Moral Muteness

Moral muteness is when we communicate in ways that obscure our moral beliefs and commitments, or don’t voice moral sentiments at all.

Discussion Questions

1. Why shouldn’t the client always be right except in situations that involve illegal behavior?

2. Think of a time when you should have spoken up about something that conflicted with your values, but instead you remained silent. What rationalizations did you use to justify not speaking up? What were the consequences of your not speaking up?

3. Think of a time when you did speak up about something that conflicted with your values.  What motivated you to speak up?  It often takes courage to speak up; what enabled you to have the courage to speak up?

4. In the video, a fraternity member described a situation in which he did not speak up to object to hazing in his fraternity because the people doing the hazing were his friends, and he did not want any harm to come to his friends.  What would a real friend do in a situation like the one he described?  What would he say; what arguments would he make?

5. In the video, a young woman referred to a friend of hers who writes essays for other students for money, which is academic fraud. What would a real friend do in a situation such as this? What would a real friend say; what arguments would she use?

6. The video makes a distinction between a “please-o-holic” and a trusted business adviser. What do you see as the characteristics of a trusted business advisor? (Note that the components of trust are typically competence, integrity, and compassion.)

Case Studies

Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors

Jenny, a university student studying public relations, accepted an internship position in the fundraising department at Casa Tia Maria.* Casa Tia Maria is a non-profit organization in the United States that provides shelter for Central American immigrants while they look for permanent housing and employment. In addition to shelter, Casa Tia Maria provides food, clothing, and English classes. Most immigrants stay at the shelter for several months before securing permanent housing.

After Jenny had worked at Casa Tia Maria for two weeks, Mary, the director of development, asked Jenny to accompany her to a fundraising dinner at a luxurious downtown hotel. Many wealthy and influential individuals were in attendance. After most of the guests had left, Mary and Jenny were approached by Robert, a Texas oil baron and one of the state’s biggest philanthropists. Robert was known to donate to almost any cause as long as he found it to be what he considered “morally sound” and to the benefit of “hard-working Americans.”

Mary and Robert talked for a few minutes about Casa Tia Maria and its specific needs. Jenny noticed, however, that most of Mary’s answers to Robert’s questions about the shelter’s clients were vague. When Robert said that he was happy to lend a hand to any poor American citizen, Jenny knew he clearly did not understand that immigrants, who were not U.S. citizens, were the shelter’s clientele. Mary said nothing to correct Robert’s misperception.

Robert pulled a checkbook out of his jacket and wrote a substantial check. As he handed it to Mary, he said, “I am so pleased to be able to help hard-working Americans.” He then turned quickly and walked away.

*This case study is based on actual experiences of a university student. Names and situations have been changed, but the case study reflects the key ethical dilemmas the student faced.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the reasons and rationalizations that could prompt Jenny to be morally mute in this situation? Alternatively, what could prompt Jenny to not be morally mute? Explain.

2. Who are the stakeholders, and what is at stake for each party? How might each influence Jenny’s actions? Explain.

3. Assume Jenny decides to break away from moral muteness, exercise moral imagination, and give voice to her values. What do you think she should do and why? Your answer should include, but not be limited to, the arguments that Jenny should make, to whom, and in what context. Present a plan of action.

4. As this case demonstrates, people in nonprofit organizations are far from immune from ethical issues. Do you think that the nonprofit setting affects any aspects of your responses to the above questions? Explain.

5. Do you think that employees in nonprofit organizations are more likely to fall prey to any particular biases or pressures? Do you think that people generally have higher expectations for employees of nonprofit organizations than for employees of for-profit corporations? Explain your reasoning.

6. Have you ever been an intern or employee in a situation similar to Jenny’s? What was the situation? What did you do and why?


How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination

Values-Driven Leadership Development: Where We Have Been and Where We Could Go

Giving Voice to Values Curriculum

Teaching Behavioral Ethics

Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as moral muteness. Moral muteness is when we communicate in ways that obscure our moral beliefs and commitments, or don’t voice moral sentiments at all.

For teaching moral myopia and moral muteness, instructors can often tie in current events or scandals that likely involved moral myopia and moral muteness on the part of a number of people. Examples of moral myopia and moral muteness that involve illegal behavior are often some of the most dramatic. However, it is important to emphasize that moral myopia and moral muteness do not always lead to criminal behavior, and they are not limited to situations that involve breaking the law.

This video is a part of the three-video Moral Trilogy package. The three videos in the Moral Trilogy—Moral Myopia, Moral Muteness (this video), and Moral Imagination—are intended to be used together. Moral myopia and moral muteness often reinforce each other, while breaking free of moral myopia and moral muteness can enable one to develop moral imagination.

Moral myopia and moral muteness reinforce the concepts covered in the documentary In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story and its accompanying short videos. These videos are about former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of a number of crimes and served time in a federal prison. In the documentary, Abramoff asserts that he did not realize that he was involved in highly illegal and unethical lobbying activities as he was committing the crimes, indicating a severe form of moral myopia. He also states that he did not talk about these activities with people who might have provided him with ethical counsel, indicating moral muteness.

To learn about the types of rationalizations that support moral myopia and moral muteness, watch Conformity Bias, Obedience to Authority, Self-serving Bias, and Tangible & Abstract.

Ideas related to mitigating moral myopia and moral muteness and encouraging moral imagination are very much in sync with the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) approach created by Mary C. Gentile. Watch the GVV video series for a solid introduction to this approach. Visit the GVV website for more case studies and readings. Four GVV case studies were written by Professor Minette Drumwright and some of her students to help undergraduates recognize moral myopia and moral muteness and to help them understand how to give voice to their values and exercise moral imagination (See “Part-time Job with a Full-time Challenge,” “Market Research Deception,” “Student Privileges with Strings Attached,” and “Online Identities (A) & (B)”).

The case study on this page, “Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors,” explores an instance of moral muteness when an intern witnesses a donor making a large gift to a non-profit organization under misleading circumstances. For a case study illustrating moral myopia, see “Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal,” in which teachers and administrators adjust struggling students’ test scores in an effort to save their school from closure.

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, diffusion of responsibility, integrity, moral imagination, moral muteness, moral myopia, and obedience to authority.

The three behavioral ethics concepts in the Moral Trilogy and many of the rationalizations that underpin them are described and documented in an article published in the Journal of Advertising by Minette Drumwright and Patrick Murphy (see Additional Resources).

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

Academic Articles:

Bird, Frederick B., and James A. Waters. 1989. “The Moral Muteness Of Managers.” California Management Review 32 (1): 73-88.

Drumwright, Minette E., and Patrick E. Murphy. 2004. “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics: Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination.” Journal of Advertising 33 (2): 7-24.

Gentile, Mary C. 2010. “Keeping Your Colleagues Honest: How to Challenge Unethical Behavior at Work—And Prevail.” Harvard Business Review 88 (3): 114-117.

Gentile, Mary C. 2010. Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Prentice, Robert. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics And Biases.” Journal Of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.

Werhane, Patricia H. 1999. Moral Imagination And Management Decision-Making. New York: Oxford University Press.


See the Giving Voice To Values (GVV) Curriculum for cases that provide evidence of Moral Myopia and Moral Muteness.  All GVV curriculum materials are free to instructors and students here:

Especially see the GVV cases written by Minette E. Drumwright and her students, “Part-Time Job With A Full-Time Challenge,” “Market Research Deception,” “Student Privileges With Strings Attached,” and “Online Identities (A) & (B).”

News Stories On Scandals:

Barrett, Paul M. 2014. “The Scandal Bowl: Tar Heels Football, Academic Fraud, and Implicit RacismBusinessweek, January 2.

Belson, Ken. 2012. “Sandusky’s Trial Begins With Graphic Testimony New York Times, June 11.

Boren, Cindy. 2013. “A Brief History of Lance Armstrong Denying Doping Allegations Washington Post, January 14.

Associated Press. 2013. “Lance Armstrong Doping Denials Over the Years.” Huffington Post, January 16.

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

Minette Drumwright, Ph.D., M.B.A.
Department of Advertising and Public Relations
Moody College of Communication
The University of Texas at Austin

“We know problems occur when people don’t see ethical issues. And there are also problems that develop when people know deep down that something is wrong, but they find some way to rationalize not speaking up about it. Scholars Frederick Bird and James Waters refer to this as “moral muteness.” Moral Muteness is when people either do not voice moral sentiments or they communicate in ways that obscure their moral beliefs and commitments.

In a study of people working in advertising agencies, Patrick Murphy and I found that moral muteness was supported by a number of rationalizations, and we think that these rationalizations are applicable to business more generally. For example, one common rationalization was that ethics is bad for business. As one person said: “If you bring up ethics, people will think that you don’t have business savvy.” They say, “If you’re going to talk like that, go run a church.”

The fact of the matter is, when push comes to shove, many people would prefer to win than to be ethical, but this is often a short-term approach that can actually hurt both the individual and the organization in the long term.

Moral muteness can be supported by another kind of rationalization that involves a competing goal — something that seems like a higher good that trumps moral concerns. But usually, the analysis of the other goal is superficial. For example, the rationalization “The client is always right” can lead to a please-o-holic syndrome in which you don’t tell your client things they don’t want to hear — like moral concerns. There is a big difference in a trusted business advisor and a please-o-holic. Trusted business advisors sometimes have to give uncomfortable advice in order to do their jobs well. Please-o-holics may feel like they are doing their jobs well in the short term, but in the long run, research shows that a different type of relationship is more productive and more profitable.

Self-interest is a particularly compelling rationalization that can mute moral concerns, and rationalizations related to self-interest can take many forms, such as “I don’t want to rock the boat because I could make some enemies.” “I need to be seen as a team player rather than a tattle tale.” “I don’t want to mess with a winning formula.” Often rationalizations such as these frame self-interest in short-term rather than long-term ways.

One way to avoid moral muteness, obviously, is to make a habit of talking about issues with people whom we trust. When we raise concern, we can position ourselves as someone who is trying to help the organization, to protect it from problems, rather than as someone who is tying to slap hands or judge. Often making persuasive arguments by illustrating the potential consequences for individuals and for the organization can be helpful. And it is important to view our role as that of a trusted business advisor — an indispensable professional in any organization.”