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 hypotheticalmere 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.