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How moral intensity and ethical decision making differs between uk business students and accounting professionals?

| December 4, 2012


As a result of major scandals within the business world such as Enron, WorldKom, Kmart and more recently the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, the importance of business ethics has increased, consequently there has been great concern that business professionals do not have correct ethical values.  Waddock (2005).   It has been suggested by Jones et al (2003) that many scandals could have been prevented if professionals had better ethical decision-making processes and in the case of Enron, could have produced a different audit opinion.  Freidman (1970) believed that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” and in some cases unlawful methods have be used to insure this resulting in lengthy jail sentences and expensive lawsuits.  If ethical behavior is to be improved it is vital that the components involved in the process of making ethical decisions is understood and according to Jackling et al (2007), education in accounting ethics would help cure the professions ethical collapse.  Ahadiat and Mackie (1993) suggested that if accountants and business professionals are to have the ethical standards expected of them in the industry, university business schools and places that offer professional training, must insure graduates are given the correct training to effectively deal with any ethical dilemmas they may come across in the


Ethical decision making models show variables that have an impact on ethical choice and create a foundation for how ethical decisions are made within organisations.  Rest (1986) formed a model consisting of four stages that an individual is subjected to when making an ethical decision.   The process begins with an individual identifying a ethical dilemma, making an ethical judgment, their intention to act ethically or unethically and finally the ethical action taken as a consequence.  Jones (1991) provides the “most comprehensive synthesis model of ethical decision making” Loe et al (2000) pp-186.  Jones (1991) combines in his model, previous ethical decision making models, with a particular focus to Rest’s (1986) model of ethical action, using it as a bases to introduce the concept of moral intensity. Many educational programs can be designed using the components of moral intensity, as Leitsch (2006) makes clear, further empirical research using Jones’s (1991) model is imperative as it would increase our knowledge of the ethical decision making process.  The purpose of this dissertation is to incorporate Jones’s (1991) theoretical model into the ethical decision making process of UK business students and accounting professionals, using different ethically challenging scenarios.  The understanding of the ethical decision making process of business students and accounting professionals will help recruiters identify areas that may need further attention in teaching courses, ensuring graduates are well trained and subsequently thwart the escalation of more headline scandals within the business world.

Background Literature

Early ethical studies were based around normative models that stated what should take place in an ethically challenging situation.  Thorne and Ferrell (1993) criticised these early approach’s to business ethics, as they assumed strict rules that had to be adhered to when making ethical decisions in an organisation.  Hunt (1991) agreed with the thoughts of Thorne and Ferrell (1993) expressing that positive models provided a guide that helped to improve our understanding of business phenomena hence positive ethical decision making models were fashioned.  Hunt and Vitell (1986) produced a model on the general theory of ethics that concentrated on personal, organizational, industrial and cultural factors.  The contingency framework of Ferrell and Gresham (1985) focused on individual, cultural and opportunity factors, whilst Trevino (1986) produced a situational-individual model directed on job and organizational factors.

The Jones (1991) moral intensity model, incorporates the factors that effect ethical decision making used in the previous models mentioned above, Loe et al (2000) makes clear that Jones’s (1991) model, represents the overall agreement regarding the variables embodying the ethical decision making process, by including the concept of moral intensity.  Both Ford and Richardson (1994) and Loe et al (2000) in their reviews on the empirical literature concerning the ethical decision making process, recommended that there be further testing.  In agreement with the reviews, Ming et al (1998) acknowledged that there had been “limited empirical literature pertaining to Jones’s model”, hence further empirical testing of the moral intensity model is desirable.  Similarly empirical studies that have looked at education, years of education and differences between students and professionals, were described by both, Ford and Richardson (1994) and Loe et al (2000) to have mixed results and deemed inconclusive.  As a result of these non-significant or mixed results and a lack of empirical studies on the Jones’s (1991) model, the variables used in this investigation have been produced.

Processes involved when making an ethical decision

Rest (1986) believed that when making any form of ethical decision an individual goes through four key steps shown bellow.  The first step is the identification of an ethical dilemma, Larkin (2000) states that the “ability to identify ethical and unethical behavior is essential in all professions”, he goes on to add that when a person acknowledges the moral aspects of an issue there opinions, choices and goals are influenced.

After noting an ethical dilemma, Rest’s (1986) model moves on to the second stage, ethical judgment. Blasi (1980) states in his critique, “without judgment, an action, no matter how beneficial, would not be moral”.  It is for this reason that the second stage to Rest’s (1986) model is vital because without ethical judgment, a decision can’t be deemed right or wrong.  Kohlberg (1969) formulated the concept of cognitive moral development (CMD), this is an important factor in Rest’s (1986) model, as much of ethical judgment is determined by an individual’s moral development.  According to Wyld et al (1994) “Relating Kohlberg’s model to business decision making and behavior has been central to the building of theoretical frameworks”, particularly Jones’s (1991) model.

Once an ethical judgment has been made the individual then decides whether to act ethically or unethically.  This third stage in the model demonstrates the individuals “intention to act, which is determined by the value an individual places on the ethical course of action versus the value of other courses of action”, Sweeney et al (2010).

Research by Laczniak and Inderrieden (1987) and Chonko and Hunt (1985) found that this stage was vital in understanding ethical behavior as it had a profound effect on the ethical action taken by the individual, in the final stage of Rest’s (1986) model.  Rest (1986) put forward the question, “why then would one ever chose the moral alternative, especially if it involves sacrificing some personal value or suffering some hardship? What motivates the selection of moral values over other values?” (pp. 13-14).   Various theories have made an attempt to answer this question.  Staub (1989) implied that that majority of moral motives depended on the individual’s personal aspirations.  Bandura (1990) theorised two sources of intent, self-sanctions, which are supportive of Staub’s (1989) findings and social-sanctions.  Social Sanctions enthused people to base their intention to act ethically or unethically on the approval of others, to prevent censure within the organisation.  These theories suggest that moral intentions are influenced by personal aspirations and social-sanctions from others.  It can be seen that in answer to Rest’s question people use moral alternatives because the choice shows who they are and how others view them.

The final stage in Rest’s model is performing the ethical action; there has been little research into this due to problems measuring and observing behavior, Jones et al (2003).  Critics of Rest’s (1986) model such as White (1999), found that in some extreme situations individuals may act immorally even if they are capable of moral reasoning.  As a result of these skeptics, Jones (1991) introduced his own independent variable of moral intensity, which he found influenced the ethical decision making process initiated by Rest’s (1986) four stage model of ethical action.

Moral Intensity

Moral intensity relates to the issue itself and to every unique situation Shaub (1997).  Consequently Jones (1991, p372) described moral intensity as being “a construct that captures the extent of issue-related moral imperative in a situation”.  Ethical dilemmas tend to be evaluated within the context of the situation; hence an evaluation of the situation is imperative in understanding if a situation is ethical or not Dewe (1997).  The conception behind moral intensity has often been related to the criminal justice system; in that your punishment is proportionate to the severity of the offence you commit Davis et al (1988).  According to Jones (1991) moral intensity is a multidimensional construct and he identifies six characteristics that make up the moral intensity model.

Magnitude of consequences is defined by Jones (1991, p374) to be “The sum of the harms (or benefits) done to the victims (or beneficiaries) of the moral act in question”.  The idea is brought about from the basic mechanics of human nature; some moral issues have much harsher consequences and in turn, are more morally intense than an action with less serious consequences Barnett and Valentine (2004).

Social consensus is labeled by Jones (1991, p375) to be “the degree of social agreement that a proposed act is evil (or good)”.  It does however bring up the question of whether a person knows what is deemed good ethics or bad ethics in a situation.  A strong level of social consensus against behavior that was unethical would help an individual understand when a behavior was wrong or right.  Empirical testing by Laczniak and Inderrieden (1987) found that illegal decisions were rejected on more occasions than unethical decisions, implying that people had a strong social consensus against illegal decisions, as the impact to them would be much greater than unethical decisions. Laczniak and Inderrieden (1987) concluded that for a subject to respond appropriately in a situation they needed to have a consensus of what originally was the right course of action to take.   Previous studies that have concluded social consensus to be the key dimension have used student samples, where as studies finding magnitude of consequences to be the key dimension used managers and professionals Barnett and Valentine (2004).

The probability effect is defined to be a “Joint function of the probability that the act in question will actually take place and the act in question will actually cause the harm (benefit) predicted” Jones (1991, p 375).  The lower the probability the lower the moral intensity.  Research by Singer et al (1988) has found that the probability dimension is a significant factor of whistle blowing.  Studies by Kahneman et al (1982) found that individuals were not good estimators of probabilities.

Temporal Immediacy was explained by Jones (1991, p376) to be “the length of time between the present and onset of consequences of the moral act”.  The shorter the length of time the greater the immediacy of the act in question.  Jeanette et al (2009) states that Jones (1991) has included the construct of temporal immediacy for two reasons.  The first being that people tend to disregard the impact of events that happen in the future and that people are generally more worried about events that effect the short term, than those that effect the long term.   The second is that large differences in time, increases the probability that the act in question will cause harm or benefit, reduces.

According to Jones (1991, p 377)  “The concentration effect considers the inverse function of the number of people affected by an act of given magnitude.”  In other words it corresponds to the amount of people affected by a given act.

When there is a low concentration of effect it can be assumed that in the case of accounting professionals, a greater number of people will be affected by earnings management decisions.  This would result in accountants being more likely partake in acts that involve earnings management.  Studies by Carlson et al (2002) and Chia and Mee (2000) found that the concentration of effect had no effect on the ethical decision making process, however as there is limited information surrounding the implications of the concentration effect on moral intensity it will be included in this study.

The last component of the moral intensity model is known as the proximity factor.  Jones (1991 p376) defines this as “the feeling of nearness (social, cultural, psychological or physical) that the moral agent has for victims (beneficiaries) of the evil (beneficial) act in question”.  It is natural for people to be more concerned about those who are close to them; a simple example is comparing an individual’s relationship with their family to that of a stranger.  Frey (2000) therefore identifies that with higher levels of proximity moral intensity increases.

Concordant with Jones (1991) all six components of the moral intensity model represent the characteristics of a moral issue and are interlinked with each other.  In general his theory insinuates that as any component of the model increases so too does the overall level of moral intensity.

Hypotheses and Research Methods 

Identification of an Ethical Dilemma

All four stages in Rest’s (1986) model of Ethical Action will not be investigated in this paper as previous studies by Hunt and Vitell (1986) and Trevino (1986), found that measuring actual behavior was extremely difficult.  Jones (1991) suggested that issues with high moral intensity well be identified by individuals as being a moral issue much more frequently than issues of low moral intensity.  Marshall and Dewe (1997) found that ethical dilemmas that are more salient will appear less casual and therefore be more likely to lead to an ethical predicament.  Studies that have found an association between moral intensity and the identification of an ethical dilemma have been mixed.  Singhapakdi et al (1996) identified that moral intensity and the identification of an ethical dilemma were strongly related in all of the scenarios used.  In contrast, Marshall and Dewe (1997), Chia and Mee (2000) and May and Pauli (2002) found that a positive correlation between moral intensity and the identification of an ethical dilemma was not always related to all of the components of Jones’s (1991) model.  Research by Marshall and Dewe (1997) and Chia and Mee (2000) found that out of the six characteristics forming the model, only social consensus and magnitude of consequences were found to relate to the identification of a moral issue.  In the case of May and Pauli (2002) moral intensity was strongly related to the identification of an ethical dilemma but in only one of the two scenarios they used.  It is clear from the lack of consistency in results from the various studies conducted further testing is needed.

H1    From previous findings it can be hypothesised that as moral intensity increases so too will the identification of an ethical dilemma.

Ethical Judgment

The relationship between ethical Judgment and moral intensity has been researched extensively and is the component of Rest’s (1986) model that has received the most amount of attention empirically.  In general most studies such as those by Barnett (2001), Harrington (1997), Morris and Mc Donald (1995) and Singer and Singer (1997) have found supportive evidence that there is a strong relationship between magnitude of consequence and social consensus in regard to ethical judgments.  The above studies have found that in most cases if an act is deemed to have very severe negative consequences for example imprisonment, they are in most instances considered more unethical than acts believed to have less serious consequences.  Singhapakdi et al (1996) found that not only the magnitude of an action’s consequences and social consensus to be positively related to ethical judgements but also temporal immediacy and the probability of harm to be notably related to ethical judgement.  Jones (1991) found decisions that are identified to have high moral intensity (more unethical), require and individual to take more time gathering facts, information and key values surrounding the issue.  Situations that are less unethical would not require so much attention.  For this reason it can be suggested that,

H2 As moral intensity increases so too will the level of ethical judgement.

Ethical Intentions

When making an ethical decision, Hunt and Vitell (1986) found that an individual’s intention to act ethically is based on the probability that he or she will engage in a particular action.  The ethical decision making models of Dubinsky and Loken (1989) and Hunt and Vitell (1986) as with the models of Rest (1986) and

Jones (1991), incorporate the formation of intentions as a component to the ethical decision making process.  Jones (1991, p387) proposed that “moral intent will be established more frequently where issues of high moral intensity are involved than where issues of low moral intensity are involved” and studies by Harrington (1997) identified significant associations between ethical intentions and magnitude of consequences.   It was also noted that when proximity and social consensus was high individuals may try and avoid situations of negative responsibility by forming behavioral intentions that we more ethical Fisk and Taylor (1991).

H3 Ethical intentions and moral intensity will be positively linked

The effect of moral Intensity being issue related

It is known that the components of moral intensity and the effect they have on the ethical decision-making process are influenced by the type of situation.  Sweeney and Costello (2009).  Wright et al (1998) established that the recognition of an issues moral characteristic along with the moral intensity of an issue was greatly influenced by the type of situation.  Silver and Valentine (2001) found that undergraduate students understood the moral intensity of the situations presented to them and acknowledged differences between the different scenarios.  Leitsch (2004) also found that the type of situation influenced the students in the studies awareness of the moral intensity components, as well as their moral judgment.  From Leitsch’s (2004) study, it was concluded that accounting students judgments towards the ethical nature of issues, as well as their perceptions of moral intensity varied depending on how unethical an issue was deemed to be.  Other researchers such as Barnett and Brown (1994) established differences in ethical judgments depending on the situation an individual found themselves in, where once again differences were recognised to be between less unethical and more unethical issues.  From these findings it the following hypothesis could be established.

H4 The nature of the situation presented to accounting professionals and business students, will influence how important they perceive the moral intensity components and the ethical decision making process to be.

Demographic Variables

Flory et al (1992) found that demographics had no relationship to ethical decision making although others disagreed with this.  According to Ford and Richardson (1994) gender was investigated in more empirical studies than any other single variable.  The majority of studies such as those conducted by Vitell and Singhapakdi (1990), Callan (1992) and Serwinek (1992) found that there was no relationship between gender and ethical decision making.  Other studies by Chonko and Hunt (1985) and Ferrell and Skinner (1988) found that females were more ethically sensitive than males.  Loe et al (2000) articulates that although gender is the most highly researched area of business ethics, research in the area still remains inconclusive.  Further developments on methodology are needed when conducting ethical research in this field hence, as part of this study gender will be observed.

Prior research by Lysonski and Gaidis (1991) found that students were good assistants to managers as particularly those in their final year of study, were able to think and make ethical decisions similar to that of their more experienced counterparts.  Lysonski and Gaidis (1991) concluded that students had similar ethical sensitivities to managers as there were no significant differences in their reactions to ethical dilemmas.  Contrasting to the views of Lysonki and Gaidi (1991), Borkowski and Urgras (1988) observed that there was no connection between the ethical attitudes of major and non major business students.  Silver and Valentine (2000) found that the moral intensity component of social consensus was substantially different between major and non-major business students.  Examinations by Kidwell et al (1987) recognised that those with more years of employment exhibited responses that were more ethical than those with less years of employment.  In addition to these studies, Arlow and Ulrich (1980) along with Stevens (1984) found that professionals were more ethical than students.  By analysing the various research studies around the education and employment backgrounds of individuals, Loe et al (2000) identified that research investigating the differences between the ethical decision making processes of professionals and students produced mixed results.  He produced similar conclusions to that of Ford and Richardson (1994), realising that a clear understanding of the relationship between professional experience and level of education required further analysis.  In this study the impact being an undgraduate business student or accounting professional on moral intensity and the ethical decision-making process will be scrutinised in this study.

Other demographic variables that have been investigated include personality, beliefs and values, organisational effects and Industry type.  Once again these are areas requiring further empirical testing as evidence has proved to be inconclusive, however the components of ethical decision making used in this study are not suitable to include these factors.

Research Method

Quantitative analysis was deemed to be the best way to evaluate the hypotheses brought forward in the study. Questionnaires allow large quantities of information to be collected quickly and economically Brennan (1998)Sweeney and are a good source to quantify data from.  As previous studies examining the ethical decision making process used quantitative analysis it was beneficial to repeat the process as it allowed for better comparability of results.

Questionnaires were self administered to business students within the University of Hull and given to two university students from two other institutions within the UK (Queen Mary University of London and Leicester University) who handed out and collected questionnaires from fellow business students within their departments.  Another selection of questionnaires were emailed to the HR departments of various accounting firms within the UK and personally given to one accountant working at a commercial firm to hand out to accounting professionals within two of their offices.  The sample used therefore consisted of undergraduate business school students from three UK universities and professional accountants.

Those administered questionnaires were assured that participation was entirely voluntary and both students and professionals were promised that results would be kept confidential.  It was also reiterated that it was not necessary to put any form of identification on the questionnaire, just an acknowledgement of what course you were studying for university students.  Accounting professionals were given a slightly different questionnaire that did not include the option previously mentioned for administrative purposes when collecting results.

Research Instrument

Scenarios, vignettes and questionnaires were used by Singer et al (1998) and Cohen et al (2001) to recreate ethical situations individuals may find themselves in at work.  The majority of studies on the ethical decision making process used these methods and they have thus far been proved the most effective way of testing the ethical decision making process.  The scenarios used in this study have been adapted from those previously used by Leitsch (2006), Flory and Phillips (1992) and of Dabholka and Kelarris (1992) where each scenario recreated a business dilemma that may occur in the workplace.  The first scenario-based questionnaire administered to students included a scenario that the majority of business students from a non-accounting background and even some who were from an accounting background could not understand.  This resulted in many students simply guessing an outcome they thought appropriate or many simply left the question blank, due to the issue needing an in-depth knowledge of business that many hadn’t acquired yet.  To rectify this, scenarios were altered to represent business issues of which both business students and accounting professionals could fully understand.

Scenario one is developed from Dabholka and Kelarris (1992), in their ethical scenario a sales person booked tickets with a particular air line because they were given promotional vouchers which they could use for their own personal use.  The individual did this this knowing that ticket prices for that airline were higher than its competitors.  Respondents were required to evaluate the situation and asked whether the actions posed an ethical dilemma.  Flory et al (1992) produced a scenario that addressed similar ethical issues found by Dabholka and Kelarris (1992) however they incorporated an accounting focus to the issues presented.  Flory’s et al  (1992) study included scenario’s based on videotape footage produced by the Institute of Management Accountants.  The video included five ethically challenging situations that the authors believed could be encountered within the workplace.  Flory et al (1992) formed scenarios that were roughly 200 words in length and attempts were made to ensure the ethical complexities from the videotape were transferred to the written forms.

At the end of each scenario was an action taken in response to the ethical dilemma ensuring that all respondents were acting in response to the same stimulus.


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