Why ethical decisions escape us

It turns out that we as groups of humans are pretty bad at actually making ethical decisions. And according to professor Ann Tenbrunsel, it’s mostly because we don’t recognize we’re making ethical decisions when we make them.

According to a Harvard paper (that predates her book, Blind Spots), we tend to make decisions that have ethical consequences “in the moment”:

We argue that the temporal trichotomy of prediction, action and recollection is central to these misperceptions: People predict that they will behave more ethically than they actually do, and when evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did.

The paper’s authors also divide a person into two “selves”:

The “want” self is reflected in choices that are emotional, affective, impulsive, and “hot headed.” In contrast, the “should” self is characterized as rational, cognitive, thoughtful, and “cool headed.” The presence of these two selves within one mind results in frequent clashes: We know we should behave ethically when negotiating with our client, for example, but our desire to close the sale causes us to make misleading statements.

It seems like what they’re dancing around is that we all imagine ourselves to be a certain kind of (ethical) person, but when we get into the details of making decisions, we often:

  1. Don’t recognize that there are ethical dimensions to the decision
  2. Make the decision based on specific incentives at hand, not general principles