Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Veil of Ignorance

All people are biased by their situations, so how can people agree on a “social contract” to govern how the world should work.

Philosopher John Rawls suggests that we should imagine we sit behind a veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing who we are and identifying with our personal circumstances. By being ignorant of our circumstances, we can more objectively consider how societies should operate.

Two primary principles supplement Rawls’ veil of ignorance: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

According to the liberty principle, the social contract should try to ensure that everyone enjoys the maximum liberty possible without intruding upon the freedom of others.

According to the difference principle, the social contract should guarantee that everyone an equal opportunity to prosper. In other words, if there are any social or economic differences in the social contract, they should help those who are the worst off. And, any advantages in the contract should be available to everyone.

So, according to Rawls, approaching tough issues through a veil of ignorance and applying these principles can help us decide more fairly how the rules of society should be structured. And fairness, as Rawls and many others believe, is the essence of justice.

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Self-Serving Bias

The self-serving bias is the tendency people have to seek out information and use it in ways that advance their self-interest. In other words, people often unconsciously make decisions that serve themselves in ways that other people might view as indefensible or unethical.

Studies show that we can easily see how the self-serving bias affects others’ actions, but we have difficulty realizing how it affects our own.

For example, doctors tend to believe that they are immune from the influence of gifts they receive from pharmaceutical companies. But studies show those gifts have a significant effect on what medications doctors prescribe. One study found that 64% of doctors believed that the freebies they received from pharmaceutical companies influenced other doctors. However, only 16% of doctors thought it affected their own actions.

So, the self-serving bias often blinds us to the ways in which we are prejudice in favor of ourselves. Indeed, it can cause even the most well-intentioned of us to completely overlook our own bad actions.

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Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error is the tendency people have to overemphasize personal characteristics and ignore situational factors in judging others’ behavior. Because of the fundamental attribution error, we tend to believe that others do bad things because they are bad people. We’re inclined to ignore situational factors that might have played a role.

For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, our first thought might be “What a jerk!” instead of considering the possibility that the driver is rushing someone to the airport. On the flip side, when we cut someone off in traffic, we tend to convince ourselves that we had to do so.  We focus on situational factors, like being late to a meeting, and ignore what our behavior might say about our own character.

For example, in one study when something bad happened to someone else, subjects blamed that person’s behavior or personality 65% of the time. But, when something bad happened to the subjects, they blamed themselves only 44% of the time, blaming the situation they were in much more often.

So, the fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge others harshly while letting ourselves off the hook at the same time by rationalizing our own unethical behavior.

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Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest arises when what is in a person’s best interest is not in the best interest of another person or organization to which that individual owes loyalty.

For example, an employee may simultaneously help himself but hurt his employer by taking a bribe to purchase inferior goods for his company’s use.

A conflict of interest can also exist when a person must answer to two different individuals or groups whose needs are at odds with each other. In this case, serving one individual or group will injure the other.

In business and law, having a “fiduciary responsibility” to someone is known as having a “duty of loyalty.” For example, auditors owe a duty of loyalty to investors who rely upon the financial reports that the auditors certify. But auditors are hired and paid directly by the companies whose reports they review. The duty of loyalty an auditor owes to investors can be at odds with the auditor’s need to keep the company – its client – happy, as well as with the company’s desire to look like a safe investment.

So, those of us who wish to be ethical people must consciously avoid situations where we benefit ourselves by being disloyal to others.

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