The Week in Ethics: The Ethics of Willful Blindness

Corporate meltdowns, says Princeton psychologist John Darley, require thousands of people all failing to see the moral implications of their work. “You become blind…to yourself…to your better self.”

As long as everything is framed as an economic argument, we don’t have to confront the moral and social effects of our decisions, according to Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura.

from Tower.com

Both Darley and Bandura are among the psychologists, executives, whistleblowers and white collar criminals that Margaret Heffernan interviewed for her recently published book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. Heffernan also references a number of psychological and neurological studies, and looks at the types of situations where we don’t see what is in front of us.

The title of her book was inspired by reading the court transcripts of the Enron trial of Jeffrey Skilling and Ken Lay. She began to think about the legal concept of willful blindness – how you are responsible if you could have or should have known something you chose not to know or see. It occurred to her that willful blindness was a filter through which to look at the economic meltdown, other corporate crises, and ways we are also willfully blind in personal situations – like ignoring health warnings or evidence of a spouse’s affair.

The “paradox of blindness,” she says is that “we think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.”

Themes she raises in the book about how people create willful blindness include:

  • aversion to conflict, so we don’t develop the tools we need to manage it and lack confidence in our ability to do so
  • being blinded by one’s own ideology –  She cites criticism of Alan Greenspan for a “highly simplistic view” of how markets behaved which missed what was going on that was inconsistent with his worldview
  • exhaustion, how the human mind “overloaded and starved for sleep becomes morally blind,” and uses the example of BP workers prior to the Texas City explosion
  • ostrich behavior — that people stay silent in organizations, or leave, because they believe the status quo can’t be changed, and don’t believe saying something would make a difference
  • that CEOs’style of leadership can ensure they don’t learn what is actually going on in their organization even if they say they want to know
  • Structural blindness, like the way BP did business at Texas City and in the Gulf, she says, where employees aren’t seen as human beings; out of sight and out of mind, pointing out that technology can maintain but can’t build relationships

“The moral mind is not a default mind,” says Darley. “In very competitive environments, where you’re under a lot of stress…you won’t necessarily even see there is a moral consideration.” Darley goes on to say, “most corruption, I think, starts with an intuitive act, not a deliberate one.”

So having mounted her examples of failures in ethical behavior and ethical reasoning, how does Heffernan suggest things change?

Her most interesting point is to be a critical thinker, which she says means stop being a people pleaser, doing anything to please your boss.

She talks about the importance of asking questions. She refers to Ratan Tata’s motto “question the unquestionable.”  She suggests simple and direct clarifying questions like “do we mean this?” or “Did I understand correctly?”

I think Heffernan’s point about questions is essential in helping focus intentionally on what is going on at the moment, which makes blindness less possible. A powerful question to raise is “What if we are wrong?”

In addition, a crucial question leaders should always have in their arsenal of blindness busters is to ask whether a proposed action has any ethical liability. As I explained in a Business Ethics Magazine column last June, companies routinely raise questions about whether an action is legal or has any legal liability, so why not ask also about the potential for ethical liability? This question engages us in thinking more clearly about the implications and potential consequences of actions and has the effect of putting ethical conduct on the table as an expected outcome.

Heffernan says that CEOs need Cassandra’s, devils advocates, dissenters, mentors, troublemakers, or coaches to help the leader actually see what he or she may be avoiding.

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know, she says.

Heffernan ends her book with the reminder that willful blindness is willful, which means if we don’t will it, we have the power to change it.

Gael O’Brien   April 4, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine

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One Comment on “The Week in Ethics: The Ethics of Willful Blindness”


  1. […] and codes of conduct thrown to the side of the road or under the wheels. Rationalizations, willful blindness and betrayal are the outcomes. Reputation is severely damaged. Trust and confidence […]


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