Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 107, Issue 3, pp 313–329

Ethical Decision Making: Special or No Different?



Theories of ethical decision making assume it is a process that is special, or different in some regard, from typical individual decision making. Empirical results of the most widely known theories in the field of business ethics contain numerous inconsistencies and contradictions. In an attempt to assess why we continue to lack understanding of how individuals make ethical decisions at work, an inductive study of ethical decision making was conducted. The results of this preliminary study suggest that ethical decision making might not be meaningfully “special” or different from other decision making processes. The implications of this research are potentially significant in that they challenge the fundamental assumption of existing ethical decision making research. This research could serve as an impetus for further examination of whether ethical decision making is meaningfully different from other decision making processes. Such studies could create new directions for the field of business ethics.


Business ethics Ethical decision making Decision making Inductive study Qualitative research 


  1. Abdolmohammadi, M. J., & Baker, C. R. (2008). Moral reasoning and questionable behavior: A study of extensive copying from the Internet by accounting students. CPA Journal, 58(11), 58–61.Google Scholar
  2. Ambrose, M. L., & Schminke, M. (1999). Sex differences in business ethics: The importance of perceptions. Journal of Managerial Issues, 11(4), 454–474.Google Scholar
  3. Barnett, T., & Valentine, S. (2004). Issue contingencies and marketers’ recognition of ethical issues, ethical judgments and behavioral intentions. Journal of Business Research, 57(4), 338–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bebeau, M. J., Rest, J. R., & Yamoor, C. M. (1985). Measuring dental students ethical sensitivity. Journal of Dental Education, 49, 225–235.Google Scholar
  5. Bird, F. (1996). The muted conscience: Moral silence and the practice of ethics in business. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.Google Scholar
  6. Borkowski, S. C., & Ugras, T. J. (1998). Business students and ethics: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(11), 1117–1127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boyatzis, R. E. (1998). Transforming qualitative information: Thematic analysis and code development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  8. Brady, F., & Wheeler, G. (1996). An empirical study of ethical predispositions. Journal of Business Ethics, 16, 927–940.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brierley, J. A., & Cowton, C. J. (2000). Putting meta-analysis to work: Accountants’ organizational professional conflict. Journal of Business Ethics, 4(2), 343–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Butterfield, K. D., Trevino, L. K., & Weaver, G. R. (2000). Moral awareness in business organizations: Influences of issue-related and social context factors. Human Relations, 53, 981–1018.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cameron, K., Dutton, J. E., & Quinn, R. (2003). Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler.Google Scholar
  12. Carlson, D. S., Kacmar, K. M., & Wadsworth, L. L. (2002). The impact of moral intensity dimensions on ethical-decision-making: Assessing the relevance of orientation. Journal of Managerial Issues, 14(1), 15–30.Google Scholar
  13. Chaiken, S., & Trope, Y. (1999). Dual process theories in social psychology. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  14. Chia, A., & Mee, L. S. (2000). The effects of issue characteristics on the recognition of moral issues. Journal of Business Ethics, 27(3), 255–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Colby, A., & Kohlberg, L. (1987). The measurement of moral judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Crary, A. (2007). Beyond moral judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Damasio, A., Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. (1990). Individuals with sociopathic behavior caused by frontal damage fail to respond automatically to social stimuli. Behavioral Brain Research, 41, 81–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Davis, M. A., Andersen, M. G., & Curtis, M. B. (2001). Measuring ethical ideology in business ethics: A critical analysis of the ethics position questionnaire. Journal of Business Ethics, 32(1), 35–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Davis, M., Johnson, N., & Ohmer, D. (1998). Issue contingent effects on ethical decision-making: A cross cultural comparison. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(4), 373–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. DeConinck, J. B., & Lewis, W. F. (1997). The influence of deontological and teleological considerations and ethical climate on sales managers’ intentions to reward or punish sales force behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(5), 497–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Derry, R. (1989). An empirical study of moral reasoning among managers. Journal of Business Ethics, 8(11), 855–862.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Douglas, P. C., Davidson, R. A., & Schwartz, B. N. (2001). The effect of organizational culture and ethical orientation on accountants’ ethical judgments. Journal of Business Ethics, 34(2), 101–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Elm, D. R., & Nichols, M. L. (1993). An investigation of the moral reasoning of managers. Journal of Business Ethics, 13, 817–873.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fernandes, M. F., & Randall, D. M. (1992). The nature of social desirability response effects in ethics research. Business Ethics Quarterly, 2(2), 183–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Flannery, B. L., & May, D. R. (2000). Environmental ethical decision-making in the U. S. metal-finishing industry. Academy of Management Journal, 43(4), 642–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Forsyth, D. R. (1985). Individual differences in information integration during moral judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 264–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Franke, G. R., Crown, D. F., & Spake, D. F. (1997). Gender differences in ethical perceptions of business practices: A social role theory perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(6), 920–934.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Freeman, R. E. (1994). The politics of stakeholder theory: Some future directions. Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(4), 409–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Frey, B. F. (2000). The impact of moral intensity o decision-making in a business context. Journal of Business Ethics, 26(3), 181–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gibbs, J. C. (1991). Toward an integration of Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theories of morality. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gerwirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development: Volume I, advances in theory, research and applications (pp. 183–222). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  31. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Gino, F., Moore, D. A., & Bazerman, M. (2008). No harm, no foul: The outcome bias in ethical judgments. Carnegie Mellon University Working Paper Series, Philadelphia, PA.Google Scholar
  33. Glazer, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.Google Scholar
  34. Glover, S. H., Bumpus, M. A., Logan, J. E., & Ciesla, J. R. (1997). Re-examining the influence of individual values on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(12/13), 1319–1329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Greene, J. D. (2011). The moral brain and how to use it. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  36. Greene, J. D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293, 2105–2108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108, 814–834.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Haidt, J. (2007). The new synthesis in moral psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998–1002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Harrington, S. J. (1997). A test of person-issue contingent model of ethical decision-making in organizations. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(4), 363–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hauser, M. (2006). Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  41. Jones, T. (1991). Ethical decision-making by individuals in organizations: An issue contingent model. Academy of Management Review, 16(12), 366–395.Google Scholar
  42. Kahneman, D. (2003). Maps of bounded rationality: Psychology for behavioral economics. American Economic Review, 93(5), 1449–1475.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kelley, P. C., & Elm, D. R. (2003). The effect of context on moral intensity of ethical issues: Revising Jones’ issue-contingent model. Journal of Business Ethics, 48(2), 139–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kohlberg, L. (1969). Stage and sequence. The cognitive developmental approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory (pp. 347–480). Chicago: Rand McNally.Google Scholar
  45. Kohlberg, L. (1981). The meaning & measurement of moral development. Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Kujala, J. (2001). A multidimensional approach to Finnish managers’ moral decision-making. Journal of Business Ethics, 34(3/4), 231–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lietsch, D. L. (2004). Differences in perceptions of moral intensity in the moral decision process: An empirical examination of accounting students. Journal of Business Ethics, 53(3), 313–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Locke, K. (2001). Grounded theory in management research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  49. Marshall, B., & Dewe, P. (1997). An investigation of the components of moral intensity. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(5), 521–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Martinko, M. J., Gundlach, M. J., & Douglas, S. C. (2002). Toward an integrative theory of counterproductive workplace behavior: A causal reasoning perspective. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 10(1/2), 36–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. May, D. R., & Pauli, K. P. (2002). The role of moral intensity in decision-making. Business & Society, 41, 84–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McMahon, J. M., & Harvey, R. J. (2006). The effect of moral intensity on ethical judgment. Journal of Business Ethics, 72(4), 335–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Messick, D., & Bazerman, M. (1996). Ethical leadership and the psychology of decision making. Sloan Management Review, 37, 9–22.Google Scholar
  54. Moe, T., Ferrell, L., & Mansfield, P. (2000). A review of empirical studies assessing ethical decision making in business. Journal of Business Ethics, 25, 185–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Morris, S. A., & McDonald, R. A. (1995). The role of moral intensity in moral judgments: An empirical investigation. Journal of Business Ethics, 14(9), 715–726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. O’Fallon, M. J., & Butterfield, K. D. (2005). A review of the empirical ethical decision-making literature: 1996–2003. Journal of Business Ethics, 59(4), 375–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Paine, L. S. (2004). Value shift: Why companies must merge social and financial imperatives to achieve superior performance. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  58. Palazzo, G., Krings, F., & Hoffrage, U. (2008). A person-situation interactionist framework to account for ethical blindness. Paper presented at the National Academy of Management, Anaheim, CA.Google Scholar
  59. Rallapalli, K. C., Vitell, S. J., & Barnes, J. H. (1998). The influence of norms on ethical judgments and intentions: An empirical study of marketing professionals. Journal of Business Research, 43(3), 157–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Randall, D. M., & Fernandes, M. F. (1991). The social desirability response bias in ethics research. Journal of Business Ethics, 10(11), 805–817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Rest, J. (1979). Moral development. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  63. Rest, J. R., Barnett, R., Bebeau, M., Deemer, E., Getz, I., Moon, Y., et al. (1986). Moral development: Advances in research and theory. New York: Praeger Press.Google Scholar
  64. Reynolds, S. J. (2006). Moral awareness and ethical predispositions: Investigating the role of individual differences in the recognition of moral issues. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(1), 233–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Reynolds, S. J., & Ceranic, T. (2006). The effects of diverse ethical predispositions on group ethical decision-making. Working paper, University of Washington.Google Scholar
  66. Robertson, D. (1993). Empiricism in business ethics: Suggested research directions. Journal of Business Ethics, 12(8), 585–599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Robertson, D., Snarey, J., Ousley, O., Harenski, K., Bowman, F. D., Gilkey, R., et al. (2007). The neural processing of moral sensitivity to issues of justice and care. Neuropsychologia, 45(8), 755–766.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Schminke, M., Ambrose, M. L., & Noel, T. W. (1997). The effect of ethical frameworks on perceptions of organizational justice. Academy of Management Journal, 40(5), 1190–1207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Scott, E. D. (2000). Moral values: Situationally defined individual difference. Business Ethics Quarterly, 10(2), 497–521.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Shaub, M. K. (1997). Commentary on the relationship between and individual’s values and perceptions of moral intensity: An empirical study. Behavioral Research in Accounting, 9, 41–49.Google Scholar
  71. Singer, M. (1996). The role of moral intensity and fairness perception in judgments of ethicality: A comparison of managerial professionals and the general public. Journal of Business Ethics, 15(4), 469–474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Singhapadki, A., Vitell, S. J., & Kraft, K. L. (1996). Moral intensity and moral decision-making of marketing professionals. Journal of Business Research, 36, 245–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Sparks, J. R., & Hunt, S. D. (1998). Marketing researcher ethical sensitivity: Conceptualization, measurement, and exploratory investigation. Journal of Marketing, 62, 96–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Treviño, L. K. (1986). Ethical decision-making in organizations: A person-situation interactionist model. Academy of Management Review, 11(3), 601–617.Google Scholar
  75. Treviño, L. K., Butterfield, K., & McCabe, D. (1998). The ethical context in organizations: Influences on employee attitudes and behaviors. Business Ethics Quarterly, 8(3), 447–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Treviño, L. K., & Weaver, G. R. (1994). Business ethics/business ethics: One field or two? Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(2), 113–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Treviño, L. K., Weaver, G. R., & Reynolds, S. J. (2006). Behavioral ethics in organizations: A review. Journal of Management, 32(6), 951–990.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1986). Rational choice and the framing of decisions. Journal of Business, 59(4), S251–S278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Vardi, Y. (2001). The effects of organizational and ethical climates on misconduct at work. Journal of Business Ethics, 29(4), 325–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Warren, D. (2003). Constructive and destructive deviance in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 28(4), 622–632.Google Scholar
  81. Weber, J. (1990). Managers’ moral reasoning: Assessing their responses to three moral dilemmas. Human Relations, 43, 228–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Weber, J. (1996). Influences upon managerial moral decision-making: Nature of harm and magnitude of consequences. Human Relations, 49, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Weber, J., & Wasieleski, D. (2001). Investigating influences on managers’ moral reasoning: The impact of context and personal and organizational factors. Business & Society, 40(1), 79–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Opus College of BusinessUniversity of St. ThomasMinneapolisUSA
  2. 2.The Wharton SchoolUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations