‘Ethical Fading’ happens in decision-making when we focus so much on other aspects of the decision that we forget about the ethical implications, as if they were fading from our view.

Ethical fading has been applied to explain the actions of participants in the Watergate scandal, the News International phone-hacking accusations that led to the closure of the News Of The World, and Volkswagen’s gaming of emissions standards.

The term first appeared in an academic paper, Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior by Ann E. Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick in Social Justice Research, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2004.

The authors identify four ‘enablers’ of ethical fading:

  • Euphemistic language that makes it easier for people to forget about the ethical dimensions of their actions and so feel less guilty about them. For example, laying people off or cutting jobs is rebranded as “rightsizing”, and civilian deaths from drone strikes are redefined as “collateral damage”.
  • The ‘slippery slope‘, where each step towards unethical behaviour is so small that it doesn’t feel that different from previous practice. There is also a psychological numbing that comes from repetition, where the person becomes habituated to unethical actions and self-reproof is diminished.
  • Errors in perception of causation. These are of three kinds. Firstly, we put more weight on individual responsibility than on systemic causes, because we tend to see systems as infallible. You can see this tendency at work in the child protection tragedies that happen in the British social work system every few years; the media’s attention always focuses on the failings of the individual social worker, or their manager, at the expense of scrutiny of the faults of the system as a whole.Secondly, we will tend to maximise the blame we pin on others, and minimise the extent to which we blame ourselves.Thirdly, we have a tendency to excuse acts of omission more easily than acts of commission, even where the failure to do something directly causes the bad result. It’s easier to pin the blame on others, or on the system as a whole, if there is not a specific action that can be pointed to.
  • The limitations of our own perspective. We are only in possession of our own ‘truth’, and we can’t see the whole picture objectively. Each one of us is the hero of our own life story. Because we can’t have a truly objective perception of the world, we can’t accurately evaluate the effect our actions have on others.

Together, these effects add up to a web of self-deception where it’s easy to fool ourselves that the ethical consequences of our decisions don’t matter.

I first came across the term ‘ethical fading’ in an interview with Leonard Wong about ethics and honesty in the US military on the Econ Talk podcast (recommended for anyone interested in ideas, particularly but not exclusively in the field of economics).

Wong’s research led him to believe that the ever-growing time demands of paperwork and regulation in the US Army creates dishonesty because it makes it impossible to do the job. Officers start by ticking some boxes without doing all the checks, and this makes manipulating reporting seem acceptable, which can lead on to more serious ethical lapses – a form of ‘slippery slope’ effect.

How can leaders guard against ethical fading?

One idea would be to make consideration of the ethical dimension compulsory by introducing it explicitly into decision-making. For example, including the question “what are the ethical consequences of this decision?” when evaluating a preferred option. More vividly, you could ask “How would you feel if your family knew about this? Would you be comfortable with the press and public knowing about this?”

Another would be to make sure that regulatory and reporting requirements are fit for purpose. Is it possible to fulfil all the requirements and still have time to do the job?

In their paper Lying To Ourselves: Dishonesty In The Army Profession, Wong and his co-author Stephen J Gerras suggest remedies for ethical fading in the US Army that may also be applicable to other large organisations:

  • Acknowledge the problem: respect for the military in US society, and the professional image of Army officers, may lead them to have an inflated view of their own infallibility. Wong recommends that they remember they are human and vulnerable to temptation like anyone else.
  • Exercise restraint in passing the burden of compliance down the ranks. Senior officers should protect their subordinates by prioritising which reporting and training requirements really need to be complied with, even though this gives them the unpleasant task of informing some stakeholders that their demands are not a priority.
  • Use objective methods such as auditing to ensure quality, rather than placing unreasonable demands on the integrity of officers. “The Army must restore the dignity and seriousness of an officer’s word by requiring it for consequential issues rather than incidental administrative requirements.”
  • Lead truthfully: distinguish between reporting and training requirements that are truly necessary to get the job done, and those which are nice to have. Distinguish between the requirements that have to be 100% fulfilled and those where an 85% compliance rate would be acceptable. Allow candid reporting from subordinates, reducing the pressure to appear perfect. Finally, consider the moral implications of every decision.
Ethical Fading: Why Good People Do Bad Things
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