Changes in Student Moral Reasoning Levels from Exposure to Ethics Interventions in a Business School Curriculum

By Flynn, Lisa; Buchan, Howard | Journal of Business and Accounting, October 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Changes in Student Moral Reasoning Levels from Exposure to Ethics Interventions in a Business School Curriculum


Flynn, Lisa, Buchan, Howard, Journal of Business and Accounting


INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

There are typically three options for accomplishing specific instruction in business ethics. Business curricula may mandate a course external to the business school in ethics or business ethics specifically from a course within liberal arts departments, typically philosophy. Alternatively, business programs may offer a business ethics course as a stand-alone course within the business school. Finally, business ethics instruction may be infused throughout several courses within the business curriculum in lieu of a separate course. The method of instruction under study represents the infusion approach, where students receive an introduction to business ethics in a management fundamentals course and a multi-step approach to reasoning through business dilemmas. Business ethics is reinforced using the same approach to solving dilemmas subsequently in marketing, upper level management, and strategic management courses. In an effort to assess the effectiveness of the infUsion approach, the authors surveyed students (pretest) in the management fundamentals course prior to receiving any ethics instruction. The same students were surveyed several semesters later (posttest) at the conclusion of ethics interventions in the upper level management capstone course. Results of the pretest/posttests were then compared to determine the impact of ethics education.

The study of ethics often investigates individuals' reported thought processes or ways of analyzing ethical issues. Actions are in many ways more difficult to capture and analyze, and as such ethics research often encompasses psychological aspects and moral reasoning about issues with ethical content, as opposed to the study of actions taken. Moral reasoning has its roots in the cognitive moral development theories of Kohlberg (1969), who proposed a three level, six stage (two stages at each level) model. Level one, the pre-conventional level, assumes individuals are primarily concerned with rewards and punishment. This level of moral reasoning has been referred as Personal Interest. Individuals reasoning at level two, the conventional level, consider the consequences of behavior in relation to others, and to laws and other codes of conduct. This level of moral reasoning has been referred to as Maintaining Norms. Level three, the post-conventional level, is the highest level and universal truths become a primary focus, often referred to as Principled Moral Reasoning.

James Rest (1986) proposed a four-component model of cognitive moral decision making that includes cognitive moral development as one component of the overall decision making model. Stage one, moral sensitivity, involves recognizing the ethical component of an issue and determining alternative courses of action. Stage two, moral judgment, relates to cognitive moral development and is the stage where alternatives are weighed against an individual's sense of morality and the most appropriate course of action is identified. The next stage, moral motivation (intent), involves placing moral judgments about the appropriate action above other considerations such as practical expediency and requires an individual to assume personal responsibility for outcomes. The final stage, moral character, requires an individual to carry out his or her moral intent despite obstacles and fatigue that may otherwise prevent the ethical action from being implemented (Rest, et al., 1999a). The stages would seem to logically move in a somewhat sequential fashion, although Rest theorizes that the components of the decision making model interact in a complex reciprocal manner. Notably, several models used in general business ethics research incorporate the four-component model (e.g., Jones and Ryan, 1997; Jones, 1991; Ferrel et al., 1989).

Rest (1979) also developed a survey instrument for assessing individual moral reasoning levels. The resultant Defining Issues Test (DIT) was a practical improvement over prior interview-based methods of discerning levels of moral reasoning. …

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