Referred to as the slippery slope, incrementalism describes how we unconsciously lower our ethical standards over time through small changes in behavior.

Discussion Questions

1. Psychologist Dan Ariely says, “The first dishonest act is the most important one to prevent.” Why does he say that? Do you agree?

2. Can you think of a situation where you were a victim of the slippery slope phenomenon?

3. Have you seen a friend or read about someone in the newspaper who started cutting little corners and was soon in big trouble?

4. Cynthia Cooper, whistleblower of the infamous WorldCom financial fraud, wrote: “People don’t wake up and say, ‘I think I’ll become a criminal today.’ Instead, it’s often a slippery slope and we lose our footing one step at a time.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, has stated that one of the most important lessons of his life is that it is easier to do the right thing a hundred percent of the time than ninety-eight percent of the time.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. What can people do to prevent a mistake from snowballing down the slippery slope?

Case Studies

The FBI & Apple Security vs. Privacy

In December 2015, the FBI attained the iPhone of one of the shooters in an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. As part of the investigation, the FBI attempted to gain access to the data stored on the phone but was unable to penetrate its encryption software. Lawyers for the Obama administration approached Apple for assistance with unlocking the device, but negotiations soon broke down. The Justice Department then obtained a court order compelling Apple to help the FBI unlock the phone. Apple CEO, Timothy Cook, publicly challenged the court in an open letter, sparking an intense debate over the balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy.

Apple and its supporters, including top technology companies such as Google and Facebook, made the case on several fronts that the court order threatened the privacy of all individuals. First, according to Apple, the order effectively required the company to write code, violating its First Amendment right to free speech by forcing the company to “say” something it did not want to say. Previous court cases had already established computer code as legally protected speech. Second, such a backdoor, once created, could fall into the wrong hands and threaten the privacy of all iPhone owners. Finally, it would set a dangerous precedent; law enforcement could repeatedly require businesses such as Apple to assist in criminal investigations, effectively making technology companies an agent of government.

Representatives from both sides of the political aisle offered several arguments in favor of the Justice Department’s efforts and against Apple’s stance. Their central claim was that the U.S. legal system establishes constraints on the government’s access to private information which prevent abuse of search and surveillance powers. At the same time, the law still allows authorities to gain access to information that facilitates prevention and prosecution of criminal activities, from terrorism to drug trafficking to child pornography. Critics of Apple also rejected the slippery slope argument on the grounds that, if Apple cooperated, it could safeguard the code it created and keep it out of the hands of others, including bad actors such as terrorists or criminal groups. Moreover, Apple was accused of being too interested in protecting its brand, and even unpatriotic for refusing to comply with the court order.

Ultimately, the FBI dropped the case because it was able to circumvent the encryption on the iPhone without Apple’s help.

Discussion Questions

1. What harms are potentially produced by the FBI’s demand that Apple help it open an iPhone? What harms are potentially produced by Apple’s refusal to help the FBI?

2. Do you think Apple had a moral obligation to help the FBI open the iPhone in this case because it involved terrorism and a mass shooting? What if the case involved a different type of criminal activity instead, such as drug trafficking? Explain your reasoning.

3. Apple argued that helping to open one iPhone would produce code that could be used to make private information on all iPhones vulnerable, not only to the American government but also to other foreign governments and criminal elements. Do you agree with Apple’s “slippery slope” argument? Does avoiding these harms provide adequate justification for Apple’s refusal to open the phone, even if it could reveal crucial information on the terrorist shooting?

4. Politicians from across the political spectrum, including President Obama and Senator Ted Cruz, argued that technology preventing government access to information should not exist. Do you agree with this limit on personal privacy? Why or why not?

5. Ultimately, the FBI gained access to the iPhone in question without the help of Apple. Does this development change your assessment of the ethical dimensions of Apple’s refusal to help the FBI? Why or why not? Should the FBI share information on how it opened the iPhone with Apple so that it can patch the vulnerability? Explain your reasoning.


Apple Fights Order to Unlock San Bernardino Gunman’s iPhone

How they line up on Apple vs. the FBI

Why Apple Is Right to Challenge an Order to Help the F.B.I.

Apple’s Rotten Core: CEO Tim Cook’s Case for Not Aiding the FBI’s Antiterror Effort Looks Worse than Ever

Obama, at South by Southwest, Calls for Law Enforcement Access in Encryption Fight

U.S. Says It Has Unlocked iPhone Without Apple

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as incrementalism. Referred to as the “slippery slope,” incrementalism describes how we unconsciously lower our ethical standards over time through small changes in behavior. Incrementalism may occur when the ethical dimensions of an issue fade from view. For leaders, incrementalism may have dire effects on the companies or people they oversee.

To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts, watch Ethical Fading and Ethical Leadership, Part 1: Perilous at the Top.

The case study on this page, “The FBI & Apple: Security vs. Privacy,” raises questions about how to strike a balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy, without facing a slippery slope that would open up either side to dangerous consequences. For a related case study about the potential harms caused in the security vs. privacy debate, read “Edward Snowden: Traitor or Hero?”

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

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

Cooper, Cynthia. 2008. Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Gino, Francesca, and Max H. Bazerman. 2009. “When Misconduct Goes Unnoticed: The Acceptability of Gradual Erosion.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (4): 708-719.

Gourevitch, Philip. 2008. “Exposure: The Woman Behind the Camera at Abu Ghraib.” New Yorker, March 24.

Hoyk, Robert, and Paul Hersey. 2008. The Ethical Executive: Becoming Aware of the Root Causes of Unethical Behavior: 45 Psychological Traps That Every One of Us Falls Prey To. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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

“People tend to believe that they have good moral character, and therefore they are confident that when they face issues with moral dimensions they will make good choices. However, Cynthia Cooper, who was the whistleblower in the infamous WorldCom fraud, wrote that, “People do not wake up one day and say, ‘Today is the day I think I will start my life of crime.’ Instead, it is often a slippery slope we slowly lose our ethical footing one step at a time.” This process is what behavioral ethicists call “incrementalism.”

As an example, think about the Abu Ghraib prison site, and the mistreatment of some of the inmates there. A female soldier wrote: “In the beginning, you see someone naked and you see underwear on their head and you are like, ‘Oh, that is pretty bad — I cannot believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. ‘Well, it seems like the day before was not so bad.’”

This is the slippery slope at work. And if we are not careful we can easily go from minor transgressions in our workplace, such as taking a few office supplies home for personal use or lightly padding our expense account, to more serious transgressions.

Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman, who are psychologists at the Harvard Business School, refer to it as the “boiling frog syndrome.” It is said that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will jump out. But if you place him in a pot of cool water and gradually turn up the heat, he will slowly boil to death. I do not think Gino and Bazerman actually experimented on frogs, but they observed humans, and found that we unconsciously lower the bar over time through small changes in ethicality.

Think about it: most multi-million dollar securities frauds start with executives fudging fairly small numbers but over time those numbers grow through incrementalism. An officer who was caught up in the Enron scandal later said, “You did it once, it smelled bad. He did it again, it did not smell bad.” That is incrementalism at work.”