Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Incrementalism

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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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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