I always thought ethics was ethics. But evidently, there are two types: macro ethics and micro ethics. According to Wikipedia, Macro ethics is a term that was coined in the 20th century “… to distinguish large-scale issues from individual ethics or micro ethics. It is a type of applied ethics”. (Id.)

In contrast, the term “micro ethics” was coined in 1995 by Paul Komesaroff and draws on the work of philosophers Edmund Husserl and Emmanuel Levinas:

[It] is based on the recognition that most ethical decisions in everyday life are not taken on the basis of explicit rational argument or calculation but rather occur in a continuous flux of relationships and dialogues. Often the processes of micro ethical judgments are intuitive and may even go unrecognized at the time. It is the accumulation of infinitesimal micro ethical moments that composes the large-scale ethical landscape in which we live. (Id.)

The example given involves the end-of-life issues in the medical field. If considering the issue on a macro ethical level, one is considering “abstract reflections on the nature of life and death and high-level principles about the “sacredness” or otherwise of life…” (Id.) However, on the micro ethical level, one is considering the end-of-life issues as they relate to a particular patient, considering the details of the relationship between the particular doctor and patient. (Id.)

I discovered the term “micro-ethics” in reading a Harvard Pons blog post entitled “Negotiation Research Examines Ethics in Negotiation” written by the staff and posted on September 20, 2021. The post focuses on the lack of transparency in negotiations between hospitals and insurers resulting in very high medical costs. (Id.)

But, then the post transitions to ethical fading or how we make a series of micro ethical decisions during negotiations that start to take us down the slippery slope of unethical decision making. The term “ethical fading” was “…coined by researchers Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick to describe the tendency for the ethical dimensions of decisions to fade from view under certain conditions. Ethical fading allows us to diverge from our high moral standards and behave unethically without recognizing that we are doing so.” (Id.)

Vaguely referencing an article written by Mara Olekalns, Christopher J. Horan, and Phillip L. Smith of the University of Melbourne that appeared in the Journal of Business Ethics, the blog post notes that such micro ethical decisions “… often involve choosing whether to disclose, conceal, or misrepresent information that would potentially lessen our own outcomes and benefit our counterparts. “(Id.) As one example, we might assert that our BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is actually much much better than it is in reality or that we really do not care about a particular issue when we really do or vice versa. That is, engage in a bit of bluffing. (Id.)

The blog post then notes that these researchers conducted an experiment to determine what factors lead to ethical fading. Using undergraduates to negotiate a make-believe employment contract, the researchers found that those participants who felt they had no bargaining power in the negotiation were less deceptive than those who believed that they did have power in the negotiation. That is, the more powerful negotiator engaged more in deception or ethical fading. (Id.)

In another study cited by this blog post, researchers found that asking a party to take the other party’s perspective (rather than creating empathy) may actually lead to the slippery slope of ethical fading. A competitive negotiator who is asked to take the other party’s perspective is more likely to lie. In contrast, such ethical fading will not occur in a cooperative bargaining situation: one viewing the situation from the other’s perspective is most likely to be empathetic and honest. (Id.)

So, whether we call it micro ethics or ethical fading, it is a slippery slope that we all should avoid.

… Just something to think about.





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