Creativity as a (Double-Edged) Pragmatic Moral Sword

Project: Research

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Although creativity is a truly desirable and often scarce commodity in organizations, its moral implications have not been fully explored. Thus, this proposal seeks to amend the research on creativity by taking a new approach to investigate the relationship between creativity and morality. A common, intuitive view of the dark side of creativity suggests that creativity can implicitly or explicitly encourage unethical behavior because morality is conventional and creativity is unconventional. We provide new theoretical perspectives that are different from this logically incomplete and questionable view. Because many mundane unethical actions are truly unoriginal and do not require any creativity, they are unlikely to share anything in common with creativity. In addition, when moral rules or norms are wrong, creativity can actually lead to novel and unconventional practices with higher morality, e.g., the civil disobedience movement of Gandhi (Wolpert, 2002).Thus, we suggest that creativity is more related to moral innovations instead of moral routines. Because creativity often serves as a pragmatic tool, people are likely to use creativity to search and discover new moral middle grounds to pragmatically solve traditional moral problems. The resulted moral solutions can be contextual because creativity can lead to either creative/moral behavior or creative/immoral behavior. But these creative, pragmatic solutions are often ingenious circumventions instead of blatant violations (regardless of whether the violations are moral or immoral) because creativity often balances different moral motives and at least obliquely respects for basic moral or social values. As noted by Csikszentmihalyi (1996), for example, “it is difficult to see how a person can be creative without being both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic” (p.71).Because creativity, as a double-edged sword, may have different moral implications, we also seek to explore potential solutions to dampen its unintended negative effects on moral decisions. We suggest that employees’ positive mood and organizations' value-based ethics programs will help reduce creativity’s negative effects without inhibiting creativity. This is because with strong value-based ethical programs, happy employees are more sensitive to the negative emotions associated with unethical behavior. Thus, employees are more likely to use creativity to pursue good instead of bad courses when they are happy and when strong value-based ethics programs are in place. We propose three complementary experimental and field studies to test these propositions and explore the relationship between creativity and morality in organizations.


Project number9048031
Grant typeECS
Effective start/end date1/01/1517/12/19