Tangible & Abstract

Tangible and abstract describes how we react more to vivid, immediate inputs than to ones removed in time and space, meaning we can pay insufficient attention to the adverse consequences our actions have on others.

Discussion Questions

1. Studies show that people tend to be more upset about the death of a pet than the deaths of thousands of people in a faraway place like Africa.  Is that consistent with your experience?

2. Charities find that they can stimulate more giving by describing the case of a single, named victim of a tragedy (earthquake, flood, war, etc.) than by presenting statistics about thousands of victims.  Does that make sense to you?  Should things work that way?

3. Assume that an admissions officer at a university meets with an applicant who is nice, attractive, polite, earnest, and marginally qualified for admission.  Will it be easier to give that applicant the last slot in the class if the officer knows the identity of the applicant who will now be denied that last slot or if the officer does not know who that second person is?

4. Can you think of an instance where you made a decision to act (or not to act) that you might have made differently had the consequences of your decision been made more vivid to you?

5. Can you develop a hypothetical scenario in a business setting where the “tangible & abstract” phenomenon might help cause someone to act unethically?

6. How can a CFO or an investment banker or a manager of a chemical company protect themselves from the potentially odious impact of “the tangible and the abstract” on their ethical choices?

Case Studies

Climate Change & the Paris Deal

In December 2015, representatives from 195 nations gathered in Paris and signed an international agreement to address climate change, which many observers called a breakthrough for several reasons. First, the fact that a deal was struck at all was a major accomplishment, given the failure of previous climate change talks. Second, unlike previous climate change accords that focused exclusively on developed countries, this pact committed both developed and developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the voluntary targets established by nations in the Paris climate deal fall considerably short of what many scientists deem necessary to achieve the stated goal of the negotiations: limiting the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, since the established targets are voluntary, they may be lowered or abandoned due to political resistance, short-term economic crises, or simply social fatigue or disinterest.

As philosophy professor Stephen Gardiner aptly explains, the challenge of climate change presents the world with several fundamental ethical dilemmas. It is simultaneously a profoundly global, intergenerational, and philosophical problem. First, from a global perspective, climate change presents the world with a collective action problem: all countries have a collective interest in controlling global carbon emissions. But each individual country also has incentives to over-consume (in this case, to emit as much carbon as necessary) in response to societal demands for economic growth and prosperity.

Second, as an intergenerational problem, the consequences of actions taken by the current generation will have the greatest impact on future generations yet to be born. Thus, the current generation must forego benefits today in order to protect against possibly catastrophic costs in the future. This tradeoff is particularly difficult for developing countries. They must somehow achieve economic growth in the present to break out of a persistent cycle of poverty, while limiting the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere to protect future generations. The fact that prosperous, developed countries (such as the U.S. and those in Europe) arguably created the current climate problems during their previous industrial economic development in the 19th and 20th centuries complicates the tradeoffs between economic development and preventing further climate change.

Finally, the global and intergenerational nature of climate change points to the underlying philosophical dimensions of the problem. While it is intuitive that the current generation has some ethical responsibility to leave an inhabitable world to future generations, the extent of this obligation is less clear. The same goes for individual countries who have pledged to reduce carbon emissions to help protect environmental health, but then face real economic and social costs when executing those pledges. Developing nations faced with these costs may encounter further challenges as the impact of climate change will most likely fall disproportionally on the poor, thus also raising issues of fairness and inequality.

Discussion Questions

1. On the one hand, what harms are potentially produced by failing to take action to control climate change? On the other hand, what harms are potentially produced by acting to lower carbon emissions?

2. To what extent do humans have a moral responsibility to future generations that are yet to be born? Explain your reasoning.

3. Arguably, actions to cut carbon emissions and curb global warming right now have real costs for certain segments of the global population while the benefits of such actions are more abstract. How should we balance the tangible costs in the present and abstract consequences in the future when addressing climate change? Explain.

4. If you were in a position to recommend environmental policy changes or actions, what would you advocate and why?

5. Do prosperous countries have a greater responsibility to take action and bear more of the costs of controlling climate change than developing countries? Explain your reasoning.

6. Considering that the negative impacts of climate change will likely fall disproportionally on the poor, yet developing countries must often increase consumption and emissions to achieve greater economic growth, do you think developing nations should be exempt from actions to control climate change? Why or why not?

7. The climate change agreement approved in Paris is based on voluntary goals and pledges by participating countries. Would it be ethically permissible to impose carbon emission goals on countries and individuals and enforce them with penalties? Explain your reasoning.


Ebola & American Intervention

In 2014, a highly contagious and deadly virus, Ebola, emerged in Western Africa, primarily in the countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The epidemic caught world health authorities off guard, ultimately killing thousands and threatening to develop into a worldwide epidemic. A broad range of organizations and politicians, from health care authorities and Doctors Without Borders to the World Health Organization and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, made dramatic appeals for American military intervention. The legacy of colonial ties affected the perceptions of responsibility for provision of assistance. The United Kingdom took charge of relief efforts in Sierra Leone, France in Guinea, and the United States in Liberia, a state founded in the 19th century by former African-American slaves.

After initially receiving criticism for acting too cautiously, President Obama responded by sending over 3,000 military personnel, mostly medics and engineers, to Liberia. It was the largest American intervention ever in a global health crisis. President Obama justified this decision by arguing that the United States had an ethical obligation as a leader of the global community to address the humanitarian crisis in Liberia as well as a security interest in controlling the epidemic in Africa so that it did not spread to the U.S. and other countries. According to President Obama, only the American military had the resources, hierarchical structure, and discipline to carry out such a largescale effort.

Objections to the “militarization” of this relief effort came in several forms. Conservative critics argued that militaries are for fighting and winning wars, not providing humanitarian assistance. Others argued the humanitarian effort could morph into security and military engagement. David Ridenhour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, worried that American soldiers could be faced with difficult moral dilemmas, such as “having to shoot unarmed, possibly infected Liberian civilians or allow Ebola to spread.” Some critics were concerned that U.S. military intervention jeopardized the principle of neutrality that health relief organizations try to maintain. Historian Andrew Bacevich argued that a military response to a humanitarian crisis, even if successful, would mask and perpetuate gross misallocation of resources toward building military capacity rather than address global health care needs.

Ultimately, the Ebola epidemic was brought under control in Liberia and the rest of Western Africa. The United States military built 11 treatment units and the government expended hundreds of millions of dollars in the relief effort. However, as The New York Times reported, there is limited evidence that these efforts played any significant role. Only 28 Ebola patients were treated in the 11 treatment centers built by the military. The number of new Ebola cases peaked at 635 the week after President Obama announced the military intervention, but dropped to just over 100 by the time the first medical unit was opened. By the time the additional units were operational, Ebola cases had dwindled to less than 50.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think the United States is ethically required to respond to epidemics and other health crises in foreign countries? Why or why not?

2. Should the U.K., France, and the U.S. have concentrated their relief efforts along historical colonial lines during the Ebola outbreak? In general, do the U.S. and other imperialist nations have particular ethical responsibilities to aid their former colonies? Explain your reasoning.

3. Do you think it is ethically permissible to deploy the U.S. military in humanitarian relief efforts? What are the potential harms and benefits of such a decision? Explain.

4. Do you think that President Obama’s response to the Ebola epidemic was too cautious, sufficient, or too ambitious? What policy would you have followed if you were in his position? Explain your reasoning.

5. Many of the medical treatment facilities that were built by the American military were never utilized to treat Ebola victims. How, if at all, does this outcome affect your judgment of President Obama’s response?


Teaching Notes

This video introduces the behavioral ethics bias known as the tangible and abstract. Tangible and abstract describes how we react more to vivid, immediate inputs than to ones removed in time and space, meaning we can pay insufficient attention to the adverse consequences our actions have on others. Being aware of the effects requires keeping one’s ethical antennae up and using a certain amount of moral imagination to envision how the consequences of one’s decisions might ripple out across society as a rock dropped in a pond creates ripples across the water.

As noted in the video, decision making is naturally impacted more by vivid, tangible, contemporaneous factors than by factors that are removed in time and space. People are more moved by relatively minor injuries to their family, friends, neighbors, and even pets than to the starvation of millions abroad. This perspective on decision making can cause problems that have ethical dimensions.

The video gives several examples. Auditors who certify financial statements and stock analysts who put forward investment advice are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon because the victims of their inaccurate financial statements or errant investment advice are most likely nameless, faceless members of a large investing public who, one may easily rationalize, should have diversified portfolios anyway.

Engineers at Ford who put the Pinto on the market despite the car flunking numerous crash tests, might also have been affected by this phenomenon. If they did not put the car on the market, it would have been easy to see the immediate impact all around them: the company and their colleagues might have suffered humiliation and job losses. But if they decided (as they did) to put the car on the market despite its safety flaws, the victims of any accidents would be nameless and faceless. Their injuries were only hypothetical—mere impersonal future statistics.

If people look only at the short-term impact of their decisions in the immediate area, they may well act unethically in a way that has serious adverse effects upon many people. To refuse to recall a defective product might save money for the company in the short run, but leaving a dangerous product on the market might harm hundreds or thousands in the long-run.

Related to the concept of the tangible and abstract is the notion of moral distance. Pressing a button in an airplane to drop a bomb from 30,000 feet in the sky may weigh less on the conscience than pulling a trigger on a rifle to kill a clearly visible human being not far away. The farther a person is located from the impact of the consequences of his or her actions, the easier it is to act immorally. Since capital markets are supposedly so efficient that individual players can have little direct impact, they often feel very distant from the potential victims of their misdeeds. As business is increasingly done at a global level, the impact of decisions regarding a company’s supply chain and its impact on workers thousands of miles away may increasingly seem like something a businessperson can ignore. But when, as happened in 2013 in Bangladesh, a factory building collapses, 1,100 workers are killed, and headlines appear around the world, it becomes clear that a different decision should have been made.

To learn about related ethics concepts, watch Moral Imagination, Causing Harm, and Ethical Fading.

The case studies on this page examine the abstract nature—but very tangible consequences—of making policy decisions that deal with climate change and the global health epidemic Ebola. “Climate Change & the Paris Deal” explores how the actions (or inactions) of today’s populations will have tangible effects on future generations. “Ebola & American Intervention” raises questions over the effects of the U.S. military’s humanitarian efforts during the breakout of Ebola in Western Africa in 2014. For a case study about the issues facing companies that rely on supply chains with questionable working conditions, read “Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices

Terms defined in our ethics glossary that are related to the video and case studies include: ethical fading, moral agent, moral imagination, subject of moral worth, and tangible & abstract.

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

Ariely, Dan. 2012. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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.

De Cremer, David (Editor). 2009. Psychological Perspectives on Ethical Behavior and Decision Making. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

De Cremer, David, and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Editors). 2012. Behavioral Business Ethics: Shaping an Emerging Field. New York: Routledge.

DeSteno, David, and Piercarlo Valdesolo. 2011. Out of Character: The Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. New York: Crown Publishers.

Dienhart, John William, Dennis J. Moberg, and Ronald F. Duska (Editors). 2001. The Next Phase of Business Ethics: Integrating Psychology and Ethics. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Gino, Francesca. 2013. Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Heffernan, Margaret. 2011. Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. New York: Walker Publishing Company.

Matousek, Mark. 2012. Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Messick, David M., and Ann E. Tenbrunsel (Editors). 1996. Codes of Conduct: Behavioral Research into Business Ethics. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rhode, Deborah L. (Editor). 2006. Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment, and Policy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Werhane, Patricia H., Laura Pincus Hartman, Crina Archer, Elaine E. Englehardt, and Michael S. Pritchard. 2013. Obstacles to Ethical Decision-Making: Mental Modes, Milgram and the Problem of Obedience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge 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

“Psychological studies show that human decision-making is naturally impacted more by vivid, tangible, contemporaneous factors than by factors that are removed in time and space. For example, people are more moved by relatively minor injuries to their family, friends, neighbors, and even pets than they are by the starvation of millions of people abroad. This tendency we have to give greater value to the tangible over the abstract can cause problems that have real ethical dimensions.

Consider a corporate CFO who realizes that if he does not sign false financial statements, the company’s stock price will immediately plummet. Not only will his firm’s reputation be seriously damaged today, but employees whom he knows and likes may well lose their jobs tomorrow. Those losses are vivid and immediate. On the other hand, to fudge the numbers will visit a loss, if at all, mostly upon a mass of nameless, faceless investors some time off in the future. Perhaps unconsciously, the CFO will feel substantial pressure to go ahead and fudge the numbers to protect against immediate and tangible losses.

Sociologist Robert Jackall studied in detail the inner workings of a corporation in his book Moral Mazes. Jackall interviewed a manager of a chemical company. When the manager was faced with a choice between putting a chemical in the water that would kill twenty people out of a million versus spending $25 million of the company’s money to spare those lives, he said, “Is it worth it to spend that much money? I don’t know how to answer that question as long as I’m not one of those twenty people, as long as those people can’t be identified, as long as they’re not specific people, it’s okay to put the chemical in the water. Isn’t that strange?”

Psychologist Max Bazerman and Anne Tenbrunsel tell the story of a Goldman Sachs employee who blew the whistle on a late trading-scandal that allowed certain favored clients to trade to the detriment of most of Goldman’s average clients. The Goldman Sachs employee had originally viewed victims of the practice as part of a nameless, faceless business. She said, “In this business, that’s how you look at it. You don’t look at it with a face.” But when her own sister asked for investing advice for her 401K, suddenly the whistleblower saw things differently. “I saw one face – my sister’s face – and then I saw the faces of everyone whose only asset was a 401K. At that point I felt the need to try and make the regulators look into these abuses.”

These are just a couple of examples of the tangible and the abstract at work. And often it is not a pretty picture. Working inside big corporate bureaucracies often causes people to feel largely separated from the consequences of their decisions. Likewise, working in global or multinational corporations with offices all around the world can also cause people to feel that they are not responsible for the impact of their decisions. But just because we cannot vividly perceive the impact of our decisions on those around us, it does not mean that there is not one. To be ethical, we must look to the horizon and beyond when making business decisions.”