On the Matter of Bias in Moral Judgement

The 19th International Symposium on Ethics, Business and Society was celebrated recently at IESE. And in one of the parallel sessions we had the occasion to discuss the bias that we often have in our moral judgements.

For example, it’s common practice to consider the ethical attitudes of others worse than our own. Or that when we receive information about a topic, we tend to take whatever snippets favor our own position. And in doing so, we sweep to the side and quickly forget the opposing information. Another one is taking that what is said by many as truth, just because (almost) everyone is saying it. And the list goes on…

The discussion focused on the argument that the attitude of a reasonable person, when presented with such biases, including the heightened probability that we too are biased, impairs our judgement and leads to us to making the wrong decision.

What we were all in agreement about was missing in our classes and conferences about ethics, is highlighting the existence of these biases, their importance and just how difficult it is to detect and correct them.

For me, it seems that this leads us to the virtue of prudence. The old treaties of morals tend to indicate the importance of seeking advice at the moment of judgement, or deciding. And if the advisor is like he or she should be, they will make us aware of the possible existence of these biases.

Past experience and memories also have a part to play, as they allow us to understand the mistakes we make and how to prevent them. We can also observe how others who have good judgement conduct themselves and learn from them. Which takes us to the act of avoidance of the rationalization of our acts, with arguments such as “it doesn’t hurt anyone”, or “you’d have to be a fool to believe what I said”, “everybody does it”, “he probably thinks the same”, “it’s not that bad”. At the end of the day, it’s about learning to be ethical just like childrenby presenting our ideas clearly, listening to our parents or teachers, contemplating everything we have thought.

A possible scenario in class might be, for example, inviting those who have said something in haste or without thinking first, and positing that stop and think about what they have just said. We have the power to help them with this by inviting them to listen to what others think of the case.

About Antonio Argandoña

Antonio Argandoña is Emeritus Professor of Economics and holder of the "la Caixa" Chair of Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Governance at IESE. He teaches mainly in the areas of macroeconomics, monetary economics and international economics, and publishes research on business ethics, corporate social responsibility and organizational governance.