New Framework Accounts for How Moral Character Promotes Ethical Decision Making



In recent years, interest in moral character has grown, as has its role in promoting ethical behavior within organizations. Yet we know little about the ways moral character manifests in observable ethical behavior. A new set of studies developed the character lens perspective to account for patterns in how individuals make sense of and comprehend ethical choices and situations. The research shows how moral character promotes ethical decision making by highlighting the moral implications of people’s choices.

Conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the Naval Postgraduate School, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the studies appear in the Journal of Business Ethics.

“In this article, we introduce a new perspective on ethical decision making, one that acknowledges the important role of moral character in shaping how people see the world and make sense of their choices,” says Taya R. Cohen, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Business Ethics at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, who co-authored the study.

The researchers focused on three dimensions of moral character: honesty-humility, proneness to guilt, and the centrality or internalization of moral identity. They investigated how moral recognition (the ability to recognize the moral implications of one’s choices) differed among individuals who tend to be more honest, fair, humble, generous, and trustworthy than their peers. They asked: Do these individuals see the world differently than their peers? Does having a high degree of moral character shape the way people make sense of the world and understand the situations in which they find themselves?


Specifically, the researchers:

  • Tested whether MBA students’ trustworthiness in a trust game (which involved sending and returning money to classmates) could be explained by the way they made sense of the game. They found that individuals who scored higher on each of the three dimensions of moral character had higher levels of moral recognition in the trust game—more than their peers, these individuals recognized the moral implications of the choices one can make in the game. Moral character was also significantly correlated with individuals’ trustworthiness and willingness to trust others.

  • Tracked how moral recognition changed as participants became increasingly entangled in a hypothetical unethical business practice. In such circumstances, past literature suggests that the deeper the entanglement, the more moral considerations will fade from individuals’ awareness. However, in this study, individuals high in moral character maintained high levels of moral recognition even when induced to ignore ethical considerations, and accordingly expressed stronger intentions than those low in moral character to blow the whistle on financial misconduct.

The character lens perspective highlights at least two important roles for organizations in promoting ethical behavior. Organizations and leaders should take an active role in developing moral recognition among stakeholders. They should also be aware that disagreements among stakeholders on matters of ethics can be traced to differences in the ways individuals and groups make sense of situations and choices. Resolving ethical disagreements may require parties to step back and collaboratively examine different interpretations and assumptions that inform basic understanding of the situation.

“While it’s true that situations shape individuals’ behavior, it’s also the case that individuals shape situations through their construal of them, as well as their actions,” explains Erik G. Helzer, Associate Professor of Management at the Naval Postgraduate School, who led the study. “Our findings illustrate both of these maxims in the realm of ethics: People ‘see’ different choices in different situations, but they also ‘see’ identical situations differently as a function of their dispositional tendencies to make sense of the world.”

The research was funded by Wake Forest University and the Templeton Religion Trust.