You’re Probably Not as Ethical as You Think You Are?

Bounded Ethicality and Ethical Fading

What if someone made you an offer that would benefit you personally but would require you to violate your ethical standards? What if you thought you could get away with a fraudulent act that would help you in your career?

Most of us think we would do the right thing. We tend to think of ourselves as honest and ethical people. And we tend to think that, when confronted with a morally dubious situation, we would stand up for our convictions and do the right thing.

But research in the field of behavioral ethics says otherwise. Contrary to our delusions of impenetrable virtue, we are no saints.

We’re all capable of acting unethically, and we often do so without even realizing it.

In their book Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrusel highlight the unintentional, but predictable, cognitive processes that result in people acting unethically. They make no claims about what is or is not ethical. Rather, they explore the ethical “blind spots,” rooted in human psychology, that prevent people from acting according to their own ethical standards. The authors are business ethicists and they emphasize the organizational setting, but their insights certainly apply to ethical decision making more generally.

The two most important concepts they introduce in Blind Spots are “bounded ethicality” and “ethical fading.”

Bounded Ethicality is derived from the political scientist Herbert Simon’s theory of bounded rationality – the idea that when people make decisions, they aren’t perfectly rational benefit maximizers, as classical economics suggests. Instead of choosing a course of action that maximizes their benefit, people accept a less than optimal but still good enough solution. They “satisfice” (a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice”), to use Simon’s term.

They do this because they don’t have access to all the relevant information, and even if they did, their minds wouldn’t have the capacity to adequately process it all. Thus, human rationality is bounded by informational and cognitive constraints.

Similarly, bounded ethicality refers to the cognitive constraints that limit people’s ability to think and act ethically in certain situations. These constraints blind individuals to the moral implications of their decisions, and they allow them to act in ways that violate the ethical standards that they endorse upon deeper reflection.

So, just as people aren’t rational benefit maximizers, they’re not saintly moral maximizers either.

Check out this video about bounded ethicality from the Ethics Unwrapped program at University of Texas Austin at Austin:

Ethical Fading is a process that contributes to bounded ethicality. It happens when the ethical implications of a decision are unintentionally disregarded during the decision-making process. When ethical considerations are absent from the decision criteria, it’s easier for people to violate their ethical convictions because they don’t even realize they’re doing so.

For example, a CEO might frame something as just a “business decision” and decide based on what will lead to the highest profit margin. Obviously, the most profitable decision might not be the most ethically defensible one. It may endanger employees, harm the environment, or even be illegal. But these considerations probably won’t come to mind if he’s only looking at the bottom line. And if they’re absent from the decision process, he could make an ethically suspect decision without even realizing it.

Check out this video about ethical fading from the Ethics Unwrapped program at University of Texas Austin at Austin.

You’re Not a Saint, So What Should You Do?

Nudge yourself toward morality.

Bazerman and Tenbrusel recommend preparing for decisions in advance. Consider the motivations that are likely to influence you at the time of the decision and develop proactive strategies to reduce their influence. Pre-commitment strategies are highly effective. If someone publicly pre-commits to an ethical action, he’s more likely to follow through than if he doesn’t. Likewise, pre-commiting to an intended ethical decision and sharing it with an unbiased and ethical person makes someone more likely to make the ethical decision in the future.

During actual decision making, it is crucial to elevate your abstract ethical values to the forefront of the decision-making process. Bazerman and Tenbrusel point out that “rather than thinking about the immediate payoff of an unethical choice, thinking about the values and principles that you believe should guide the decision may give the ‘should’ self a fighting chance.” One strategy for inducing this type of reflection, they say, is to think about your eulogy and what you’d want to be written about the values and principles you lived by.

There’s also the “mom litmus test.” When tempted by a potentially unethical choice, ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable telling your mom (or dad or anyone else you truly respect) about the decision. Imagining your mom’s reaction is likely to bring abstract principles to mind, they contend.

Yet another strategy for evoking ethical values is to change the structure of the decision. According to Bazerman and Tenbrusel, people are more likely to make the ethical choice if they have the chance to evaluate more than one option at a time. In one study, “individuals who evaluated two options at a time – an improvement in air quality (the ‘should’ choice) and a commodity such as a printer (the ‘want’ choice) – were more likely to choose the option that maximized the public good.” When participants evaluated these options independently, however, they were more likely to choose the printer.

In another study, people decided between two political candidates, one of higher integrity and one who promised more jobs. The people who evaluated the candidates side by side were more likely to pick the higher integrity candidate. Those who evaluated them independently were more likely to pick the one who would provide the jobs.

Bazerman and Tenbrusel say this evidence suggests that reformulating an ethical quandary into a choice between two options, the ethical one and the unethical one, is helpful because it highlights “the fact that by choosing the unethical action, you are not choosing the ethical action.”

What Implications Do Bounded Ethicality and Ethical Fading Have for Moral Responsibility?

Bazerman and Tenbrusel don’t address this question directly. But the notion that our default mode of ethical decision making in some circumstances is bounded by psychological and situational constraints – influences we’re not consciously aware of that affect our ethical decision-making abilities – seems to be in tension with the idea that we are fully morally responsible for all our actions.

The profit-maximizing CEO, for example, might be seen by his friends and peers as virtuous, caring, and thoughtful. He might care about his community and the environment, and he might genuinely believe that it’s unethical to endanger them. Still, he might unintentionally disregard the moral implications of illegally dumping toxic waste in the town river, harming the environment and putting citizens’ health at risk.

This would be unethical, for sure, but how blameworthy is he if he had yet to read Blind Spots and instead relied on his default psychology to make the decision? If ethical blind spots are constitutive elements of the human psyche, are the unethical actions caused by those blinds spots as blameworthy as those that aren’t?

Either way, we can’t be certain that we’d have acted any differently in the same circumstances.

We’ll all fail the saint test at some point, but that doesn’t make us devils.

Learn More About Behavioral Ethics

Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It

Ethicalsystems.org (Decision Making)

Ethics Unwrapped (Behavioral Ethics)

Reflecting Politics: Image Making and Falsities

Hannah Arendt was a mid-century German thinker that witnessed humanity at its worst. As a consequence, her writings carry a profundity that I rarely found in the many authors I have read. I can lay out several prophetic examples encountered in her texts. Given the political climate, I will pull from her seminal essay, “Lying in Politics” which is found in the collection, Crises of the Republic.

Arendt laments the chance for “image-makers” to inject themselves into politics. Lobbyists and advertising men would possess a shared disinterest in things of actual politics and instead focus on the “image” of politics. The result is a politician whose image is refined to reflect a pious family man who votes against his constituents’ interests on the regular. The subterfuge from the Mad Men image consultants has driven us to accept this political farce at its face value or provided a deep doubt about the merits of ANY politician.

She anticipated the one of modern political crisis: destruction of a shared and knowable world. Specifically, this quote gives credence to this topic:

“The point is reached when the audience to which the lies are addressed is forced to disregard altogether the distinguishing line between truth and falsehood in order to be able to survive.” (Crises of the Republic 7)

When we meld image making with a disbelief there leaves only so much mental capacity to challenge. Our perception of reality, “truths”, can’t be easily parsed. We either accept an image maker’s tale or we distrust the entire world.

Yet, modern political discourse has generated another framework for survival. The tribalism of right-wing conservatism has lived within this dichotomous reality. The espousal of lies from these sources protects their observers from acknowledging shifts in modern living.  Shifting demographics and waning labor prospects have been successfully hidden by political conservatives. Also, no longer are the viewers/listeners/constituents the majority, and they most certainly are being fleeced media/politicans – the industries generated by their disregarding of truth.We see now, there are no coal jobs to bring back, robots aren’t going to resign and give you a factory job again. The pruned politician weaves this lie into every stump speech. Empowers the people who will insure their (re)election and the politician hops away in a overly polished SUV. Not a fleck of dirt.

 

 

 

Mitch McConnell is Ugly

Any philosophical answer you seek can be found in the writings of Fredriech Nietzsche. Many accuse him of a deep Antisemitism, blatant misogyny, or just being a syphilitic madman based on his writings. His panache leads to multiple varied interpretations. I interpret him as a broker for crisis – the crisis of being human and all its comorbidities. His fascination with what it is to be alive, human, and how we are to maneuver in this world provide some philosophical answers for me.

I also find solace in his writings about how power becomes a transactional event that is often built upon anti-ethical exchanges. Nietzsche blamed an early event in Western Civilization for the way power came to be in its anti-ethical state: the rise of Socrates.

Nietzsche says the following: By birth, Socrates belonged to the lowest class: Socrates was plebeian. We are told, and can see in sculptures of him, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation.  (Twilight of the Idols 3)

The weight of this statement is that Socrates had no power within “just” his existence. Being born of the lower classes was traditionally enough to condemn any individual to that class for the entirety of their life. Coupled with his “imperfect” appearance he was doomed to linger as just another Grecian.

Nietzsche thought that this combination moved Socrates to respond in a way that gave him an entry way to becoming powerful: subversion. Socrates moved the goal posts for what was good and we reside in the territory – particularly in the academic and Democratic worlds – where logic and rationality are the exegesis for power. Outthink, out speak, and out-moralize all your opponents and you have “begot that Socratic idea that reason and virtue equal happiness” (Twilight of the Idols  5)

The previous paragraph can lead to a profound analysis, entire thesis and books have been written on the subject, but I am here for a more applicable purpose.

Mitch McConnell is ugly. He was born a sickly child (Polio) and is still a sickly man – he was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve due to optic neuritis. Yet, he is a man that has relished in the subversion of power. The sickly child who is now, for all intents and purposes the most powerful man in Washington. Looming over the Senate with his baritone voice and drooping face, he has provided a cynicism and Sophistry unmatched even by Paul Ryan (he deserves his own critiques as do most politicians).

This bending of the logic, and appealing to rationality to serve one’s own interest is not a new trick for politicians. Yet, for some reason Mitch does it so well.

Which brings us to the question: why does Mitch McConnell’s ugliness matter? It is in the same vein as Socrates. There is a shrewdness to Mitch that appears to mirror the Socratic approach. I have no doubt that behind closed doors, Mitch knows and declares what he is. This exchange between Socrates and a “foreigner” tells all:

This foreigner told Socrates to his face that he was a monstrum — that he harbored in himself all the worst vices and appetites. And Socrates merely answered: “You know me, sir!”- Twilight of the Idols 3

The awareness carried by Socrates is carried in almost all those subvert systems. This is not a man who would light up the room with his charisma; his charms are found only in his ability to use a false-footed argument to stop real political movement that doesn’t suit his desires. If it directly benefits his agenda, he can get it done with a shameless approach.

McConnell has advocated for unrestricted flow of “dark money” into politics his entire career. He has even helped lead two Supreme Court decisions that assist in his goals: McConnell v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Amounting corporate buy-in as a free speech issue is an absurdist argument that is pique Sophistry. We can deride McConnell’s own logic on this very point by enlisting this quote: “The Constitution of this country was not a rough draft. It was not a rough draft and we should not treat it as such.” This quote alone, when corporations and lobbyists didn’t exist at the time of the Constitution’s drafting, would provide a logical blow to his push for those fields. But, the joy of Sophistry is its fluidness. He will not be held accountable. How can he? He has assisted in destroying the idea of meaning and shame in America.

Once America bottoms out, Lord knows when that will happen, there will have to be a reckoning. I doubt the hemlock would be Mitch’s way out. He will likely perish rich, powerful, and persistently ugly. Our true mission will be to prevent any historical figures from generating reverie towards any of McConnell’s action. Once he is gone, we should condemn that era as one where we lost so much. The damage that McConnell’s ugliness wracked upon our system can only be “cured” if we sentence him. Parallels between Socrates and McConnell show again in Nietzsche: he forced Athens to sentence him. “Socrates is no physician,” he said softly to himself, “here death alone is the physician. Socrates himself has only been sick a long time.” Twilight of the Idols 12

Perhaps, unlike Greece, which fell deep into the decadent Night that Nietzsche accused Socrates of exemplifying not long after Socrates’ rise, we are past our Nightfall. The Dawn, hopefully, fast approaches.