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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Rationalizations are invented explanations that hide or deny true motivations, causes, or actions. They are the excuses people give themselves for not living up to their own ethical standards.

For example, most of us think of ourselves as honest people, yet studies show that most of us often lie a little or cheat a little. In order to maintain our self-image as good people, we unconsciously invent rationalizations to convince ourselves that what we did was not wrong, not really harmful, not our fault, and so on.

According to Vikas Anand and his colleagues, common rationalizations include: “I know I shouldn’t have done that, but my boss made me so I didn’t have any choice.”  Or, “Others have done worse.”  Or, “That guy deserved to get ripped off.”  Or, “If I hadn’t done it, someone else would have.”

Generally, rationalizations are most effective when they are not recognized as rationalizations. They are dangerous because people are very creative rationalizers and, indeed,, often come to believe their own excuses. As psychologist Joshua Greene notes, “rationalization is the great enemy of moral progress.”

Ultimately, rationalizations dull our sense of responsibility for our wrongful actions. So, if we wish to truly be ethical people, we must carefully and consistently monitor our own rationalizations.

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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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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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