Character and Circumstances

  • øyvind Kvalnes
Open Access


In the tradition of virtue ethics, moral wrongdoing at work and elsewhere is explained in terms of weakness of character. On this view, a person who prioritizes self-interest over client interest and engages in other kinds of moral transgressions exposes him-or herself to be someone of dubious moral character. A response within this tradition to ethical scandals in business has been to call for authentic leadership, exercised by individuals who consistently embody firmness of character. Experimental studies in social and moral psychology have put the virtue ethical assumptions regarding moral wrongdoing under pressure, suggesting that circumstances affect decision-making and conduct to a high degree. An empirically oriented ethics in organizations should take into account that character and circumstances both affect conduct. When morally questionable behaviour in professions and organizations are exposed, it will not be enough to kick the culprits out and substitute them with morally clean and authentic individuals. Earmarking leadership for morally strong and authentic individuals may be a futile endeavour. Circumstances, often in the shape of incentives and decision-making structures, are significant causes of wrongdoing, and revising them appears to be the most promising measure to create responsible and fair organizations.

Copyright information

© øyvind Kvalnes 2015

Open Access This Chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

Authors and Affiliations

  • øyvind Kvalnes
    • 1
  1. 1.BI Norwegian Business SchoolNorway

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