and guidelines concerning decisions where moral judgment is required. But what happens when these rules of thumb are not directly applicable on the moral problem in question? The result is often that the individual dealing with the issue is left to her or his own judgments – judgments that might be limited by reluctance to act against norms as well as against the individual’s own personal moral. More commonly, the individual might not even be aware of there being ethical issues in a case. In this paper it is discussed how the ability to recognize and deal with ethical issues can be improved.

In most of present test and training systems for ethical competence, dilemmas are extreme and the ethical implications in the available options are stronger and pushier than in real life, a constraint that tends to lead to unrealistic choice situations. This makes the translation of the learning back to real life situations not very apparent and thus motivates a more fluid simulation environment, where decisions lead to new problems based on the new conditions. From this we also conclude that it is important to create scenarios that are realistic and highly relevant to the test subject, as well as to stress the control that the test subject does exercise in a situation. The ethicality of each decision is not of particular interest, but rather the manner in which the problems are approached and how the confrontation with the consequences is handled.

When judging an individual’s ethical competence it is tempting to compare and relate it to an ideal behavior; a code of conduct or a philosophy of morality. We want to avoid this by letting the subject deal with the consequences of decisions. The actual judgment of morality is left to the individual facing the dilemma. We are simply interested in studying the process of decision making, where ethical competence can be regarded as the ability to process available information in an optimal way. This motivates a focus on autonomy. We believe that to be the necessary foundation to achieve complete ethical competence: Not as the ability to always act according to guidelines; not as the ability to act in a manner that is consistent with the most number of philosophies; but as the ability to use the right ethical problem-solving and decision-making method in handling moral problems.

Our work revolves around a micro world simulator, in which the researcher is allowed to define virtual stakeholders and to them assign interests and urges as well as principles to obey. The test subject then has to consider these stakeholders and in order to affect their behavior he/she is encouraged to legislate when identifying sites of conflict, in order to maintain a desired harmony in the simulation. If the rules created are not satisfactory for the stakeholders, they will protest against them.

To determine symptoms of autonomy, a clear distinction needs to be made from heteronomy. This can be done either by discern symptoms of autonomy directly or to do the exact opposite. Some patterns of heteronomy might be easier to pinpoint and classify due to their nature of regularity. The main question treated in this paper is thus: How can we distinguish symptoms of autonomy in the context of a dynamic micro world simulation?

To make the notion of micro worlds useful, it is necessary to define a theoretical framework. We base this on the discourse of morality as rules, leaning mainly on the work of Piaget and Kohlberg but also of Foucault, with more recent counterparts and analogies in earlier work of Kavathatzopoulos et al.

At the moment, the most critical task is to validate micro worlds as a method to measure and train ethical competence. Two things in particular are interesting to study: 1) We want to determine which parameters to measure, that indicate autonomous decision making, and 2) we want to establish a model for interpreting the proceedings and the subject’s interaction with the simulation as a representation of the character of decision making. The request on the simulator is to give information about the process behind how decisions are made, in this case: how rules are created. From that the symptoms that differ between heteronomy and autonomy, can be derived. In the paper we problemize one implementation of this psychological approach towards ethical decision making, to suggest how the tool can be used for stimulating ethical competence.

Symptoms of autonomy to be distinguished in the micro world:

  • The ability to reason about decisions and pass arguments for the choices made (encouraged by rule creation and objecting stakeholders).
  • A fearless attitude towards norms (stimulated by the rule creation).
  • A systematic, self critical and holistic approach towards problem solving (measurable from the amount and focus of user interaction).
  • A confidence and assurance that allows the test subject to act according to an independently reached conviction about what is the right thing to do (tested by objecting stakeholders).

Also the parameters that can help us describe autonomy in the micro world:

  • Can the time it takes for a subject to reach a decision serve as a representation for thoughtfulness and systematization?
  • Can the number of questions asked and the eagerness to ask questions serve as an indication of ambitions to reach an exhaustive knowledge about the situation?
  • Can the focus for questions give clues about 1) whether the subject is considering risks and opportunities, or about 2) the subjects ambition to reach a better understanding of the stakeholders and the situation?
  • Can the coherence between the questions indicate how systematically the subject is approaching the situation?
  • Can the structure of decisions, in connection with preceding investigations, give information about the holism in the subject’s conception of the situation?