Psychoethics: A Discipline Applying Psychology to Ethics

By Needle, Terri Kaye; Lecker, Martin J. | Review of Business, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Psychoethics: A Discipline Applying Psychology to Ethics


Needle, Terri Kaye, Lecker, Martin J., Review of Business


Introduction

Based upon Greek legend, the philosopher Diogenes wandered the streets of Athens carrying a lantern and shining it on each stranger's face in search of an honest person [1]. If Diogenes carried that lantern in the 1990s, he most likely would be wasting his time. Rarely, does a day go by without the media reporting at least one incident of unethical behavior in the business world.

Managers and employees daily face the demands of their stockholders and board of directors. With profits dominating the decision-making process, many unethical practices are manifested in the corporate world. However, not all ethical business decisions lead to a loss of profits. Ice cream manufacturers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield along with Body Shop's Anita Roddick are icons of ethical decision makers who led successful Fortune 500 companies. On the other hand, Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley are examples of those who strayed by compromising ethical actions in favor of increasing profits.

Several psychological theories that determined the degree of ethical decision making are applied to the actions of these four business executives. Each executive's background is analyzed from a psychological perspective, and conclusions are drawn about his or her ethical decision-making abilities.

The purpose is to demonstrate that there is a positive correlation between the ethical nature of a decision and the psychological background of the derision maker. Furthermore, due to the unique, specialized integration of the two disciplines, psychology and ethics, we recommend that a new discipline be created called psychoethics.

Psychological Theories

Throughout the 20th century, many psychologists have applied their theories to the study of ethics. One of the earliest cognitive developmental psychologists Jean Piaget in his theory of intellectual development explains moral development in children. Approximately 20 years later, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a six-stage theory of moral development, followed by Carol Gilligan who characterized a form of moral thinking from a female perspective. Arthur Andersen and Co. applied Kohlberg's theory to a model on ethical decision making that they developed in the early 1990s [2].

Penn and Collier trained business students in Kohlberg's theory of moral development and found a significant number of students showing a higher level of moral analysis as a result of this training [15]. Yet, even by applying psychology to the study of ethics, many questions remain as to why Anita Roddick took the socially ethical path of decision making while Michael Milken did not.

Cognitive developmental psychologists, Lawrence Kohlberg in The Six Stages of Moral Development Theory and Jean Piaget in The Theory of Intellectual Development explain moral development in children and young adults mainly as a function of peer and peer-group interaction [2,5]. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, theorists in the psychoanalytic tradition, explain moral development in terms of family attachments and identifications (archetypes), respectively.

Abraham Maslow in his theory of Hierarchy of Needs alludes to the fact that any kind of decision making or peak experience is based on a hierarchy of one's needs, i.e., one cannot necessarily make ethical decisions if one is starving or without a place to live [12:114]. Refer to Exhibit 1. Carol Gilligan, a developmental psychologist who focused her research and theories on women, offers yet another theory of ethical and moral decision making.

Applying the Kohlberg and Gilligan Theories

The theories of Kohlberg and Gilligan would be important components of the new discipline of psychoethics. The two voices signal different ways of thinking about what constitutes a moral problem and how such problems can be solved. They also draw attention to the fact that a story can be told from different angles and a situation can be seen in different lights. …

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