Ethics Unwrapped Blog

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.

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In-group/Out-group

An in-group is a group of people who identify with each other based on a variety of factors including gender, race, religion, or geography. Our tendency to distinguish between in-group and out-group members has moral implications.

People may harm those whom they perceive to be in an out-group in ways that they would not harm in-group members. For example, one study showed that when soccer fans viewed fans of their own team being harmed, they felt empathy. But when they viewed fans of a rival team being similarly harmed, they felt pleasure.

Likewise, people tend to make different moral judgments based on in-group and out-group distinctions. When someone in our in-group misbehaves, the natural reaction is often to dismiss the behavior as no big deal. But when someone in our out-group does the same thing, we will tend to judge the behavior much more harshly.

Indeed, when automatic in-group and out-group distinctions replace conscious and thoughtful reflection, we are more likely to harm one another and behave unethically.

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Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people who need to make a decision wait for someone else to act instead. The more people involved, the more likely it is that each person will do nothing, believing someone else from the group will probably respond.

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané set up an experiment where a distress call made it appear that a person nearby had suffered an injury. When subjects heard the cry, and thought they were the only ones who heard it, 85% of them helped.  But if subjects thought there was another person who heard the call too, only 62% helped. And if subjects thought that four other people also heard the cry for help, just 31% took action.

Diffusion of responsibility makes people feel less pressure to act because they believe, correctly or incorrectly, that someone else will do so. And, when we don’t feel responsible for a situation, we feel less guilty when we do nothing to help.

So, in this way, diffusion of responsibility keeps us from paying attention to our own conscience.

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