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Moral Reasoning for the Manager Interested in Ethics

A recent study helps to shed light on the profound meaning and implications of moral reasoning, also known as cognitive moral development.

Research By: Peter Mudrack, Associate Professor of Management
Sharon Mason, Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, Brock University

A common refrain in business today is that ethics are of crucial importance.  Unfortunately, being ethical may not always mean exactly what we think it means.  Most people likely imagine that it is the specific decisions that we make that allow us to determine whether we have been ethical.  For example, if someone recommended stealing medicine desperately needed by someone they knew, but that was too expensive to afford, many of us might very well conclude that this recommendation would be unethical.  After all, if being ethical involves “doing the right thing”, then stealing automatically might seem to be the wrong thing.

The concept of moral reasoning, however, has a very different emphasis. In understanding moral reasoning, it is not decisions themselves that are relevant, but rather the rationale for those decisions. Stated differently, why people make decisions is more telling than what decisions they make.  For example, two individuals could reach the same conclusion about the recommended action in a specific situation, but offer profoundly different reasons why this action might seem desirable.  Two individuals could also reach quite different decisions, but offer the same essential reasons why the decisions seemed appropriate.  Perhaps both stealing and not stealing the medicine could be regarded as “fair”.

Moral reasoning consists of a sequence of stages and levels through which people evolve when learning to think about issues of justice and fairness. At the most basic level, people make the choices that they do out of self-interest. As individuals develop, additional reasons become salient. These include conformity with the views of important others, and then to laws or societal norms.

At the most advanced stages, people decide appropriate behavior for themselves based upon such things as the greater good, upholding ethical principles, or respecting the rights and dignity of others. People characterized by advanced moral reasoning would seem to be both highly ethical and independent thinkers who do not simply obey authority blindly or follow rules unquestioningly.

A good example of advanced moral reasoning might be the abolitionist John Brown.  Brown focused on freeing slaves and ending slavery.  In doing so, he violated the laws and social conventions of the day.  He did not try to end slavery, however, out of his own personal interests, but rather to help others – mostly people he had never met and would otherwise never meet.

This concept of moral reasoning has stimulated a large volume of research over many decades.  However, the results of this research often seem puzzling and difficult to interpret.  It seems logical to suppose that advanced moral reasoning would be associated with “more ethical” rather than “less ethical” decisions and choices, as well as with independent thinking.  These expected results, however, have generally not appeared in research findings.

When expected results fail to appear, researchers are obligated to attempt to explain this.  Many such explanations suggest that the concept of moral reasoning itself is flawed or irrelevant, or perhaps the specific measure is no good. Perhaps, but this would not account for the large volume of research that has supported moral reasoning’s real-world relevance. It is not possible for concepts and measures to be flawed only some of the time.

Peter Mudrack, and co-author Sharon Mason of Brock University, wrote a paper entitled “Moral Reasoning and its Connections with Machiavellianism and Authoritarianism: The Critical Roles of Index Choice and Utilization,” scheduled to appear in the journal Business and Society.  This paper attempted to explain decades of puzzling results involving moral reasoning.

Why does moral reasoning sometimes behave “as it should” in relationships with other measures and other times behave as if it has little practical relevance? In the paper, Mudrack and Mason found that the specific index of moral reasoning that is used seems unusually important. Multiple indices are available to assess moral reasoning, all generally thought of as interchangeable, but choosing carefully definitely seems to matter.

The researchers examined the characteristics of each index, and provided specific reasons why one index might be appropriate when examining relationships with ethics-oriented variables (such as the personality trait of Machiavellianism), but a different index might work best in the context of orientations toward authority (such as the personality trait of authoritarianism). These indices are not interchangeable, and getting interpretable results really does seem to depend on which index is used.


What does any of this mean for the manager interested in ethics?

  • Perhaps we need to broaden our assumptions about what it means to be ethical. It may be critical to understand why people make specific decisions, with less focus on the decisions themselves.  This often seems counter-intuitive to many people. This requires not making assumptions or jumping to conclusions about why others act as they do.
  • Managers should consider measuring moral reasoning by using the Defining Issues Test (DIT) available from the Center for the Study of Ethical Development located at the University of Alabama (ethicaldevelopment.ua.edu). For a fee, experts will score surveys.  This is highly recommended because these experts can provide multiple indices that seem so crucial in getting meaningful results.  Although it is possible for non-experts to compute one and only one moral reasoning index, only experts can calculate multiple indices.  There is a definite payoff to the money spent.
  • An important attribute of the DIT is that it is not obvious to the person completing it that it has any connection with ethical issues. Survey respondents read a few brief scenarios, and simply indicate the extent to which possible reasons for their recommended choices, provided on the surveys, seemed important to them in making their decision.  Because of this, most people will indicate reasons that actually matter to them, since there does not seem to be an obvious “right answer”.  It is also possible to detect “faking” on the surveys easily if respondents choose too many reasons that sound good but really are meaningless.  The near-impossibility that survey respondents will be able to guess what someone “wants us to say” makes the DIT extremely useful.
  • Managers can use moral reasoning assessment to improve the workplace. Moral reasoning can develop over time. Older people tend to score higher than their younger counterparts do.  Highly educated people tend to score higher than less educated people do.  There is evidence that various forms of ethics training or education are sometimes able to increase moral reasoning.  Moral reasoning might be an excellent way to determine if ethics training at an organization was effective or worthwhile.  Measure moral reasoning before the training, and after the training.  Did scores increase?  If so, the training might have worked as intended.  Under typical circumstances, it is not always easy to know if something like ethics training actually serves a useful purpose.  If such training really were effective, there likely would not be any serious ethical lapses.  In other words, the training “works” if nothing happens!  If nothing happens, then it may seem as if the training had been a waste of time.  However, if ethics training simply encourages people to think differently, then the Defining Issues Test would be useful for assessing its effectiveness.
  • Getting honest responses from employees. In research settings, one key aspect involves respondent anonymity. It generally seems a good idea for potential survey respondents to know that no one would be able to link their surveys to them personally.  This encourages honest and candid responding.  In evaluating the usefulness of ethics training, it might be possible to preserve anonymity.  Respondents can simply identify themselves with a code number that they themselves create.  However, if managers use DIT surveys in the context of recruitment or selection, anonymity would not be possible.  This does not mean that managers should not consider using moral reasoning here, but just that they would need to be aware of potential pitfalls arising from a lack of anonymity.  Of course, the DIT might still be worthwhile because of the previously mentioned difficulty of anyone knowing what the “right answer” might actually be.
  • The specific research conducted by Mudrack and Mason suggested that moral reasoning remains a useful concept. However, managers likely need to be aware that advanced moral reasoning is associated with independent thinking.  Such people do not simply obey authority blindly and unquestioningly.  If managers actually wanted employees disinclined to think for themselves and who simply obeyed orders unquestioningly, then these managers might not want to surround themselves with subordinates capable of advanced moral reasoning.  However, this may not really be a good idea if high ethics are important.  High ethics and critical thinking unquestionably seem to be of overriding importance.

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