Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Tangible & Abstract

The bias of tangible and abstract describes the fact that people are influenced more by what is immediately observable than by factors that are hypothetical or distant, such as something that could happen in the future or is happening far away.

For example, people may make decisions about natural resources without adequately considering the impact those decisions may have on future generations, or on people in other countries.

In a famous example, the Pinto automobile flunked almost every routine safety test involving rear-end collisions, but Ford put it on the market anyway in 1971. The company was racing to get a small car on the market to challenge popular Japanese imports. Ford decided not to withhold the car from the market to avoid the immediate negative consequences of delaying, like a stock price hit, employee layoffs, and a public relations crisis.  All those factors were very tangible for Ford.  The considerations against selling the car were much more removed and abstract. For example, any potential crash victims, at that point, were nameless and faceless. Their injuries would occur, if ever, off in the future, and they would likely be someone else’s worry.

So, the principle of the tangible and abstract underscores how we can become blind to the negative consequences of our actions. Indeed, we make moral errors by discounting factors outside our immediate frame of reference.

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Moral Myopia

Moral myopia refers to the inability to see ethical issues clearly.

The term, coined by Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy, describes what happens when we do not recognize the moral implications of a problem or we have a distorted moral vision. An extreme version of moral myopia is called moral blindness.

For example, people may become so focused on other aspects of a situation, like pleasing their professor or boss or meeting sales targets, that ethical issues are obscured.

Organizations can experience moral myopia too, as Major League Baseball did during the steroid era. For more than a decade, players got bigger, hit more home runs, and revenues rose dramatically. But the League didn’t see it, even as evidence of steroid use was rampant.

Societies may also suffer moral myopia, as they often have done at the expense of minorities. For instance, the treatment of Native Americans and the enslavement of African-Americans are two examples of moral blindness in the history of the United States.

Moral myopia is closely related to ethical fading. In both cases, people’s perception of reality becomes altered so that ethical issues are indistinct and hidden from view.

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Incrementalism is the slippery slope that often causes people to slide unintentionally into unethical behavior. It can happen when people cut small corners that become bigger over time.  For example, almost every instance of accounting fraud begins with people fudging small numbers that grow larger and larger.

People’s brains are not adept at perceiving small changes. In addition, continued exposure to unethical behavior is desensitizing and makes those activities seem routine. Indeed, we can easily lose sight of the fact that those activities are immoral and possibly illegal.

Wrongdoers, and people in general, may never even realize that they are making a life-changing decision when they make small, unethical choices. But in truth, as philosopher Jonathan Glover says, incrementalism is how we “slide into participation by imperceptible degrees so that there is never the sense of a frontier being crossed.”

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A frame of reference, or point of view, refers to the way we look at a given situation. How a person views that situation can affect her understanding of the facts and influence how she determines right from wrong.

Some frames minimize or even omit the ethical aspects of a decision. For example, studies show that if people are prompted to frame a situation only in terms of money or economic interests, they often leave out ethical considerations.

In a famous study, a day care center having difficulty with parents picking up their children on time started charging a fine for being late. Parents then reframed the issue from an ethical one (“It’s not nice of me to burden the staff in this way”) to a business one (“I can buy the staff’s time by paying this fine”). Late pick-ups increased rather than decreased due to this change in the parents’ frame of reference.

So, by remembering to consider the ethical implications of any situation, we can keep ethics in our frame of reference when making decisions.

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Ethical Fading

Ethical fading occurs when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view.

This happens when people focus heavily on some other aspect of a decision, such as profitability or winning. People tend to see what they are looking for, and if they are not looking for an ethical issue, they may miss it altogether.

Psychologist Anne Tenbrunsel and colleagues find that innate psychological tendencies often cause us to engage in self-deception, which blinds us to the ethical components of a decision. For example, euphemisms like “We didn’t bribe anyone… we just ‘greased the wheels,’” help people disguise and overlook their own wrongdoing.

Ethical fading is similar to moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is when people restructure reality in order to make their own actions seem less harmful than they actually are. Both ethical fading and moral disengagement help people minimize the guilt they feel from violating ethical standards.

So, while ethical fading is common, we can try to counteract it by learning to recognize when we put ethical concerns behind other factors in making decisions.

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Bounded Ethicality

Bounded ethicality is the idea that our ability to make ethical choices is often limited or restricted because of internal and external pressures.

Most people are usually ethical, but not completely so. Just like people are generally rational, but not as completely logical as Spock from Star Trek. Our ability to be ethical seems to have limits.

For example, outside pressures, such as the tendency to conform to the actions of those around us, can make it hard to do the right thing.  So can internal biases, such as the self-serving bias, which often causes us to subconsciously favor ourselves at the expense of others.

It’s important to understand that everyone is bounded ethically, even Mother Teresa. Indeed, we are all susceptible to the cognitive biases and organizational or social pressures that limit our abilities to make ethical decisions.

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