Ethics and Decision Making

Ethical Fading is the process by which the moral colors of an ethical decision

fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.

A regional newspaper columnist, Winthrop Quigley, recently expressed bafflement at the business decision-making that went into the recent Volkswagen emissions-testing scandal, as well as earlier business scandals such as the 1971 Ford Pinto explosion risk, the GM ignition switch hazard, and the ethical disasters at Enron, World Com, BP, and other once esteemed businesses (Quigley, 2015).

“Most of us are raised right,” Quigley says. “Most of us have a conscience and a sense of shame. Anyone with any business training knows ethical business is good business in the long run, even if it is costly in the short run. Yet the parade of outrages continues.”

He attributes this, in part, to a phenomenon called “ethical fading.” Early research into the phenomenon was published in 2004 by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick, in a paper that also defined ethical fading as above.

Business executives don’t make an explicit trade off between ethics and profit, according to Tenbrunsel and Messick. Instead, they (and we) engage in self-deception that separates a business decision from any moral implications. Or, as Quigley puts it, they make “rational decisions” based on business tools like cost-benefit analysis in which a “moral dimension” is not part of the equation.

According to Tenbrunsel and Messick, the self-deception is enabled by four psychological factors:

  • Language euphemisms (e.g., we tell ourselves we are engaging in “aggressive” accounting practices, not illegal ones).
  • Two-pronged “slippery slope of decision making”:
    • “ethical numbing” caused by repeated exposure to ethical dilemmas—we stop seeing the “ethical” in the dilemma.
    • “past practice” benchmarking—if what we did in the past was ethical and if what we are doing now is not very different, then it too is ethical, we tell ourselves. A series of small steps away from the original standard can lead to unethical and illegal behavior without anyone noticing it.
  • Errors in causal perception (we focus on the individual and do not see systemic causes).
  • Constrained representation of our selves (we see ourselves as making the right decisions; we don’t see ourselves as “bad”).

The authors note, and others support, that ethics training initiatives cannot be effective if they don’t address the realities of ethical fading and the role that self –deception plays in unethical behavior.

The University of Texas at Austin offers a good example of education and training focused on ethical fading (see the link below).  Its “Ethics Unwrapped” series offers a video-based “ethical fading” case study, a series of discussion questions and related teaching notes, and links to other resources. Consider adding a similar module to your organization’s ethics training initiatives. It can’t hurt. It might help.

Ethical Advocate provides 24-7 confidential, secure, and anonymous ethics hotlines and also provides related ethics and compliance training. Contact us to learn more.


Tenbrunsel, Ann E. and David M. Messick. “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Social Justice Research, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2004.

Quigley, Winthrop. “VW Case Shows Need for Ethics in Cost-­Benefit Toolkit,” Albuquerque Journal, October 15, 2015.

University of Texas, Austin. “Ethical Fading” (web page).