Ethical Decision Making by Individuals

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University of Washington
The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 16, No. 2. (Apr., 1991), pp. 366-395.  
Existing theoretical models of individual ethical decision making in organizations place little or no emphasis on characteristics of the ethical issue itself. This article (a) proposes an issue-contingent model containing a new set of variables called moral intensity: (b) using concepts, theory, and evidence derived largely from social psychology, argues that moral intensity influences every component of moral decision making and behavior: (c) offers four research propositions, and (d) discusses implications of the theory.  

Conclusions and Implications
Existing theoretical models have ignored the effect of characteristics of the moral issue itself on ethical decision making and behavior in organizations. Taken at face value, these models suggest that individuals will decide and behave in the same manner regardless of the nature of the moral issue involved. An employee of a drug manufacturer would view the release of a dangerous drug by his or her firm with the same alarm (or lack of alarm) that he or she viewed the theft of a few diskettes from the company supply cabinet by a fellow employee. The issue-contingent model proposed here explicitly rejects this view and suggests that the moral intensity of the issue itself has a significant effect on moral decision making and behavior at all stages of the process. If this model is found to have empirical support, the testing of other models would be significantly affected. Controlling for issue traits would become an integral part of a meaningful test of Trevino's (1986) person-situation interactionist model, for example; the relative importance of personal factors and situational factors might vary considerably, from issue to issue. Similarly, issue charucteristics could alter the balance of...
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