Descriptive Ethics Encyclopedia Of Business Ethics
Encyclopedia of Business Ethics
Definitions and Concepts
Descriptive ethics can broadly be thought of as the study of morality and moral issues
from a scientific point of view. It can be thought of as the branch of ethics that attempts to
develop conceptual models and test those models empirically in order to enhance our
understanding of ethical or moral behavior, moral decision making, and more broadly moral
phenomena. This area or branch of ethics might also be referred to as behavioral ethics.
Descriptive or behavioral ethics, then, describes and explains moral behavior and phenomena
from a social science perspective or framework.
One might distinguish morality from ethics. Morality can be thought of as the set of
norms, rules, standards, principles, or values that guide adherents in their behavior as to what is
right and wrong, good and bad, or appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In this sense virtually
every human has some morality or moral code. Or morality might be considered the practice of
such moral codes among members adopting such standards or codes. To the extent that the
practice of business has such a code or set of norms, we might refer to that practice or practices as
“business morality.” “Ethics” may be thought of, then, as simply the study of morality.
Accordingly, ethics is critical reflection or critical analysis of moral issues and moral phenomena.
Further, business ethics then can be defined as the study of moral issues in a business context, i.e.
an applied area of ethics or ethical inquiry. Organizational ethics can be thought of as studying
moral issues in a broader organizational context.
To position descriptive ethics, we may distinguish different approaches to studying moral
issues and phenomena. One distinction is between normative and descriptive or behavioral
ethics. Critical reflection that attempts to answer questions as to what is right or wrong, good or
bad, would constitute normative ethics. Such approaches are “normative” or provide guidance
and direction in terms of making moral or ethical choices or living in morally acceptable ways.
Such approaches tend to be philosophical or religious, providing frameworks and theories that are
prescriptive. These analyses prescribe general principles or even specific guidance. These
normative or prescriptive theories include typical philosophical approaches, such as utilitarianism
and duty-based approaches such as Kant. Some have said that there are only two normative ethics
questions: (1) What is good? (2) What is right? Aristotle’s virtue-based ethics represents a
normative theory that answers the first question. Utilitarian and Kantian theories provide
competing theories that provide decision rules or answers to the second question. What they all
have in common is to approach ethical inquiry from a normative or prescriptive point of view.
Descriptive ethics, on the other hand, approaches the study of morality or moral
phenomena by asking different questions. In general, this approach attempts to describe and
explain moral action, moral decision making, and moral phenomena. For example, how do
individuals process and resolve perceived moral conflicts? What are the most important
influences or causes for individuals behaving ethically or unethically? What is the system of
beliefs that guide individuals or groups in making the moral choices that are observed? Answers
to these kinds of questions are descriptive or explanatory in nature. As such they use social
science frameworks that often include theory building and hypothesis testing in terms of
discerning answers. Engaging these kinds of questions in a business context, then, can be thought
of as descriptive business ethics, or the application to the broader organizational context can be
referred to as descriptive organizational ethics.
Moral Psychology and Social Psychology
One important body of research of descriptive ethics is cognitive moral development
theory. This research grew out of the seminal work of Lawrence Kohlberg in the late 1950s in his
study of modes of moral thinking and choice among adolescent boys. Kohlberg’s theory
describes the developmental processes used by individuals as they grow and develop in terms of
how they resolve moral issues and make moral choices. It is thus a descriptor of individuals, who
vary in terms of their level of cognitive moral development. Kohlberg’s theory is the most widely
disseminated and tested theory in moral psychology. It has been cross-culturally tested in over a
hundred cultures, and it has been used as an important variable in many descriptive studies of
business and organizational ethics. One of the most important implications of cognitive moral
development is its relationship to behavior or action. Numerous studies have been conducted, and
the general result is a positive but modest relationship to decision making and action. Thus those
individuals having higher levels of moral development are more likely to make ethical choices
and behave ethically. Of note in extending Kohlberg’s research was James Rest, who developed a
more general four stage model of ethical decision making.
Other social psychology research from the 1960s and 1970s has been used in business
ethics to show the influence of factors other than individual, rational processes. Of note here are
the Milgram experiments from the early 1960s, in which Stanley Milgram and his colleagues
designed experiments that demonstrated how ordinary subjects would comply with authority in
carrying out orders that were patently contrary to standards of morality. Here social scientists
advanced theories to explain the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Other social psychology
experiments followed, including the Zimbardo experiments of the early 1970s, in which normal
college students (absent direction from a perceived authority) allowed themselves to engage in
abusive behavior in a prison simulation experiment. The Zimbardo experiments were related
directly to the kind of behavior exhibited by guards in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
These kinds of social psychology experiments and studies have been related to organizational
behavior, in particular in business contexts.
Descriptive and Behavioral Business Ethics
Describing and Summarizing Data
One approach to descriptive ethics is just that, to describe various aspects of business
ethics. This might include surveys of ethical attitudes among employees and managers, e.g.
whether individuals feel pressure to compromise moral principles to achieve organizational goals.
One might describe the kinds of principles that individuals use in making decisions. On the other
hand, researchers might turn their focus on the organization itself rather than individuals as the
object of study (“unit of analysis” in social science terminology), e.g. describing the adoption
rates among Fortune 500 firms of codes of ethics, appointment of ethics officers, and other such
organizational characteristics. All of these questions describe or summarize data about
individuals or organizations. Even anthropological studies might be included in this kind of
research. One might, e.g., engage in a systematic of the ethical aspects of Japanese business
Theory Building and Hypothesis Testing
However, since the late 1980s and for more than 15 years there has been a growing
body of research from which has emerged more complex and complete conceptual models of
ethical decision making and ethical behavior. Of particular note is the seminal work of Linda
Trevino in 1986. She proposed a "person-situation interactionist model" to explain ethical decision
making behavior in organizations. Citing the lack of a comprehensive theory to guide empirical
research in organizational ethics, Trevino proposed a model that posited cognitive moral
development of an individual as the critical variable in explaining ethical/unethical decision making
behavior. However, improving on previous models, Trevino proposed an interactionist model that
posited individual variables (e.g. locus of control, ego strength, field dependence) and situational
variables (e.g. reinforcement contingencies, organizational culture) as moderating an individual's
level of moral development in explaining ethical decision making in organizational contexts. Other
conceptual models followed proposing alternative frameworks and variables that describe and
explain ethical decision making and behavior in business and organizational contexts.
These conceptual models posit various relationships that can be empirically tested, and this is
another critical aspect of this approach, hypothesis testing. Hypotheses are derived propositions that
can be tested empirically, and the results of these empirical studies lead to further refinement and
modification of the conceptual models. There has been a significant amount of such hypothesis
testing in the past 15 years. Such hypothesis testing requires attention to measuring variables, design
for testing such relationships, and selection of the appropriate statistical methods for evaluating
results. Thus, business ethics has developed as another branch of the social sciences.
To summarize this descriptive body of research would be impossible here. However, we can
provide some of the more salient factors that have been studied. For example, it is fair to say, and
not surprisingly, that the attitudes and behaviors of employees and managers are strongly influenced
by organizational factors and context. Factors studied include the existence of formal ethics
policies, the use of ethics training programs, and the commitment of top management in terms of
implementing ethics policies and programs. Other organizational factors include the reward structure
of the organization and whether and how sanctions are used for ethical/ unethical behavior. Beyond
such formal features of organizations, attitudes and behaviors are likely influenced by the ethical
climate as well as the ethical culture of organizations. The behavior of peers and more generally the
immediate job context in the organization are also likely important, as is the behavior and
commitment of leaders in organizations. Included here would be perceived role conflict of one’s
position, what is rewarded in the unit, the behavior and attitudes of co-workers and management, and
Besides organizational factors, individual characteristics likely influence decision making,
attitudes, and behavior. Following a stage model of decision making, moral awareness or ethical
sensitivity would be an important, initial factor. To the extent that individuals vary on such
awareness and sensitivity, it is likely to have an impact on decision making. Moral judgment or level
of cognitive moral development is perhaps the most widely studied individual characteristic. The
ability to follow through on judgments made is also an important factor in the actual decision and
behavior, what some refer to as ego integrity. Related to this ability to follow through is the extent to
which individuals vary on whether they think they are able to control what happens around them,
rather than being passive products of the environment, which social scientists refer to as locus of
control. Among other factors thought to influence ethical decision making and behavior are gender,
age, and tenure in the organization.
The overall objective of the theory building and hypothesis testing approach is not to just
describe but understand and explain complex moral phenomena, and this has been a dominant
approach among those social scientists engaged in business ethics in the past 15 years.
Case Development and Story Telling
While from a social science perspective, cases and other forms of descriptive story telling would
not be considered a form of “descriptive ethics,” I offer or at least acknowledge the place of
descriptive cases in business ethics. Cases and story telling more generally involve an age-old
approach to understanding and knowledge. That is the tale of an effective story teller. Sometimes
the most effective learning is from a good story that is described or told effectively and has important
lessons to be drawn from the story. In business schools the use of case studies is an old and
venerable method of teaching and learning. While social science and its techniques have been
discovered and developed as tools in business ethics, the description of situations, decisions, and the
consequences that follow might also be considered part of the umbrella of descriptive ethics. Such
“business case studies” typically are descriptions of situations, people, and decisions, leaving the
analysis and lessons learned to emerge from the story itself. Those cases written with a particular
ethical dimension might then be properly considered a form of descriptive business ethics. Beyond
shorter case studies, any longer accounts (such as books) that describe or relate ethical stories may be
consider another aspect of descriptive ethics.
In summary, descriptive or behavioral ethics, in its many forms, can be thought of as a branch of
ethics that attempts to describe, understand, and explain moral phenomena.
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