Behavioral Ethics: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Moral Judgment and Dishonesty

by Max H. Bazerman & Francesca Gino

Overview — What makes even good people cross ethical boundaries? Society demands that business and professional schools address ethics, but the results have been disappointing. This paper argues that a behavioral approach to ethics is essential because it leads to understanding and explaining moral and immoral behavior in systematic ways. The authors first define business ethics and provide an admittedly biased history of the attempts of professional schools to address ethics as a subject of both teaching and research. They next briefly summarize the emergence of the field of behavioral ethics over the last two decades, and turn to recent research findings in behavioral ethics that could provide helpful directions for a social science perspective to ethics. These new findings on both intentional and unintentional unethical behavior can inform new courses on ethics as well as new research investigations. Such new directions can meet the demands of society more effectively than past attempts of professional schools. They can also produce a meaningful and significant change in the behavior of both business school students and professionals. Key concepts include:

  • Shifting the modes of thought can lead to profound differences in how we make ethical decisions. This has implications at the individual and at the societal level.
  • Until recently, little empirical attention was given to how people actually behave when they face ethical dilemmas and decisions or to how their behavior can be improved.
  • A behavioral ethics approach does not teach students how they should behave when facing ethical dilemmas, nor inform them about what philosophers or ethicists would recommend. Instead it sees an opportunity in helping students and professionals better understand their own behavior in the ethics domain, and compare it to how they would ideally like to behave.
  • Behavioral ethics identifies levers at both the individual and the institutional level to change ethically questionable behaviors when individuals are acting in unethical ways that they would not endorse with greater reflection.
  • Prior to the 1990s, it was rare for professional schools to have a significant focus on the area of ethics (or business ethics more specifically) in the courses offered to students. Courses that were taught used philosophical approaches or suggested that morality is a rather stable personality trait that individuals develop by going through differences phases of development.

Author Abstract

Early research and teaching on ethics focused on either a moral development perspective or philosophical approaches, and used a normative approach by focusing on the question of how people should act when resolving ethical dilemmas. In this paper, we briefly describe the traditional approach to ethics and then present a (biased) review on the behavioral approach to ethics. We define behavioral ethics as the study of systematic and predictable ways in which individuals make ethical decisions and judge the ethical decisions of others that are at odds with intuition and the benefits of the broader society. By focusing on a descriptive rather than a normative approach to ethics, behavioral ethics is better suited than traditional approaches to address the increasing demand from society for a deeper understanding of what causes even good people to cross ethical boundaries.

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