Ethical Fading

Ethical fading occurs when we are so focused on other aspects of a decision that its ethical dimensions fade from view.

Discussion Questions

1. Can you explain the concept of ethical fading and perhaps give an example of when it happened to you?

2. Can you think of a situation where you were so intent upon pleasing an authority figure, fitting in with your friends, or achieving a goal that you failed to give an ethical issue your full attention?  Did that situation cause you regret?

3. Can you think of an example of a friend who might have been the victim of ethical fading?  Or a person in the news recently?

4. Is it plausible to you that when we think we are engaged in ethical reasoning often times we are merely justifying decisions we have already made?

5. How can we as well-meaning individuals guard against being the victims of ethical fading?

6. How can organizations help their employees to guard against ethical fading?

Case Studies

Krogh & the Watergate Scandal

Egil “Bud” Krogh was a young lawyer who worked for the Nixon administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s as deputy assistant to the president. Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the “Pentagon Papers,” which contained sensitive information regarding the United States’ progress in the Vietnam War. President Nixon himself tasked Krogh with stopping leaks of top-secret information. And Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, instructed Krogh to investigate and discredit Ellsberg, telling Krogh that the leak was damaging to national security.

Krogh and another staffer assembled a covert team that became known as the “plumbers” (to stop leaks), which was broadly supervised by Ehrlichman. In September 1971, the plumbers’ first break-in was at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist; they were looking for documents that would discredit Ellsberg based on mental health. Reflecting on the meeting in which the break-in was proposed and approved, Krogh later wrote, “I listened intently. At no time did I or anyone else there question whether the operation was necessary, legal or moral. Convinced that we were responding legitimately to a national security crisis, we focused instead on the operational details: who would do what, when and where.”

The break-in, which was illegal, was also unproductive. Nothing was found to discredit Ellsberg. Importantly, the ties between this break-in and Nixon were much more direct and easy to establish than the ties between Nixon and the Watergate break-in. Krogh later pled guilty to his role in the break-in and was sentenced to two-to-six years in prison. At his sentencing, Krogh explained that national security is “subject to a wide range of definitions, a factor that makes all the more essential a painstaking approach to the definition of national security in any given instance.” Judge Gesell, sentencing Krogh to serve six months in prison and remain on unsupervised probation for another two years, said, “In acknowledging your guilt, you have made no effort, as you very well might have, to place the primary blame on others who initiated and who approved the undertaking. A wholly improper, illegal task was assigned to you by higher authority and you carried it out because of a combination of loyalty and I believe a degree of vanity, thereby compromising your obligations as a lawyer and a public servant.”

Krogh, who cooperated with the Watergate prosecutors and never bargained for leniency, served only four-and-a-half months of his sentence. The Washington State Supreme Court disbarred Krogh in 1975, although he successfully petitioned to be reinstated in 1980 and became partner in the Seattle law firm Krogh & Leonard. Krogh has spent much of the past 45 years supporting legal ethics education and writing and lecturing on the topic of integrity. Writing for The New York Times in 2007, he stated, “I finally realized that what had gone wrong in the Nixon White House was a meltdown in personal integrity. Without it, we failed to understand the constitutional limits on presidential power and comply with statutory law.”

Discussion Questions

1. How was ethical fading a part of Egil Krogh’s eventual journey to prison? Explain.

2. At the time the decision was made, what factors caused the morality of the decision to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to fade from view?

3. Krogh has said that he went into his White House job “with tremendous enthusiasm and commitment—almost to a fault.” Do you think this is reflective of his actions in the Nixon administration? Why or why not?

4. In what ways did authority figures affect Krogh’s actions? Explain.

5. How might one guard against ethical fading in a high-pressure work environment?

6. Krogh believes that the Bush administration’s policies and practices regarding torture during the Iraq War reflect the same types of decision-making errors that he was guilty of regarding the plumbers’ operations. Do you agree? Why or why not?


Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It

The Whole Truth: The Watergate Conspiracy

Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan

Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril

The Break-In That History Forgot

Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House

Egil Krogh’s Lessons Learned

Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years

Being Nixon: A Man Divided

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon

Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices

With its highly coveted line of consumer electronics, Apple has a cult following among loyal consumers. During the 2014 holiday season, 74.5 million iPhones were sold. Demand like this meant that Apple was in line to make over $52 billion in profits in 2015, the largest annual profit ever generated from a company’s operations. Despite its consistent financial performance year over year, Apple’s robust profit margin hides a more complicated set of business ethics. Similar to many products sold in the U.S., Apple does not manufacture most its goods domestically. Most of the component sourcing and factory production is done overseas in conditions that critics have argued are dangerous to workers and harmful to the environment.

For example, tin is a major component in Apple’s products and much of it is sourced in Indonesia. Although there are mines that source tin ethically, there are also many that do not. One study found workers—many of them children—working in unsafe conditions, digging tin out by hand in mines prone to landslides that could bury workers alive. About 70% of the tin used in electronic devices such as smartphones and tablets comes from these more dangerous, small-scale mines. An investigation by the BBC revealed how perilous these working conditions can be. In interviews with miners, a 12-year-old working at the bottom of a 70-foot cliff of sand said: “I worry about landslides. The earth slipping from up there to the bottom. It could happen.”

Apple defends its practices by saying it only has so much control over monitoring and regulating its component sources. The company justifies its sourcing practices by saying that it is a complex process, with tens of thousands of miners selling tin, many of them through middle-men. In a statement to the BBC, Apple said “the simplest course of action would be for Apple to unilaterally refuse any tin from Indonesian mines. That would be easy for us to do and would certainly shield us from criticism. But that would also be the lazy and cowardly path, since it would do nothing to improve the situation. We have chosen to stay engaged and attempt to drive changes on the ground.”

In an effort for greater transparency, Apple has released annual reports detailing their work with suppliers and labor practices. While more recent investigations have shown some improvements to suppliers’ working conditions, Apple continues to face criticism as consumer demand for iPhones and other products continues to grow.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think Apple should be responsible for ethical lapses made by individuals further down its supply chain? Why or why not?

2. Should Apple continue to work with the suppliers in an effort to change practices, or should they stop working with every supplier, even the conscientious ones, to make sure no “bad apples” are getting through? Explain your reasoning.

3. Do you think consumers should be expected to take into account the ethical track record of companies when making purchases? Why or why not?

4. Can you think of other products or brands that rely on ethically questionable business practices? Do you think consumers are turned off by their track record or are they largely indifferent to it? Explain.

5. Would knowing that a product was produced under ethically questionable conditions affect your decision to purchase it? Explain with examples.

6. If you were part of a third-party regulating body, how would you deal with ethically questionable business practices of multinational corporations like Apple? Would you feel obligated to do something, or do you think the solution rests with the companies themselves? Explain your reasoning.


Apple ‘failing to protect Chinese factory workers’

How Apple could make a $53 billion profit this year

Global Apple iPhone sales from 3rd quarter 2007 to 2nd quarter 2016 (in million units)

Despite successes, labor violations still haunt Apple

Reports – Supplier Responsibility – Apple

Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?

This case study examines controversial reporting by the sports blog Deadspin over a personal misconduct case involving NFL star Brett Favre. It highlights current debates surrounding the ethics of sports blogging as illustrated by the issue of paying sources for information, i.e. “checkbook journalism.”

The full case study, discussion questions, and additional resources can be accessed through the link below, which will open a new tab at The Texas Program in Sports & Media website.

Full TPSM Case: Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as ethical fading. Ethical fading occurs when we are so focused on other aspects of a decision that its ethical dimensions fade from view. Ethical fading can happen in a variety of contexts and for many different reasons. For example, we may fail to see the ethical dimensions of a decision depending on the “role” we’re playing at work or in our broader lives. Or, the way in which we “frame” a situation may omit or obscure the ethical dimensions. Or, we may experience “moral myopia” and keep ethical issues from coming into focus.

To learn about a related behavioral ethics concept, watch Incrementalism, Framing, Moral Myopia, and Role Morality.

The case studies on this page illustrate how individuals and organizations may face issues of ethical fading. “Krogh & the Watergate Scandal” shows how a promising young lawyer in the Nixon Administration came to play a part in the Watergate break-in. “Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices” questions whether the tech company properly addresses the ethical issues of other companies further down its supply chain. “Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?” examines the effects of paying for information in sports journalism. For a related case study about the teachers and school administrators in Atlanta who gradually participated in changing struggling students’ test scores, read “Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal.”

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: ethical fading, framing, incrementalism, and moral myopia.

Behavioral ethics draws upon behavioral psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do. Much behavioral ethics research addresses the question of why good people do bad things. Many behavioral ethics concepts are explored in detail in Concepts Unwrapped, as well as in the video case study In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story. Anyone who watches all (or even a good part) of these videos will have a solid introduction to behavioral ethics.

Additional Resources

Abramoff, Jack. 2011. Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist. Washington, D.C.: WND Books.

Bandura, Albert. 1990. “Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, edited by Walter Reich, 161-191. Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

Bazerman, Max H., and Ann E. Tenbrunsel. 2011. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage Books.

Paharia, Neeru, and Kathleen D. Vohs. 2013. “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute: Cognition Can Both Help and Hurt Moral Motivated Reasoning. Organization Behavior and Human Decision Processes 121 (1): 81-88.

Tenbrunsel, Ann E., and David M. Messick. 2004. “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior.” Social Justice Research 17 (2): 223-236.

Zhong, Chen-Bo, and Katie Liljenquist. 2006. “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing.” Science 313 (5792): 1451-1452.

The latest teaching resource from Ethics Unwrapped is an article, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice, that describes the basics of behavioral ethics, introduces the videos and supporting materials along with teaching examples, and includes data on the efficacy of Ethics Unwrapped for improving ethics pedagogy across disciplines. It was published in Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy (Vol. 1, August 2018), and can be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics (Using “Ethics Unwrapped” Videos and Educational Materials).”

For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making

A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics

An article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?”

A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Transcript of Narration

Written and Narrated by

Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department 
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin

“In the book he wrote about his crimes, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff – Casino Jack – asked: “What was I thinking?” This is a familiar refrain among white-collar criminals. Why can they see their ethical failings in retrospect, but not earlier when it really mattered?

Part of the explanation is what professors Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick call ethical fading. Imagine that you work for a company in internal audit and your boss asks you to inappropriately massage some earnings numbers. And it happens to be the week that the company is deciding whom to lay off in the most recent round of cutbacks. And you want to keep your job, of course. It is possible that you will not even notice the ethical dimensions of the action you have just been asked to take by your boss. These ethical dimensions may just fade from view.

Ethical decisions are often made almost automatically by the parts of our brain that process emotions. Only later do our cognitive processes kick in. When we think we are reasoning to an ethical conclusion, often all we are really doing is searching for rationalizations to support the decision that we have already made instinctively.

As time distances us from the decision we have made, the ethical issues may start to reappear. We may feel the need to reduce the cognitive dissonance that results from the conflict between our view of ourselves as ethical people and the unethical action that we have committed. Studies show that offering people an opportunity to wash their hands after behaving immorally is often enough to restore their self-image. There is a reason we talk about starting with a “clean” slate.

Even if our minds cannot cause an ethical issue to fade from view, a process known as moral disengagement can mitigate the sting of an unethical decision. Moral disengagement is a process by which our brain enables us to turn off our usual ethical standards when we feel the psychological need to do so, just like we would turn off a TV when a show comes on that makes us uncomfortable.

Studies show, for example, that people who want to buy an article of clothing that they know was manufactured with child labor will suddenly view child labor as less of a societal problem than they thought before. Moral disengagement allows us to suspend our personal codes of ethics, yet continue to view ourselves as ethical people.

There is no easy cure for ethical fading and moral disengagement. Our only option is to be vigilant in looking out for ethical issues and equally circumspect in monitoring our own actions and rationalizations.”