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Rethinking Right: Moral Epistemology in Management Research

Abstract

Most management researchers pause at the threshold of objective right and wrong. Their hesitation is understandable. Values imply a “subjective,” personal dimension, one that can invite religious and moral interference in research. The dominant epistemological camps of positivism and subjectivism in management stumble over the notion of moral objectivity. Empirical research can study values in human behavior, but hard-headed scientists should not assume that one value can be objectively better than another. In this article, we invite management researchers to rethink this presumption. We show how accepting at least a limited form of moral objectivity, namely, an epistemic orientation that seeks objective moral reasons, can benefit management research by 1. guiding research practice; 2. using patterns of moral objectivity as clues for formulating empirical hypotheses for psychological explanations; and 3. adding prescriptive power to empirical theories.

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Notes

  1. In this paper, we follow standard practice in moral philosophy and use the terms “ethics” and “morality” as synonyms. We acknowledge that, however, Aristotelians sometimes use the two terms often differently, where “ethics” primarily concerns the issue of “What is it for a life to go well?” and “morality,” in contrast, concerns issues such as “What do we owe to each other?”.

  2. By “epistemic” we refer to the structure of knowledge or its justification.

  3. The moral reasoning, however, may make reference to empirical or “natural” states of affairs, as with Aristotle (1962).

  4. According to some theorists, subjective reasons can be “causes” of intentional action (Davidson 1963). For more philosophical discussions about the distinction between objective and subjective reasons, see Harman (2015) and Sepielli (Forthcoming).

  5. In this article, we do not defend a particular view of moral objectivity, an activity already undertaken by several moral philosophers (e.g., Enoch 2011; Scanlon 2014; Setiya 2015; Skorupski 2010). One widely accepted account of moral objectivity is “reflective equilibrium” (Goodman 1955; Rawls 1971). Reflective equilibrium represents an attempt to justify moral values by achieving a state of coherence in a dynamic process of reasoning, which involves moving back and forth between, on the one hand, (a) considered moral judgments and (b) relevant background theories (Daniels 1996; Bambrough 1979; DePaul 1993; McMahan 2004). It works back and forth between (a) and (b), making incremental adjustments to existing beliefs about cases and particular principles in the light of background theories, and then moves to the other side, making incremental adjustments to theories in light of moral intuitions. The culmination of the reasoning process is an equilibrium point where incremental change is no longer necessary. The underlying idea behind reflective equilibrium is that rational and informed people’s substantive convergence can be an important proxy for moral objectivity. But as Rawls himself points out, convergence is not itself moral objectivity. Note that divergence of normative views by itself does not refute moral objectivity. First, rational disagreement can exist even when discussing empirical fact (McMahon 2009). Second, the fact that reflective equilibrium cannot explain how to fundamentally resolve a genuine moral conflict should not be considered a defect. Any adequate theory must reflect rather than dissolve conflicts if intrinsically difficult. Third, the moral skepticism based on divergence itself assumes a certain moral objectivity because the critic purports the criticism to be objectively true. For more comprehensive discussions about this matter, see McGrath (2010).

  6. Normative ethical relativism is typically distinguished from metaethical relativism. The latter deals primarily with the epistemic basis for moral judgments rather than the objective status of the judgments themselves. Metaethical relativism, in contrast to normative ethical relativism, is frequently defended by moral philosophers.

  7. Deception is not always unethical. For circumstances under which deception can be unethical, see, for example, Strudler (2005).

  8. The positivist and the subjectivist division can be articulated in much greater detail, and the division itself is open to challenge, especially by philosophers of science. For the purposes of this article, however, we accept the simple division. It is one commonly made by management scholars.

  9. At this point, one might note a possible difference between management research and moral reasoning, asking whether or not, in the domain of moral propositions, there exist what David Armstrong calls “truth makers”—“something in the world which makes it the case that serves as an ontological ground, for this truth.” (1997: p. 155). Social scientists, both positivists and subjectivists, assume that truth makers, such as stock values, currency changes, job stress, or motivation exist, but different camps have different views about what they can know about the facts. A certain version of moral objectivity, especially that of some correspondence theorists (e.g., Boyd 1988; Shafer-Landau 2003), is committed to the view that there must exist truth-makers for moral propositions, and they attempt to explain the existence of moral facts using metaphysics or evolutionary biology. But, more recently, important moral realists (e.g., Scanlon 2014); Setiya 2015) argue that even without truth-makers, moral propositions can be objectively true or false.

  10. Most but not all moral philosophers accept moral objectivity. For instance, those who hold expressivism (Blackburn 1984; Gibbard 1990) hold that moral value statements are simply expressions of one’s noncognitive attitudes, such as personal approval or disapproval. But the expressivist has several difficult problems to solve. One of them is the Geach-Frege problem (Geach 1960; Searle 1962), which has stubbornly resisted solution from anti-objectivist positions (Drier 1996; Sinnott-Armstrong 2000). Today, most current anti-objectivists have softened their views (See van Roojen 2009, for reviews). Contemporary anti-objectivists accept, at least, the epistemic features of moral objectivism (Blackburn 1984; Gibbard 1990).

  11. For more philosophical discussion about the objective status of moral knowledge, see Boyd (1988), Brink (1989), Enoch (2011), Hampton (2012), Scanlon (2014), Setiya (2015), Skorupski (2010), Smith (1994), Shafer-Landau (2003).

  12. More metaphysical discussion about how moral deliberation, acceptance of moral mistake, and correction can philosophically demonstrate objectivity of moral propositions can be found in Brink (1989).

  13. One can argue that values about how research ought to be done can be reduced to usefulness. First, usefulness is itself a value, rather than an empirical fact, since what is useful is based on a more fundamental value like well-being. Second, what is true is not always equivalent to what is useful. In some contexts, a scientifically untrue theory or story may be more pragmatically useful than a true theory. Indeed, Alvin Plantinga (1993) argues that epistemic values cannot be well explained by evolutionary biology or survival alone, in part because untrue stories can sometimes benefit our survival better than true stories.

  14. This quote is from an unpublished manuscript (De los Reyes, Kim and Weaver, Unpublished).

  15. This view, interestingly enough, is similar to the one defended by the so-called school of moral realism in moral philosophy (e.g., Scanlon 2014; Setiya 2015).

  16. Another example is Gino and Pierce’s (2009) study about “unethical” behavior. In one experiment, when piles of cash (about $7000 in real $1 bills) were present on a table before participants, the participants were more likely to behave unethically—to cheat—on the task than when less money (only the cash necessary to pay participants) was visually available. Note that what the authors want to explain is the nature of a certain “unethical” behavior—not merely behavior that the subjects perceive as unethical. This follows from the fact that their hypothesis is that “the presence of abundant wealth increases the likelihood of individuals to behave unethically for personal gain” (p. 143). Therefore, the experiment suggests that cheating in the experiment is an “objectively unethical” behavior. Again, by treating the concept of cheating as a “thick” or hybrid concept, the experiment can be interpreted as relevant to the general question of how people ought, objectively, to behave.

  17. In fact, the GSIA (Graduate School of Industrial Administration) of Carnegie Institute of Technology—the former name of the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, was one of the earliest business schools that incorporated ethics into a curriculum (Modzelewski 2001). Ethics has been taught at the GSIA and the Tepper School since 1966—one year before the publication of Simon’s article (Simon 1967).

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Kim, T.W., Donaldson, T. Rethinking Right: Moral Epistemology in Management Research. J Bus Ethics 148, 5–20 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-3009-2

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Keywords

  • Moral epistemology
  • Research paradigm
  • Objectivity
  • Ethics