Skip to main content

Moral Myopia

Moral myopia is a distortion of moral vision that keeps ethical issues from coming clearly into focus.

Discussion Questions

1. In your experience, what rationalizations are most likely to undergird moral myopia?

2. Why shouldn’t illegality be the sole determinant of moral behavior?

3. Early in the video, a young man talked about losing his perspective when he set his sights on gaining entrance to the Business Honors Program.   He seemed to suffer from moral myopia, and he implied that he did some things that he regrets.  Can you think of a time when you (or someone whom you know) became so absorbed in reaching a goal that you lost your perspective and did something unethical?  If so, what rationalizations supported your behavior?  What were the consequences of the moral myopia?

4. Think of a current event concerning a scandal that likely would have included moral myopia on the part of some of the people involved.  How do you think that smart, talented people got caught up in a scandal such as this?  What rationalizations do you think that they used to justify their behavior?

5. In the video, two young men talked about an example of organizational myopia in which their university touted the importance of diversity while a key area of student housing was not diverse at all.  Can you think of an instance of organizational myopia, or could you imagine an example of organizational myopia and describe it?

6. In their research, Drumwright and Murphy found that moral myopia was most difficult for business people in advertising to identify at the societal level.  When people look back at our society in 100 years, are there current issues that will make them wince and say, “How could they have been so blind?”

7. Are there things that you have done or could do to avoid moral myopia?

Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as moral myopia. Moral myopia is a distortion of moral vision that keeps ethical issues from coming clearly into focus. This video is a part of the three-video Moral Trilogy package.

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.

The three videos in the Moral Trilogy [Moral Myopia (this video), Moral Muteness, 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 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, “Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal,” illustrates moral myopia in the actions of teachers and administrators who adjusted struggling students’ test scores in an effort to save their school from closure. For a case study illustrating moral muteness, see “Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors,” about an intern who witnesses a donor making a large gift to a non-profit organization under misleading circumstances.

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: conformity bias, ethical fading, moral muteness, moral myopia, obedience to authority, and rationalizations.

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

The latest resource from Ethics Unwrapped is a book, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions, written by Cara Biasucci and Robert Prentice. This accessible book is amply footnoted with behavioral ethics studies and associated research. It also includes suggestions at the end of each chapter for related Ethics Unwrapped videos and case studies. Some instructors use this resource to educate themselves, while others use it in lieu of (or in addition to) a textbook.

Cara Biasucci also recently wrote a chapter on integrating Ethics Unwrapped in higher education, which can be found in the latest edition of Teaching Ethics: Instructional Models, Methods and Modalities for University Studies. The chapter includes examples of how Ethics Unwrapped is used at various universities.

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

An article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduce key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. Published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, it can be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”

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

Another article by Robert Prentice, discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, was published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy. It can 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.

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 Racism.” Businessweek, 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.

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

“There are many people with good intentions out there, people who pledge to abide by honor codes in college and ethics codes in the workplace, who make bad decisions and get caught up in ethical problems and even scandals.

My coauthor, Patrick Murphy, and I have found in our research that some people have moral lapses because of what we have called “moral myopia.” “Moral myopia” is a distortion of moral vision that keeps ethical issues from coming clearly into focus. In fact, moral myopia can be so severe that an individual is blind to ethical lapses and doesn’t see them at all.

Moral myopia can take many forms, but it generally occurs at one of three levels — the individual, the organization, or society. A person with moral myopia may not see a problem with something like fudging the numbers on a timesheet or an expense report or with lying to a supervisor or a client in order to look a little better.

At the organizational level, an advertising executive might say, “I could just never advertise cigarettes,” but if her agency simultaneously has a tobacco account as a client, and she does not see an ethical problem, then she has a form of moral myopia.

We found that moral myopia tends to occur most often at the societal level. Think about an advertising executive. Assume that she knows that ultra-thin models in ads can have a negative impact on young women’s perceptions of beauty and contribute to problems such as eating disorders, but she does not see any connection between the models that she selects for the ads and this societal problem.

How can smart people miss these things that should be so apparent? The culprit seems to be rationalizations. Some of the most common rationalizations that underpin moral myopia are rationalizations such as “If it is legal, it must be moral.” Or “If it is not illegal, it must be ethical.” Listen to what the CEO of a major company said to me:

“I think this is probably one of the most ethical businesses there is. It’s so regulated. Everything that we do has to go through our lawyers to make sure it’s conforming to law, and then our client’s lawyers. It’s really hard to be unethical in this business even if you wanted to.”

He is making a classic mistake. Most all ethicists and legal scholars view the law as the minimum, yet we get comfort from the law. Guess what this CEO’s industry is — advertising. In poll after poll on industry ethics, advertising comes in second to last. The only industry less trusted than advertising is used car sales.

What occurs in companies — and in other types of organizations as well — is that someone gets so caught up in the enthusiasm of her organization and its efforts to reach certain goals that she does not see signs that should be red flags.

And then there is the ostrich syndrome: just sticking your head in the sand and ignoring ethical issues, and we all know that that’s never a solution.

It is important to be aware of moral myopia and the rationalizations that support it, so that the rationalizations will raise red flags and prompt a careful examination. It can be helpful to have trusted advisers outside of our work unit, company, industry, or profession because sometimes an entire group of people can suffer from moral myopia.”