Perceived Risk and Moral Philosophy: Situational Influences in Marketing Ethical Decision-Making

Article excerpt


A significant body of theoretical and empirical research has emerged in recent years examining ethical decision-making in marketing. While the studies have frequently concerned themselves with marketers' values (Singhapakdi & Vitell, 1991, Vitell et al., 1993), individual constructs such as Cognitive Moral Development (Goolsby &Hunt, 1993), organizational factors (Zey-Ferrell & Ferrell, 1983) and any number of demographic variables, a common element in many of these and other studies is the influence of formal moral philosophical reasoning in ethical decision-making. Moral philosophy--whether explicitly considered or intuitively applied--lies at the heart of the best known theories of ethical decision-making in marketing (Hunt & Vitell, 1986; Ferrell & Gresham, 1985; Ferrell, Gresham & Fraedrich, 1989).

Two variants of moral philosophy--Teleology (sometimes referred to as utilitarianism) and Deontology--are featured prominently in the theoretical literature; their influence in decision-making has been substantiated in direct tests of the theories and numerous other empirical studies. The apparent popularity of teleological and deontological accounts of moral reasoning may best be explained by Nozick (1981) who notes that all of substantive ethics has been fitted or poured into these two powerful and appealing molds (p. 494).

Taken collectively, however, studies of moral philosophy and ethical decision-making have yielded sometimes contradictory results. A preponderance of studies suggests that deontological reasoning contributes more heavily to ethical judgments and behaviors (Vitell & Hunt, 1990; Hunt & Vasquez-Parraga, 1993; Akaah, 1997; DeConinck & Lewis, 1997), but others find that teleological considerations seem to dominate individuals' ethical judgments (Fritzsche & Becker, 1984; Hegarty & Sims, 1978, 1979; Dubinsky & Loken, 1988; Thong & Yap, 1998).

The primary objective of this study is to determine whether another previously unconsidered variable, perceived risk, affects both the content of moral reasoning, and individuals' ethical judgments and intentions. The significance of this approach is that it, in a departure from previous practice, treats moral philosophy itself as a dependent variable. Most existing studies of moral philosophy rely on a post hoc classification of individuals' moral philosophy (e.g. Fritzsche and Becker 1983, 1984, which classify managers as deontologists or rule-utilitarians), based on responses to dilemmas presented in vignettes. These classifications are in turn used as grouping variables, or some such predictor of judgments, intentions, and behaviors. As noted by Fraedrich and Ferrell (1992), however, individuals can and do change their moral philosophy, depending on circumstances. Following a brief review of moral philosophy and studies of risk perception, several hypotheses are presented. The results are analyzed, and the implications for marketing practice are discussed.

Moral Philosophy

Teleological theories are essentially concerned with the outcomes of behaviors; the goodness of any action is weighed solely by its consequences. Two variants within teleology are utilitarianism and egoism. Ethical egoism holds that individuals should always try to promote their own greatest good (Hunt & Vitell, 1986). Utilitarianism asks simply "what alternative will produce the greatest balance of good over evil," for a community or an organization while egoism focuses on the actions that will result in the greatest good for the individual. The well-known disclaimer that "the end justifies the means" is an appeal to utilitarian reasoning, demonstrating utilitarianism's preoccupation with outcomes.

Deontology, essentially a duty-based theory, stresses that the rightness of an act is not determined by any set of outcomes; certain actions are right because they uphold basic obligations of duty, justice, and fairness (Ashmore, 1987; Laczniak & Murphy, 1993). …


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