Ethical Judgment and Ethical Reasoning on Business Issues: A Cross-Lag Model for University Students in Hong Kong

By Cheung, Chau-Kiu | College Student Journal, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethical Judgment and Ethical Reasoning on Business Issues: A Cross-Lag Model for University Students in Hong Kong


Cheung, Chau-Kiu, College Student Journal


Introducing topics on business ethics in the course of international business is out of an aim of promoting students' ethical reasoning and ethical judgment regarding business issues. To evaluate if it fulfills the aim, a study surveyed 197 second-year students who attended the course in an institution in Hong Kong, both at the beginning and end of the term. Analysis of the panel data using structural equation modeling showed that there were reciprocal relationships among ethical reasoning and ethical judgment over time. Active learning about business ethics, grades, and perceived substantive complexity in the course displayed significant effects on later ethical reasoning and judgment. Overall, the findings are meaningful with reference to a cognitive-developmental framework.

Business ethics appears to be a global issue confronting business practitioners and students. Growing distrust of business practice is widespread according to some recent surveys in the Western world (Eynon et al., 1997; Shannon & Berl, 1997). What is more, business students seem to be even more unethical, for instance, in favor of fraud and private interests, than business practitioners and other students (Harris. & Sutton, 1995; Lane, 1995; Rest & Narvaez, 1991). It is therefore a critical time for business education to nourish business ethics among its students (Pizzolatto & Bevill, 1996). This concern should be a first step to furnish a more ethical business environment, which is a prerequisite to a healthy economy (Bishop, 1992). The desire for education about business ethics brings to the fore a question: can one learn to be more ethical on campus? This is one of the questions that prompt the present study. That is, the aim of the present study is to examine the effect of learning about business ethics in business education on the student's reasoning and judgment in an ethical sense. Besides, the present study attempts to elucidate relationships between ethical judgment, ethical reasoning, and ethical orientation (in terms of a low level of Machiavellianism) within university students in Hong Kong.

Known as an amoral society (Ikels, 1989), Hong Kong tends to be at risk for problems of business ethics. Ethical issues of business students in Hong Kong have recently been an important topic for research (Cheung & Scherling, 1998; Nyaw & Ng, 1994; Tse & Au, 1997). A study found that business students in Hong Kong were less ethical toward customers than Taiwanese, Japanese, and Canadian counterparts (Nyaw & Ng, 1994) whereas another study found that Hong Kong business students were not more unethical than other students (Tse & Au, 1997). Despite making an important start, these studies employed only cross-sectional data which prohibited conclusive causal inference. Some of them also lacked an adequate theoretical model to make sense of the data. They avowed that their measures might not be adequate because of the vulnerability of the measures to the problem of social desirability. Furthermore, these studies fail to distinguish between important concepts, such as ethical judgment, ethical reasoning, and ethical orientation, thus falling short of a comprehensive understanding of the issue (Reidenbach & Robin, 1990). A previous study that differentiated the various ethical concepts applied causal modeling techniques to reveal that having studied in university for longer time contributed to the student's ethical reasoning (Cheung & Scherling, 1998). Yet, this cross-sectional study was unable to examine the causal relationship between ethical reasoning, ethical judgment, and ethical orientation, in terms of Machiavellianism. On the other hand, no study has examined the effect of learning about business ethics within a causal framework including ethical reasoning, ethical judgment, and ethical orientation. To address relationships among these variables more adequately, the present study employs a longitudinal panel design to study causal relationships between the ethical concepts, controlling for some background characteristics.

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