In the light of Corona – Part 17: Ethical decision-making and disruption

A quick Google image search with the word “decision” highlights a common notion: the images depict crossroads, diverse arrows, paths, avenues, doors leading to different directions from one singular point where the decision-maker is standing. However, the vast amount of research conducted on decisions, decision-making and decision-makers paints a different picture: if there is a crossroad-type event that can be labelled as decision, we pass most of those forks in our paths blindly by, at the best taking a moment to retrospectively rationalize the route we’ve embarked upon. Most of our decisions are done unwittingly, the few deliberative ones being a tiny minority of the psychological and social processes that sketch our way. Our intuitive, instantaneous, fast brain is the tail that wags the reflective, time-consuming and slow brain we’d like to be the dog – especially when it comes to decisions that are better labelled as judgments.

Decision-making has been studied from psychological, strategy-making, economic or political perspectives to name a few. It has been scrutinized in different contexts, regarding specific themes, with viewpoints ranging from its antecedents to its outcomes – and influencing them. It has been subjected to diverse philosophical debates going even as deep as to question the existence of anything that can be labelled “a decision” in the first place. For anyone interested in an overview of the subject, my dissertation provides some stepping stones for exploring more.

In this blog, I’ll write about ethical decision-making and why I see corona disruption as a wonderful opportunity. 

Ethical decision-making process

Based on several discussions, Jones synthetized in 1991 an ethical decision-making process model still widely recognized as a solid corner stone in the field. A simplified version of the model is depicted in the below image. 

Ethical decision-making process model, adapted from Jones 1991

The first stage in ethical decision-making concerns awareness, recognition of a potentially tricky ethical aspect. When/if that is recognized, the next stage involves rationality, reasoning, figuring out the potential ways to solve the ethical issue. However, even with the best of ideas of how could the issue be ethically tackled, without the third stage, moral intent, there is no inherent motivation to go about pursuing the more moral option. And, in many cases, while there is the will and the understanding of the way, there may be for example social expectations or simple laziness that stops the process before the fourth stage, actually doing the moral thing. 

These stages are additionally moderated by the so-called moral proximity. It means that the more personal the issue seems, the more likely it is that we will first recognize the issue, go through the effort of puzzling it out, want to do the right thing, and eventually also engage in moral behavior. The simple example to illustrate this effect is to explore the feelings you have when considering the death of an unknown child somewhere across the globe (say, Asia, Africa) or when considering the death of your own child (or, if childless, someone else close to you). By nature, our empathy, and with it our ethical sensitivity, become stretched thin the further from our own personal experiences we go. 

As we know from general decision-making and judgment research, we make our choices both intuitively and unwittingly, and sometimes rationally and wittingly. The stronger the judgment element in a choice, the more impactful are our intuitive reflexes – in the ethical decision-making model this means that the moral proximity and the moral intent elements are strongly influenced by our intuition. On the other hand, in identifying or solving issues, especially if they are perceived emotionally detached enough, we intentionally utilize our rational mind. 

Barriers of ethical decision-making

Business schools and business people in general are often blamed for excelling in the first two stages, but being lacking in the last two. Learning the laws and regulations teaches recognizing such issues that are according to the laws and regulations immoral. As a by-product, when the rules of the game are familiar enough, the player learns also the ways of bending the rules without getting caught. 

The many firms caught in diverse tax evasion schemes or greenwashing efforts have not primarily broken the rules through ignorance, but through the lack of moral intent, an ingrained organizational culture that makes it the norm to pursue profit above all other implications. In other words, they lack the will to act morally (stage 3), and make it difficult for the individuals within the organizational setting to actually do the right thing (stage 4) even if they knew how and wanted to. Adding to this the impact of moral proximity, it becomes more likely to make decisions that result in increase of child labor or pollution somewhere distant, somewhere out of sight and mind. 

(The moral proximity issue is also one of the key reasons why there is a notable difference between the severity of measures taken to curb the corona pandemic and the severity of measures taken globally to tackle the climate change. An imminent, personal threat is simply closer, than a slowly unfolding threat that may or may not play out in my lifetime in a way that would directly impact me.)

We never make any decisions in isolation, but enter any situation with the baggage of our personal traits and preferences, our social settings and experiences of them, on a certain mood, having diverse emotions, with more or less energy to focus on any dilemma at hand. In addition, while it is possibly to in theory take apart the process of ethical decision-making, we actually make most of our judgment calls instantaneously, by gut feeling, emphasizing further the impact of the underlying and often even unacknowledged values that shape our moral intent. 

Ethical decisions in uncertainty

Highly uncertain circumstances, such as the corona disruption we are currently experiencing, have an interesting impact on the ethical decision-making process. While moral intent is always the key driver of our ethically tinged decisions, in more ‘normal’ times it is easier to suppress and focus on the more tangible first two stages of identifying potential ethical decisions and explicitly focusing on coming up with solutions to them. In other words, when we have the luxury of utilizing explicit reasoning in our decision-making, we have the leisure to rationalize our choices any which way we choose. We can explain to ourselves or to others why we have come up with the choices we have made – regardless of the morality of the outcome or whether the rationalization led to or resulted from the decision.

When the decision-making environment is blurry enough, distinguishing distinct decision-making events becomes increasingly difficult, which means that even more of our decisions are guided by the gut-feeling alone. This means that the decisions we make in uncertain situations bring clearly out our genuine moral compass, the very fundamental values we adhere to whether or not we are aware of them. We cannot escape stating out loud and clear our moral intent with all our decisions, because we lack the material with which we could rationalize any of our choices. 

Put simply, in uncertainty we cannot hide behind our immense capability of explaining our choices in ways that paint us in flattering light. Instead, our true values, our genuine gut-feelings, our inherent moral compass shine through in our actions. 

The opportunities of corona disruption

Due to our ability of explaining our decisions in any which way we choose, picking out the red thread of inherent moral intent is often difficult. This concerns equally us individually and others in decision-making positions: we seldom pause to gauge our personal moral intent regarding any of our choices, nor is it easy to see the ethical drivers on the level of moral intent underlying many of the political or business decisions.

But now, lacking information, or having too much information about what to do next, all we have to go on with are our gut-feelings. If we stop and think, we realise that many of the things we are now engaged in are based on “this feels like the best way to go about”. And herein lies the marvelous opportunity of corona – or any other – disruption: we can pose ourselves the question of why do we feel that this is the best way to go about? We have to acknowledge that our feelings are not grounded on knowledge, because there is no knowledge to ground it on. Still, we continue functioning and passing crossroads.

Daring to pose the question of why do I feel this is the better way to go opens up room for fertile ethical discussions. After all, ethics is not only about labelling things as good or bad, right or wrong, but exploring the very reasons of why would something be moral or immoral – what are the foundations of our inherent values, be those values individual, predominant in a closed collective or universal among all humans?

In a disruption we are guided by our gut-feelings, because they are all we have. This is why disruption is the best time for having ethical discussions: we see our gut-reactions clearly. Corona disruption is not an exception – among all the fires to be put out, now would be the time to stop and reflect the genuine compass we use when navigating towards the next normal of our creation. 


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