If it’s legal, it’s moral, right? Not necessarily, says Meme Drumwright, associate professor in the advertising and public relations department at the Moody College of Communication. But this type of rationalization is a common way of justifying questionable behavior, as evidenced by an advertising agency president who once told Drumwright,
“I think this is probably the most ethical business there is. It is so regulated. Everything that we do has to go through our lawyers. … It’s really hard to be unethical in this business, even if you tried.”
Drumwright was the featured presenter at last week’s standing-room-only Texas Enterprise Speaker Series at the AT&T Executive Conference Center, and the notion that advertising could be the most ethical industry garnered a hearty laugh from the audience. But just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s moral, Drumwright contends. “Legal scholars and ethicists assert that the law is the minimum and is oftentimes very insufficient in guiding us with respect to ethical behavior.”
Drumwright’s presentation was based on research she conducted with Patrick Murphy, professor of marketing and business ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Together, they interviewed more than 50 advertising professionals, spanning all levels of seniority, from 29 agencies. They found that “many people who understood ethics in second grade and have the right values in the workplace oftentimes act in ways that are not in sync with those values. We have smart, successful, good people doing bad things.”
And we know some of those smart, successful (good?) people by name: Jack Abramoff. Richard Scrushy. Bernie Madoff. Their corruption cost them their freedom and billions of dollars in restitution while making them household names, but most of us make smaller (but legal) unethical choices all the time, usually without noticing.
That lack of awareness is what Drumwright refers to as moral myopia: the inability to see ethical issues clearly, either because we don’t recognize the moral implications of a problem or because we have distorted moral vision. In business, it’s common for employees to do what anthropologists have coined “going native”: A person becomes so immersed in the goals of the employer or client that they lose their objectivity. One study participant told Drumwright,
“If you’re living it every day, you believe it. ... So, when you tell the consumer about [a product], you find that you’re stretching the truth. This [product] is your life ... [and] it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong.”
Her research also revealed that study participants often use what Drumwright calls “the First Amendment Dodge.” In this video clip, she explains why a misguided understanding of free speech leads some to believe they have no power to self-censor.
But what of people who encounter unethical issues and lack the courage to speak up? Moral muteness, Drumwright explained, is when we witness unethical behavior — be it in our individual lives, within our organizations, or within society as a whole — but choose not to say anything. Being morally mute not only perpetuates a problem but also puts us in a subservient role, that of someone who is expected to tow the line, keep the client happy, and not rock the boat.
To reduce cognitive dissonance, many people compartmentalize, or separate their personal values from a client’s business standards. A study participant told Drumwright,
“The [client] company is running the business. They can choose what they want to convey. ... Therefore, if they want to put in these models who look like they’re taking heroin … then that is their right because it is their business, and they’re running it the way that they want to. On a personal level, I find it very offensive.”
This participant had a young daughter and was concerned about how these definitions of beauty in advertising affected children, but she did not feel it was her place to voice objections.
Moral muteness exists everywhere, from major New York City creative shops to the UT campus. During her presentation, Drumwright previewed a new series of videos from the Ethics Unwrapped series, a project overseen by Professor Robert Prentice of the Business, Government and Society department at McCombs. Drumwright provided narration for the videos, which are now available on the Ethics Unwrapped website.
One UT student interviewed for the videos described knowing a friend was getting paid to write other students’ papers, but didn’t want to turn the person in and jeopardize a friendship. Another student described being told one of his courses would include a take-home test, but chose not to ask the professor if using class notes would be allowed:
“If she says yes, then it’s a non-issue, but if she says no, then it becomes this ordeal, and I guess at the time I didn’t want to be ‘that guy.’ You don’t want to rock the boat.”
When we’re morally myopic or morally mute, we choose not to take responsibility for what happens around us. We don’t allow ourselves to reflect, think critically, and consider the broader implications.
How can we increase the likelihood that we’ll live in sync with the values we had in second grade? It begins with mindfulness and a supportive community. Ethics scholars offer these suggestions:
- Frame events in the long run versus the short run: Consider what’s at stake.
- Remember your organization’s wider purpose: Groups usually form with good intentions. Focus on those.
- Avoid false dichotomies: You can be both ethical and successful.
- Position yourself as an agent of continuous change: Be a trusted advisor who represents the company’s best interests, not a yes-man.
- Pre-script: Practice thinking about questionable issues and what you might say or do before you encounter an ethical situation.
- Provide actionable alternatives: Develop a moral imagination. Find the ethical alternative that still provides a desirable outcome.
- Find allies with power: Align yourself with like-minded individuals who can offer support.
“We can have the best values in the world,” concluded Drumwright, “but if we don’t have the courage to put them into action, they really don’t do anyone any good.” Just ask Jack Abramoff.