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K-State Today

December 15, 2016

Management professor Peter Mudrack's paper accepted for publication in the journal Business and Society

By Brent Fritzemeier

Peter Mudrack, associate professor of management at K-State, and co-author Sharon Mason, Brock University, recently had their research, "Moral Reasoning and its Connections with Machiavellianism and Authoritarianism: The Critical Roles of Index Choice and Utilization," accepted for publication in the journal Business and Society. 

According to Mudrack, when imagining what is involved in "being ethical" most peoples' natural tendency is to focus on the actual decisions or choices that are made. Did someone, for example, make an ethical choice or "do the right thing"? The concept of moral reasoning, however, has a very different emphasis. In understanding moral reasoning, it is not decisions themselves that are relevant, but rather the rationale for those decisions. Stated differently, why decisions were made is more telling than what decisions were made.

For example, two individuals could reach the same conclusion about the recommended action in a specific situation, but offer profoundly different reasons why this action might seem desirable.

"Moral reasoning is generally thought of as a sequence of stages and levels through which people evolve when learning to think about issues of justice and fairness," Mudrack said. "At the most basic level, people make the choices that they do out of self-interest. As individuals develop, additional reasons become salient. These include conformity with the views of important others, and then to laws or societal norms."

"At the most advanced stages, people decide for themselves what is right based upon such things as the greater good, upholding ethical principles, or respecting the rights and dignity of others. People characterized by advanced moral reasoning would seem to be both highly ethical and independent thinkers who do not simply obey authority blindly," he said.

Research results, however, often indicate that advanced moral reasoning is not always associated with high ethics or independent thinking. The authors of these research studies often suggest that the concept of moral reasoning itself is flawed or irrelevant, or perhaps the specific measure is no good. Perhaps, but this would not account for the large volume of research that has supported moral reasoning's real-world relevance. Concepts and measures cannot be flawed only some of the time.

Why does moral reasoning sometimes behave "as it should" in relationships with other measures and other times behave as if it has little practical relevance? In the paper, Mudrack and Mason found that the specific index of moral reasoning that is used may often be of unusual importance. Multiple indices are available to assess moral reasoning, all generally thought of as interchangeable, and it definitely seems to matter which one was chosen.

The researchers examined the characteristics of each index, and provided specific reasons why one index might be appropriate when examining relationships with ethics-oriented variables, but a different index might work best in the context of orientations toward authority. These indices are not interchangeable.

"The bottom line is that news concerning the 'death' of moral reasoning has been greatly exaggerated," Mudrack said.