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Ethical Judgments: What Do We Know, Where Do We Go?

Abstract

Investigations into ethical judgments generally seem fuzzy as to the relevant research domain. We first attempted to clarify the construct and determine domain parameters. This attempt required addressing difficulties associated with pinpointing relevant literature, most notably the varied nomenclature used to refer to ethical judgments (individual evaluations of actions’ ethicality). Given this variation in construct nomenclature and the difficulties it presented in identifying pertinent focal studies, we elected to focus on research that cited papers featuring prominent and often-used measures of ethical judgments (primarily, but not exclusively, the Multidimensional Ethics Scale). Our review of these studies indicated a preponderance of inferences and conclusions unwarranted by empirical evidence (likely attributable at least partly to inconsistent nomenclature). Moreover, ethical judgments related consistently to few respondent characteristics or any other variables, emergent relationships may not always be especially meaningful, and much research seems inclined to repetition of already verified findings. Although we concluded that knowledge about ethical judgments seems not to have advanced appreciably after decades of investigation, we suggested a possible path forward that focuses on the content of what is actually being judged as reflected in the myriad of vignettes used in the literature to elicit judgments.

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Negatively signed relationships occurred here when the direction of scoring was reversed for either judgments or intentions. For example, in the Barnett and Valentine (2004) study, higher “judgments” scores implied stronger beliefs that questionable actions were unethical and higher “intentions” scores suggested greater tendencies to behave similarly (p. 342). Persons who regarded the activities as wrong (high judgments scorers) thus tended to score low on intentions. Although negatively signed correlations should perhaps be avoided here because of potential confusion that might arise, Barnett and Valentine (2004) were nonetheless unambiguously clear about the precise interpretations of high and low scores. Not all papers reviewed matched this level of clarity. For example, higher scores on ethical judgments have “represented items that are less consistent with the underlying philosophy” (Cruz et al. 2000, p. 228), “a high level of individual moral values” (Herndon et al. 2001, p. 76), “lower ethicality” (Rittenburg and Valentine 2002, p. 297), “higher agreement toward business problems perceived with ethical dilemma” (Sarwono and Armstrong 2001, p. 45), “higher moral value judgment” (Schwepker 1999, p. 306), and “greater generalized ethicality” (Valentine and Fleischman 2003, p. 331). Does greater “consistency” or higher “agreement” suggest that high scorers viewed the activities as more or less appropriate than low scorers? Does “lower ethicality” refer to the action depicted in the vignette or to the respondents themselves? Any ambiguity here makes results more difficult-to-interpret than they might otherwise be and likely need to be. For example, Pan and Sparks (2012, p. 86) stated that, contrary to the general pattern of results from most studies, “Conversely, Barnett (2001) reports a negative relationship between ethical awareness and judgments”. When discussing the ethical judgments measure, however, Barnett (2001) did not specify the precise meaning of high or low scores (pp. 1044–1045), but did reveal (p. 1048) that “recognizing an issue as having a moral component was associated with judgments that the actions were, indeed, unethical”, which suggests that a low score on ethical judgments meant that respondents viewed the activity as inappropriate. In effect, this negative relationship was consistent with positive relationships from other studies, but did not appear to be interpreted as such.

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Mudrack, P.E., Mason, E.S. Ethical Judgments: What Do We Know, Where Do We Go?. J Bus Ethics 115, 575–597 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1426-z

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Keywords

  • Ethical judgments
  • Literature review
  • Vignettes