Disciplines establish and enforce professional codes of ethics in order to guide ethical and safe practice. Unfortunately, ethical breaches still occur. Interestingly, it is found that breaches are often perpetrated by professionals who are aware of their codes of ethics and believe that they engage in ethical practice. The constructs of behavioral ethics, which are most often discussed in business settings, attempt to explain why ethical professionals sometimes engage in unethical behavior. Although traditionally based on theories of social psychology, the principles underlying behavioral ethics are consistent with behavior analysis. When conceptualized as operant behavior, ethical and unethical decisions are seen as being evoked and maintained by environmental variables. As with all forms of operant behavior, antecedents in the environment can trigger unethical responses, and consequences in the environment can shape future unethical responses. In order to increase ethical practice among professionals, an assessment of the environmental variables that affect behavior needs to be conducted on a situation-by-situation basis. Knowledge of discipline-specific professional codes of ethics is not enough to prevent unethical practice. In the current article, constructs used in behavioral ethics are translated into underlying behavior-analytic principles that are known to shape behavior. How these principles establish and maintain both ethical and unethical behavior is discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2015). Occupational therapy code of ethics. https://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Ethics.aspx
American Physical Therapy Association. (2019). Code of ethics for the physical therapist. https://www.apta.org/uploadedFiles/APTAorg/About_Us/Policies/Ethics/CodeofEthics.pdf
American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2016). Code of ethics. https://www.asha.org/Code-of-Ethics/
Ashforth, B. E., & Anand, V. (2003). The normalization of corruption in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 25, 1–52. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-3085(03)25001-2.
Baum, C. G., Forehand, R., & Zegiob, L. E. (1979). A review of observer reactivity in adult-child interactions. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 1(2), 167–178.
Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2020). Ethics code for behavior analysts. Littleton, Co.: Author.
Bowman, J. S. (2018). Thinking about thinking: Beyond decision-making rationalism and the emergence of behavioral ethics. Public Integrity, 20, 89–105. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999922.2017.1410461.
Cameron, J. S., & Miller, D. T. (2009). Ethical standards in gain versus loss frames. In D. De Cremer (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on ethical behavior and decision making (pp. 91–106). Information Age Publishing.
Chugh, D., & Kern, M. C. (2016). A dynamic and cyclical model of bounded ethicality. Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 85–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.riob.2016.07.002.
Cialdini, R., Li, Y. J., Samper, A., & Wellman, N. (2019). How bad apples promote bad barrels: Unethical leader behavior and the selective attrition effect. Journal of Business Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04252-2.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2020). Applied behavior analysis (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.
Cox, D. J. (2020). Descriptive and normative ethical behavior appear to be functionally distinct. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.761.
Dana, J., & Loewenstein, G. (2003). A social science perspective on gifts to physicians from industry. Journal of the American Medical Association, 290(2), 252–255. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.290.2.252.
De Cremer, D. (2009). Psychology and ethics: What it takes to feel ethical when being unethical. In D. De Cremer (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on ethical behavior and decision making (pp. 3–13). Information Age Publishing.
De Cremer, D., Mayer, D. M., & Schminke, M. (2010). On understanding ethical behavior and decision making: A behavioral ethics approach. Business Ethics Quarterly, 20(1), 1–6.
Drumwright, M., Prentice, R., & Biasucci, C. (2015). Behavioral ethics and teaching ethical decision making. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 13(3), 431–458. https://doi.org/10.1111/dsji.12071.
Duska, R. F. (2017). Unethical behavioral finance: Why good people do bad things. Journal of Financial Service Professionals, 71(1), 25–28.
Feldman, Y., Gauthier, R., & Schuler, T. (2013). Curbing misconduct in the pharmaceutical industry: Insights from behavioral ethics and the behavioral approach to law. Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, 41(3), 620–628. https://doi.org/10.1111/jlme.12071.
James Jr., H. S. (2000). Reinforcing ethical decision making through organizational structure. Journal of Business Ethics, 28(1), 43–58.
Loewenstein, G., Issacharoff, S., Camerer, C., & Babcock, L. (1993). Self-serving assessments of fairness and pretrial bargaining. Journal of Legal Studies, 22(1), 135–159.
Michael, J. (2004). Concepts and principles of behavior analysis (Rev. ed.). Society for the Advancement of Behavior Analysis.
Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872676501800105.
Moore, C. (2009). Psychological processes in organizational corruption. In D. De Cremer (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on ethical behavior and decision making (pp. 35–71). Information Age Publishing.
O’Brien, K., Wittmer, D., & Ebrahimi, B. P. (2017). Behavioral ethics in practice: Integrating service learning into a graduate business ethics course. Journal of Management Education, 41(4), 599–616. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562917702495.
Prentice, R. (2014). Teaching behavioral ethics. Journal of Legal Studies Education, 31(2), 325–365.
Reynolds, S. J., & Ceranic, T. L. (2009). On the causes and conditions of moral behavior: Why is this all we know? In D. De Cremer (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on ethical behavior and decision making (pp. 17–33). Information Age Publishing.
Rosenberg, N. E., & Schwartz, I. S. (2019). Guidance or compliance: What makes an ethical behavior analyst? Behavior Analysis in Practice, 12(2), 473–482. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-018-00287-5.
Schwartz, M. S. (2017). Teaching behavioral ethics: Overcoming the key impediments to ethical behavior. Journal of Management Education, 41(4), 497–513. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562917701501.
Sheridan, C. L., & King, R. G. (1972). Obedience to authority with an authentic victim. Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 7(1), 165–166.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Free Press.
Tenbrunsel, A. E., & Messick, D. M. (2004). Ethical fading: The role of self-deception in unethical behavior. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 223–236.
Treviño, L. K., Weaver, G. R., & Reynolds, S. J. (2006). Behavioral ethics in organizations: A review. Journal of Management, 32(6), 951–990. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206306294258.
Wazana, A. (2000). Physicians and the pharmaceutical industry: Is a gift ever just a gift? Journal of the American Medical Association, 283(3), 373–380. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.283.3.373.
Zhong, C., Liljenquist, K., & Cain, D. M. (2009). Moral self-regulation: Licensing and compensation. In D. De Cremer (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on ethical behavior and decision making (pp. 75–89). Information Age Publishing.
Availability of data and materials
The current article does not include the collection of original data.
Conflicts of interest
The author has no conflicts of interest or competing interests to disclose with regard to the current article.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Cicero, F.R. Behavioral Ethics: Ethical Practice Is More Than Memorizing Compliance Codes. Behav Analysis Practice (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-021-00585-5
- Behavioral ethics
- Ethical decisions
- Behavior analysis