Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 115, Issue 2, pp 229-240

First online:

Ethical Decision Making in a Peer-to-Peer File Sharing Situation: The Role of Moral Absolutes and Social Consensus

  • Connie R. BatemanAffiliated withDepartment of Marketing, University of North Dakota
  • , Sean ValentineAffiliated withDepartment of Management, University of North Dakota Email author 
  • , Terri RittenburgAffiliated withDepartment of Management and Marketing, College of Business, Dept. 3275, University of Wyoming

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Individuals are downloading copyrighted materials at escalating rates (Hill 2007; Siwek 2007). Since most materials shared within these networks are copyrighted works, providing, exchanging, or downloading files is considered to be piracy and a violation of intellectual property rights (Shang et al. 2008). Previous research indicates that personal moral philosophies rooted in moral absolutism together with social context may impact decision making in ethical dilemmas; however, it is yet unclear which motivations and norms contextually impact moral awareness in a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing context (Shang et al. 2008). In sum, factors affecting the decision to share copyrighted material require further clarification and investigation (Shang et al. 2008). The purpose of this study was to use a consumer-based scenario and multiple ethics measures to explore how idealism, formalism, and perceived social consensus impact users’ propensity to recognize that the sharing of copyrighted media through P2P networks was an ethical issue and their subsequent ethical intentions. Results showed that high levels of idealism and formalism were associated with an increased recognition that file sharing was an ethical issue, but neither construct had a direct effect on ethical intention. Strong social consensus among respondents that other people consider file sharing to be unethical was also positively related to the recognition that file sharing was an ethical issue, and ethical recognition was a moderate predictor of intention not to engage in file sharing. Finally, a post hoc mediation analysis indicated that idealism, formalism, and social consensus operated through recognition of an ethical issue to impact ethical intention (indirect-only mediation).


Ethical issue recognition Ethical intention Moral absolutes Social consensus P2P