TSElosophers meeting 8.6.2017
Otto Rosendahl, Kari Lukka, Jonathan Van Mumford, Milla Wirén

Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making, Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, Cara Biasucci, Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education 2015

Quick summary:

While the identification of four stages of the process of ethical behaviour (awareness, decision-making, intent, action) was applauded as a potentially fruitful opening, in the discussion the TSElosophers questioned the instrumental approach of behavioral sciences in the context of ethics. Can ends justify means? However, understanding the decision-making processes of individuals may yield insights to educators aspiring to educate ethically thinking individuals, but these behavioral insights should be complemented with philosophical discussions and treated with respect, not as tools of manipulation – even for the best of reasons.


The authors posit the view that philosophical teaching of ethics in business schools should be complemented with behavioral ethics, which leans on psychology and sociology. Drumwright, Prentice and Biasucci (2015, 438–439) argue that “most ethical mistakes in business are not made because people have not read enough Kant or Bentham (Abel, 2008; Jennings, 2005). Insider trading, earnings fraud, tax evasion, foreign bribery, and other common white collar crimes do not present vexing philosophical quandaries”. Instead of Kant and Bentham, behavioral ethics highlights that people have tendency to believe that they are more ethical than they really are. This easily leads, Drumwright et al. argue, to people bypassing ethical deliberation even in dubious circumstances because they have a feeling that most or all of their actions are ethical.

Behavioral ethics education raises the moral awareness (ability to recognize ethical problems) of students by positing the view that most decisions are made instinctively and there are cognitive limitations that make ethical action difficult for even the most well-intentioned people. However, awareness of behavioral biases does not automatically lead to desirable action. Raising the “moral awareness” is just the first, albeit critical, step to moral action.

The authors present a four-step process for behavioral ethics which consists in (1) recognizing the ethical problem, (2) formulating an ethical response, (3) desire to act ethically and (4) doing the right thing. Formulating an ethical response is challenging especially due to self-serving bias, i.e. a person’s failure to see unethical behavior if the action serves their self-interest (e.g. Langevoort 1997). Other biases include e.g. incrementalism, where a person’s small infractions gradually change into larger ones (Tenbrunsel & Messick 2004), conforming to the unethical practices in the environment (Gneezy 2005; Robert & Arnab 2013) and tendency to make a different decision depending a framing of the situation as a gain or a loss (Tversky & Kahneman 1985). The third step is more straight-forward as, Drumwright et al. argue, “most people wish to act ethically, at least as a general rule and up to certain limits” (p. 439). The final step, doing the right thing, requires a feeling of responsibility, feeling able to act and having courage to act in the situation. Reading the article might lead to an erroneous impression as if the eternal issues of ethics could be solved by merely adding to our knowledge – this is certainly not a valid position. For instance, knowledge of behavioral biases can be used for non-ethical purposes. The article implicitly recognizes, even at least seemingly in an acceptable vein, this by referring to company marketing practices that abuse behavioral biases in order to trigger envy between consumers to increase their desires of purchasing a good (p. 436). The paper could have seriously discussed the potential issues of people without an ethical stance “to do the right thing” getting to know more about behavioral biases.

The article could have built bridges between philosophical and behavioral ethics ­– or at least mentioned it as an avenue for future research. For example, four steps of behavioral ethics would benefit from traditionally virtuous character traits: the first and the second step especially with prudence, the third step with benevolence and the fourth step with courage. So, theoretically it would be promising to combine virtue ethics and behavioral ethics in teaching in order to increase students’ moral agency, i.e. capability to act with reference to right and wrong. However, teachers’ work to enhance character has not been found to strongly improve ethical actions (DeSteno & Valdesolo 2011). Similarly, Drumwright et al. (2015) could not provide strong evidence that teaching behavioral ethics would improve individual ethics. On a more positive note, teaching behavioral ethics could at least raise the moral awareness of students, thereby providing them a defense mechanism against manipulative practices.

TSElosophers received this paper rather positively, but there was a doubt whether the teaching at TSE includes enough even the philosophical teaching of ethics – which is fundamental regarding the questions at stake in this paper – not to mention behavioral ethics. Do we have a general course where students would learn to compare, contrast and apply the three major orientations in moral philosophy, namely Kantianism, consequentialism and virtue ethics? Of course, there are some ethical courses such as “Ethical questions in business” but their orientation to philosophical or behavioral ethics is challenging to specify from the course description. Also, the issues that behavioral ethics puts forward are taught in some other courses, such as in the “Behavioral economics”. Therefore, we would emphasize that in the context of TSE, the main issue would be to evaluate the comprehensiveness of both philosophical and behavioral orientations to teaching ethics and, additionally, consider the balance between them.