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Ethics Become Blurred When End Justifies the Means

by Harvey Schachter, The Globe and Mail
Publication: CTV

July 13, 2011


It started, apparently, with hacking into the phone calls of celebrities and royalty. And what could be wrong with that? Celebrities and royalty are wealthy beyond reason and thus deserve to be brought down to Earth, the argument goes. They also have press flacks and carefully constructed barriers to keep us from knowing the truth about them. So hacking into their cellphones to get at the truths could be seen to have moral validity. The attention it brought those who wrote the resulting newspaper stories, and the profits it gave their employer in a corporate culture of “sensationalism sells,” were other strong reasons to go after the inside scoops.

Of course, once someone starts to cross the line a bit, it’s easy to become ever bolder, particularly if the internal culture encourages it. The ethical slippery slope at the News of the World led to hacking of the phone messages of missing youngsters and terrorism victims – again, to get the goods and beat the competition by piercing the protective barriers that police and families erect in such traumatic moments. Who knew such tactics, and the reasons behind them, would come back to haunt the hackers and their employer?

This may not be the exact thinking path of the key players in the News of the World scandal. But it shows how even people who act unethically can excuse themselves by finding what seem to be moral reasons for their actions, and blind themselves by focusing on other goals.

In Blind Spots, Max Bazerman, a Harvard Business School professor, and Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame University, write about ethical fading, a process in which ethical dimensions are eliminated from a decision.

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