Moral intuitionism and ethics training

In their recent article in the Journal of ManagementMoral Intuition: Connecting Current Knowledge to Future Organizational Research and Practice –    Gary R. Weaver of the University of Delaware, Scott J. Reynolds of the University of Washington  and Michael E. Brown of the Pennsylvania State University  review “a rapidly growing body of social science research [that] has framed ethical thought and behavior as driven by intuition,” literature which they describe as “incredibly rich, fruitful, and meaningful to a wide range of audiences.” Among the process components of moral intuitionism are non-inferential judgments, meaning that “moral judgment and behavior can take place without prior deliberative reasoning”; “the automaticity of moral action,” meaning that ethical judgments can be essentially instantaneous; dual process thinking, made famous by Daniel Kahneman’s  Thinking Fast and Slow; and “intuitive primacy [meaning that] although sometimes the rational deliberation model accurately characterizes moral behavior, in the large majority of cases moral intuition rules.”  The content of moral intuition – made famous by Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind   – is often said to include five areas: “a) care (vs. harm), (b) fairness, or justice (vs. cheating), (c) in-group loyalty (vs. betrayal), (d) authority (vs. subversion), and (e) sanctity, or purity,” and perhaps a sixth — “liberty (vs. oppression).”

As the authors describe: “Although the value of the moral intuition perspective has been demonstrated in multiple fields (e.g., psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, behavioral economics), its application in organizational contexts is limited,” and in this article they explore the significance of this body of   knowledge from four perspectives: “leadership, organizational corruption, ethics training and education, and divestiture socialization,”  looking at process and content for each. In this post, I review parts of what the authors discuss with respect to ethics training (leaving the related area of ethics education to professional educators such as Google’s Kamau Bobb), and hopefully will return in the not too distant future to their discussion of the import of moral intuition for organizational corruption.

Turning first to the process of ethics training, the authors express considerable skepticism about the value of computer-based training, which, as they note, is the most prevalent form of ethics training in businesses today: “moral intuition often involves a strong emotional component. Can computer exercises engage intuition by creating truly emotional experiences for participants? Can they trigger processes that make cognitive reappraisal of intuitions more likely? Similarly, moral intuitions are theorized to be multidimensional, involving many different types of information beyond just sights and sounds … The limited dimensionality of computer-based training likely is a substantial constraint on this format. Moreover, reappraisal and change of moral intuition often involve interaction within trusting relationships (in this case, trainer and trainee), which impersonal technology might be hard-pressed to simulate. Computer-based training might be incredibly efficient and serves purposes of external legitimation, but whether it engages moral intuition is open to question.”

They note further regarding moral intuitionism and training process: “At a deeper, developmental level, an intuitionist understanding of moral judgments and their origins looks more akin to long-term habit development than to immediate learning of information. In this, the ‘training’ of moral intuitions is closer to considerations of character education than to analytical exercises of reason.” Finally, they suggest: “Education and training might also focus on teaching about the process of moral intuition as well as the factors that influence it, so that students can learn to recognize when intuition or deliberation are likely and/or appropriate in a given context. If moral judgments typically are intuitive, and largely automatic, perhaps one key element of ethics training is developing an ability to exert some degree of cognitive control over intuition, so that trained individuals are better prepared to manage their immediate intuitive reactions to situations.”

Turning from process to content, they note: “Business ethics training and education has not typically treated concepts like authority and loyalty as moral ideals or ends in themselves (vs. pragmatic matters), and considerations of purity are highly uncommon. But some business practices and issues could be framed in those terms.” However, this would be a major and uncertain step for many business organizations, and they further note that research is needed to determine: “are some foundational intuitions, and efforts to link business practice to them, more conducive than others for ethically successful and productive employees, or is success a matter of context, such that some foundational categories are better suited for some industries, markets, or organizational contexts?”

All of the authors’ suggestions do seem to me to be valuable but – having been involved in corporate compliance and ethics training for more than two decades – also incredibly daunting.   However, at a minimum their thoughts should provide the basis for a dialogue – perhaps even a “rich, fruitful and meaningful” one – between researchers and C&E professionals on how to apply the results of recent moral intuitionism studies to the task of making business organizations more ethical.   And, one of my new year’s resolutions is to try to be part of that discussion.

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