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Developing ‘Moral Perception’

March is Ethics Awareness Month. Although it is important to remain focused on ethics throughout the entire year, dedicating a month to ethics awareness does provide us with a good opportunity for reflection on this subject.
The emphasis on awareness is important. Before we can do the right thing, we need to be “aware” when we are in a situation that has moral implications. Moral philosophers call this sense of awareness “moral perception,” which is defined as the ability to recognize that an important moral value or principle is at stake in a particular situation.  Here is an example: 
Jane is a new advisor whose mentor is Miguel, an established and successful financial planner. Miguel allows Jane to sit in on his client meetings in order to understand his sales process. One of the first meetings Jane observed involved Steve and Heidi Olson, who were both Miguel's long-term clients. Jane was impressed with Miguel’s technical knowledge but surprised by his treatment of Heidi. Every time Heidi asked a question, Miguel directed his response to Steve. When Heidi expressed concerns about the suggested investment strategy, Miguel dismissed them, although he did so in a kindly way. Observing this, Jane was confused by Miguel’s behavior since he had spoken respectfully of both clients before the meeting. Jane noticed that Heidi seemed alternately annoyed and angered by this treatment, but Miguel seemed oblivious both to his own actions and to Heidi’s response.
This is an example of a failure of moral perception on Miguel’s part. We can assume that Miguel had no intention of disrespecting Heidi by ignoring her questions and concerns.  However, his behavior constitutes a violation of his professional commitment to Heidi as his client. This illustrates how unintended negative consequences can result from our actions.  
Experience allows us to draw on a wide history of case studies to analyze our current situation, but experience also can cause us to use heuristics or “cognitive shortcuts,” which can be misleading. Perhaps that is what happened to Miguel. It could be that his previous experiences have convinced him that most women are not interested in the details of family finances and that they tend to worry unnecessarily about rather trivial concerns. It could be the case that these statements are actually true of some of Miguel’s female clients, but they are not true of Heidi. In this situation, Miguel’s reliance on other experiences has led him to fail to perceive important elements of the current situation.
Moral perception requires mindfulness. Being mindful enables us to notice new things in our environment becasue we remain receptive and engaged in the present situation. It also encourages us to remember that people and situations do not remain the same and are constantly evolving. Here is another example:
James had been working closely with Mark for the past year. One day, they met with two of Mark’s long-term clients, Gwen and George Field. Mark recently had become very excited about a new investment strategy that he believed would produce great results for his clients. However, the strategy was complex and hard to explain clearly, and it involved a level of risk that was higher than many of his clients had tolerated in the past. Before the meeting, Mark told James that the Fields were “raring to go.” When Mark explained the process again, James could see that George and Gwen looked confused and anxious. It was clear that they did not understand Mark’s presentation and felt more comfortable with their current approach. James worried that they were remaining silent because they were hesitant about questioning Mark, their long-standing advisor, given his obvious enthusiasm for the project. Mark seemed unaware of their discomfort and went on to arrange for his assistant to bring in the necessary paperwork.
Again, the failure to be mindful in these situations causes us to neglect our duties to our clients. There is a moral action or professional action that goes undone because we failed to pay attention. Our ability to be mindful affects the story we tell ourselves about what is happening in a particular situation. It is clear that James and Mark would give different accounts of what was actually happening in the meeting with the Fields.  James’ account would acknowledge that a moral and professional wrong was occurring, while Mark’s account would likely contain nothing of the sort.
In short, moral perception is crucial to acting ethically, and mindfulness is crucial to moral perception. How do we increase mindfulness?
1. Look for the differences. Instead of asking yourself, “How is this situation similar to what I have experienced in the past?” you should ask, “How is this situation different from what I have experienced?”
2. Refresh your opinions. This is particularly important in long-term relationships. You need to ask yourself, “How has this person changed?” If your answer is that the person has not changed, this is probably an indication that you need to take a closer look.
3. Ask for help. Our perception of a situation is dictated by our unique set of experiences and identity characteristics. It is necessary to ask other people for their impressions in order to broaden your view.
Ethics Awareness Month provides a great opportunity for us to focus on the ways we can avoid making ethical missteps that we do not intend to make. It is a time for a renewed commitment to be more mindful and to sharpen our moral perception. This pursuit should extend well beyond a month. It is the pursuit of a lifetime. 

Julie Anne Ragatz is director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics in Financial Services and assistant professor of ethics at The American College. [email protected].

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