Dimensions of Moral Intensity and Ethical Decision-Making: An Empirical Study of Department of National Defence. (DND) Employees and Canadian Forces (CF) Members

Article excerpt

This study examined the influence of five dimensions of moral intensity (Jones, 1991) on three stages of the ethical decision-making process (Rest, 1986). The five dimensions of moral intensity were: magnitude of consequences, temporal immediacy, social consensus, proximity, and probability of effect. The three stages of ethical decision-making were: recognition of moral issues, ethical judgment, and moral intentions. Four work-related scenarios were presented to respondents, who then completed measures of five dimensions of moral intensity, as well as whether or not the action posed an ethical issue, ethical judgments regarding the actions, and the likelihood that they personally would engage in the actions. Results revealed that the dimensions of moral intensity did not significantly influence moral recognition; however they were related to ethical judgment and moral intentions. Social consensus, magnitude of consequences and probability of effect were particularly important influences on the ethical decision-making process. Organizational implications of the research are also discussed.


In recent years, the issue of ethical decision-making and ethical behaviour has received much attention. The popular press are replete with examples of the ethical disaster of the week: Nortel's accounting practices.... behaviour of US soldiers in Iraq.... insidertraining.... misrepresentations by politicians.... just to name a few.

Confronting ethical situations is part of normal daily life. How individuals come to define, recognize, and resolve ethical dilemmas has been the focus of considerable theoretical and empirical inquiry in the social sciences. An ethical dilemma can be defined as a conflict of two or more ethical principles, such that any possible solutions will result in the violation of at least one of the conflicting principles (Kitchener, 1984). However, this definition has been regarded as fairly restrictive. As a result, much of the psychological community more broadly defines ethical dilemmas as involving any situation in which at least one ethical principle has the potential to be violated (Young & Baranski, 2003).

In order to understand the determinants of ethical decision-making, a major focus in the literature has been on the formulation and testing of ethical decision-making models (e.g., Ferrell and Gresham, 1985; Hunt and Vitell, 1986; Trevino, 1986). Rest (1986) posits a decision-making process consisting of four stages: (a) recognizing a moral issue, (b) making a moral judgment, (c) forming a moral intent, and finally, (d) behaving in an ethical manner. Hunt & Vitell (1986) suggest that an individual's recognition that they are confronted with an ethical problem triggers the ethical decision-making process. Obviously, a person who does not recognize an ethical issue cannot employ ethical decision-making schemata (Jones, 1991). Ethical intention is influenced by moral judgment, which in turn is influenced by the individual recognizing a moral issue.

One commonality among ethical decision-making models concerns the inclusion of multiple predictors of the ethical decision-making process. Scholars in this field use three general classes of predictors of ethical decision-making in organizations: individual predictors (e.g., moral development, personal factors, moral philosophy); situational predictors (e.g., moral intensity of the issue); and organizational predictors (e.g., the ethical climate of the organization). Ferell and Gresham's (1985) contingency model of ethical decision-making suggests that the ethical decision-making process is influenced by individual factors (such as attitudes and intentions), significant others, and opportunity (in terms of professional codes, corporate policy, and reinforcement). Hunt and Vitell (1986) emphasize that the ethical decision-making process begins with both the environment and with the individual's past experiences. …


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