A Comparative Study of Moral Reasoning

By Windsor, John C.; Cappel, James J. | College Student Journal, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Comparative Study of Moral Reasoning

Windsor, John C., Cappel, James J., College Student Journal

According to various models of ethical decision making, moral reasoning is an important factor influencing ethical behavior. Previous studies in business ethics research have predominantly used student samples. This study compares two samples, information systems professionals and students, in terms of moral reasoning. The results indicate that these samples differed significantly on moral reasoning as measured by the Defining Issues Test. The implications of this study for business ethics education and research are examined.


Ethics is receiving increased attention across various business disciplines due at least, in part, to the scandals and negative publicity that have plagued business and government in recent decades. Examples of prominent incidents and issues that have provoked controversy over organizational ethical conduct include: top executives being caught on tape displaying discriminatory attitudes toward minorities, savings and loan failures, insider trading fraud, toxic waste disposal, product safety issues, and governmental officials accepting gifts that raise conflict of interest questions. Organizations today face the possibility of having any of their actions that are ethically questionable put to public scrutiny by investigative reporters and public interest groups. The high cost of unethical behavior to companies can include heavy fines, embarrassment, the loss of public confidence and reputation, low employee morale, a disruption in the normal business routine, and difficulty in recruiting (Nash, 1993).

To prevent these difficulties and to encourage ethical behavior, university educators are placing increased emphasis on ethics in the classroom. The American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a prominent accreditation body for business schools, identifies ethics as an important component of the undergraduate business curricula. In addition, various professional organizations and companies have issued codes of conduct to provide guidance for their members to resolve ethical issues. For example, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Association of Information Technology Professionals, and the Association of Systems Management (ASM) are among the national organizations that have issued codes of conduct for information systems professionals.


Various models have been proposed in the business ethics literature to identify the important influences on ethical decision making (Bommer et al., 1991; Jones, 1991; Hunt & Vitell, 1986; Trevino & Youngblood, 1990; Ferrell et al., 1989). These models recognize the importance of moral reasoning to ethical decision making. Moral reasoning involves how ethical decisions are arrived at, i.e., on what basis these decisions are supported or justified. The most common way to measure moral reasoning in the ethics literature has been using the Defining Issues Test (Rest, 1990).

There has been a tradition of comparative studies in business ethics research in an effort to gain an improved understanding of ethical decision making differences across groups. Hendrickson and Latta (1995) examined ethical decision making differences between business majors and arts and sciences majors. Stevens et al. (1993) investigated the ethical decision making of business majors versus business school faculty. Glenn and Van Loo (1993) and Arlow and Ulrich (1985) compared the ethical decision making of business majors versus business professionals. Studies by Paradice and Dejoie (1991) and Kievet (1991) used the Defining Issues Test to compare the ethical reasoning of information systems majors versus students from other business majors.

However, based on a review of the literature, no previous studies were uncovered that compared samples of business professionals versus students in terms of moral reasoning. Yet, prior research shows that age and education lead to significant differences in moral reasoning (Trevino, 1992).

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