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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Sustainability is the practice of living life in ways that maintain and protect natural resources such as water, air, soil, wetlands, and forests.

Usually, sustainability is environmentally focused. As populations continue to grow, conservation of natural resources and long-term planning are required to ensure that the needs of future generations will be met.

Some people use the term sustainability more broadly to include anything that helps protect an organization’s ability to operate. For example, companies that act sustainably often speak about their Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, activities. Many of these companies report on their Triple Bottom Line, which is their impact on the world socially, environmentally, and financially.

So, while sustainability may encompass more than environmental protection, for the companies and governments that practice sustainability, preserving natural resources is a priority. Indeed, many people believe that we all have a moral obligation to practice sustainability.

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