Moral Muteness

Moral muteness occurs when people witness unethical behavior and choose not to say anything. It can also occur when people communicate in ways that obscure their moral beliefs and commitments.

When we see others acting unethically, often the easiest thing to do is look the other way. Studies show that less than half of those who witness organizational wrongdoing report it. To speak out risks conflict, and we tend to avoid conflict because we pay an emotional and social cost for it.

For example, in one study, psychologist Harold Takooshian planted fur coats, cameras, and TVs inside 310 locked cars in New York City. He sent a team of volunteers to break into the cars and steal the valuables, asking the “thieves” to act in an obviously suspicious manner. About 3,500 people witnessed the break-ins, but only 9 people took any kind of action. Of those who spoke up, five were policemen.

Indeed, only a relatively small percentage of people who see wrongdoing speak up. But, if we wish to be ethical people, we must strive to combat moral muteness in all areas of our lives.