Associations between the Religious Beliefs and Ethical-Reasoning Abilities of Future Accounting Professionals

Article excerpt

It is commonly believed that an individual's religious beliefs play an important role in ethical decision making because personal values and standards are often related to the individual's religious background (Graafland, Kaptein, & Schouten, 2006). Individuals who have strong religious beliefs are more likely to follow their religious standards when facing an ethical dilemma. Consequently, in the workplace it is necessary for managers and employees to understand how people with different religious beliefs have different perceptions of ethical issues. An analysis of the relationship between religious beliefs and perceptions of business ethics could be useful for providing guidelines for those who need to execute their code of conduct in a business context.

After some significant accounting scandals around the world, such as Enron, WorldCom, Arthur, Anderson, various bodies have appealed to the public for a greater emphasis on accounting ethics; following this, a wave of discussion involving accounting ethics has taken place (Haas, 2005). Since most accounting students will be future accounting professionals, the impact of religious beliefs on accounting students' ethical reasoning abilities should be an important topic to consider in accounting ethics education. Although studies of religious beliefs and ethical reasoning have been conducted by a number of researchers, much remains to be learned about the related issues with regard to accounting students. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore the relationship between ethical-reasoning abilities and religious beliefs of accounting students.

Kohlberg's (1981) ethical development theory is the most widely used for analyzing individuals' ethical-reasoning abilities. According to Kohlberg's theory, ethical reasoning is the extent to which consideration should ideally be given to resolve an ethical dilemma, and it describes the sophisticated cognitive moral structure that an individual is potentially capable of utilizing (Thorne, 2000). The development of ethical-reasoning abilities can be divided into three major levels and six stages: (1) preconventional level (including stage one: obedience and punishment orientation and stage two: instrumental purpose and exchange); (2) conventional level (including stage three: interpersonal accord and conformity and stage four: social accord and system maintenance); and (3) postconventional level (including stage five: social contract, utility, individual rights and stage six: universal ethical principles). Individuals respond differently to ethical issues in accordance with their stage of ethical reasoning, and those who are at a higher ethical stage are more likely to resist the pressure of conforming to the judgments of others. Kohlberg's theory has been used extensively to examine the levels of ethical-reasoning abilities of accounting students and professionals (Jones, Massey, & Thorne, 2003).

Religion has been recognized as one of the most important factors that can affect an individual's behavior. McDaniel and Burnett (1990) indicate that religion is a commitment to principles which are believed to be made by God. Bell (1980, p. 333) states that religion provides answers to the fundamental existential question which human groups encounter. It also offers rites for participants to celebrate and to bond in these acts of celebration from generation to generation. It is, therefore, believed that the impact of religion on social development and human behavior is significant. Past research examining individuals' ethical-reasoning abilities indicates that religious belief is a variable that has a significant impact on the development of ethical reasoning (Forte, 2004).

Religious beliefs and practices may provide guidance and direction for people in finding solutions to ethical problems. In several studies it has been indicated that individuals who are strongly committed to their religious beliefs are capable of making decisions according to their moral convictions (see e. …