I suppose. Except that when it comes to ethics things are far from simple. First, take a look at psychologist James Rest's* "Four Component Model." All four components are necessary if one is to behave morally.
- Moral sensitivity means our ability to recognize that we are being confronted with a moral issue.
- Moral judgment means our ability to identify the moral course of action.
- Moral motivation is our willingness to do whatever it is that we decided is the moral thing to do.
- Moral behavior means ultimately doing what we decided to do.
It's possible to get stuck in one of the components. First, we may be blind to the ethical dimensions of a situation (moral sensitivity). We may believe, for instance, that the issue is "just a business one" or is too simple to be considered "moral." Second, we may recognize the morality of the situation but not have the ethical tools to identify the "right answer" (moral judgment). Third, we may know what the "right answer" is but may be unwilling to follow it (moral motivation). Finally, we may be willing to do the right thing but be unable to do so at the last minute (moral behavior).
The next question, therefore, is: What makes us more or less able to go through the four components of morality? Now we turn to the work of Thomas Jones**. Dr. Jones suggested that all four of Rest's components are related to the moral intensity of a situation. In order to estimate the intensity of a situation, we must consider:
- Consequences: How serious is the situation? Can someone get hurt? How badly?
- Social consensus: Does everyone agree that "response behavior x" is good or bad? Is the "right thing to do" something open to significant differences in interpretation?
- Probability of effect: How likely is harm to take place? Is this something so hypothetical and far fetching that we might as well forget about it?
- Temporal immediacy: When are the consequences to the problem likely to take place? Right now? Three generations from now?
- Proximity: How close are the victims to us, psychologically, physically, socially, and culturally? Are they our friends? Do they share our nationality, religion, or another common social identity?
- Concentration of effect: How many people are affected by the situation? How badly will they be affected? Is this something likely to cost a lot of people a tiny bit of discomfort or one person a significant amount of pain and suffering?
According to Jones, we are not likely to pay attention to situations of low moral intensity. For instance, if an employee believes that something has very low consequences and those consequences are very disperse, he/she is unlikely to activate any thoughts of morality. As an example, a person who would ordinarily never steal (not even from a complete stranger) could make a long distance phone call on the company's dime, take home a block of postits from the office supply cabinet or simply fail to focus on work tasks while at work. A normally ethical CEO might ignore the likely but very far way (200 years from now?) environmental impact of current organizational policies.
Why does this matter? Let me offer a few possible implications of ethical complexity:
- Your ethics interventions may not work. You put together this fantastic leadership ethics training program, full of bells and whistles. Your organization has spent considerable effort developing a set of values, a Code of Ethics, and all sorts of ethical rules. Your employees, however, may get stuck in one of the four morality components (sensitivity, judgment, motivation, behavior). They may also fail to apply the lessons learned to a real situation perceived as irrelevant, ambiguous, improbable, distant, impersonal, or disperse.
- Your ethics interventions may be misdirected. Maybe you focused too much on behavior and forgot that people need to see a problem as moral to begin with. Maybe you worried about training and failed to realize a serious systemic issue, one which prevents people from doing the right thing even when they want to do so.
- People may become desensitized to ethical issues. Remember the postits? Well, let's face it - one pad will hardly make a dent on organizational success of failure. The problem is: We might escalate. If the postits are ok, then maybe something else is ok too. Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick*** referred to this as the N+1 rule. We could become progressively immunized against seeing something as ethically problematic.
So, after reading this, tell me: Is simple really good?
I'd love to hear your thoughts: What ethics interventions have you either experienced or implemented in your organization? How have they worked?
* Rest, J. R., & ez, D. N. (1994). Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics. Psychology Press.
** Jones, T. M. (1991). Ethical decision making by individuals in organizations: An issue-contingent model. Academy of Management Review, 16(2), 366–395.
*** Tenbrunsel, A., & Messick, D. (2004). Ethical fading: The role of self-deception in unethical behavior. Social Justice Research, 17(2), 223–236. doi:10.1023/B:SORE.0000027411.35832.53