imagine these parrots in pastel shades or a watery grey

There are some words or phrases that when you hear them, you want them to mean something that captures an experience you observe but have previously been unable to name.

‘Ethical fading’ – struck me as a valuable way to  analyse the extent to which ethical beliefs that motivated someone to become a teacher are gradually but completely eroded. Several coercive material may come into play, not least of all successive waves of policy reform. These initiatives impose a kind of busyness, a busyness that means public service commitments … ethical commitments recede so far into the background of the professional life, they are barely discernible. Doing the job requires we forget or simply don’t have time to think about the the job as anything more than fulfilling the next task.

But that’s not what Tenbrunsel & Messick (2004) mean when they use the term. They introduce  “ethical fading” to conceptualize a process through which the moral colours of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications (p224).  They argue that self-deception is at the root of ethical fading and identify four reasons why such deception is perpetuated, (i) the role of language euphemisms, (ii) the slippery slope of decision making, (iii) errors in perceptual causation, and (iv) constraints induced by representations of the self.

The notion has been picked up by Elliot (2013) and Jameson (2006) who describes in detail the ‘self interested slippage in moral standards that can occur in leaders who believe, on the one hand, that they are holding moral principles, while simultaneously carrying out a range of unethical practices on the other.’ (p317)

Given that the notion as originated by Tenbrunsel and Messick (2004) emerges from the world of business, they do not invoke the background of professional values that might have prompted someone to become a business manager. Money is a  motivator (perhaps even a legitimate one) but it is hardly an ethical starting point. There is no distinctly time-based dimension to their construct that suggests successive waves of policy reform, promotion out of the classroom and a punitive culture of performativity might well be important dimensions in the process of ethical fading. If this concept is to be of value in education, this would seem central to how it is used. After all, in 2014 Raynor (2014) chose to explore a research question that has dominated policy studies in education form some years:  to what extent are professional values compromised by policy priorities? It is possible that those of us who are interested in this sort of question have participated in a process of ‘self-deceptive language euphemism’. ‘Professional values’ are also, or at least form the basis of our  ‘ethical values?’. The professional is the ethical.


Elliott, G. (2013). Critical practice leadership in post-compulsory education. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, Vol. 43(2) 308–322

Jameson J (2006) Leadership in Post Compulsory Education: Inspiring leaders of the future. Abingdon: David Fulton.

Rayner, S. (2014). Playing by the rules? The professional values of head teachers tested by the changing policy context. Management in Education28(2), 38-43.

Tenbrunsel, A. E., & Messick, D. M. (2004). Ethical fading: The role of self-deception in unethical behavior. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 223-236.


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