This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.
This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).
After lots of explication, Bazerman & Tenbrunsel offer some concrete advice on how to avoid the ethical fade when making difficult decisions. They suggest we:
- think abstractly in terms of our principles, rather than focusing on the complicating details
- apply the “Mom test” (or if you prefer, the “Mum test”) — would you be comfortable explaining your decision to your Mom? (And don’t just glibly think “yes”; actually think about what you would say, how she would respond, and how you would feel about that)
- consider multiple options and assess them all — this avoids the tendency to consider only one option and expend effort inventing spurious justifications
Along these lines, they talk about ways of nudging people to make more ethical decisions (as discussed in another book called, well, Nudge). These include framing — constructing choice environments that make it easier to make more ethical decisions. One good example is how thinking about fuel economy in terms of gallons per mile rather than miles per gallon makes it far easier to make rational (and ethical, considering the environment) decisions about fuel efficiency. Daniel Kahneman writes about this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. (So many references. This article almost needs a bibliography.)
Future lock-in is another way we can encourage (trick, bribe) ourselves into making more ethical decisions. Instead of promising to do the difficult, righteous thing immediately, we will just come up with the usual reasons why we can’t do it just yet. So instead we should commit to doing the righteous thing tomorrow. It’s much easier to commit our future selves to a course of action — our future selves feel like different people anyway — and provided the commitment mechanism is strong enough, the end result is the same.
Reading this book makes it easier to understand others’ actions, and our own too. And that’s a good first step towards being able to change for the better.