Ethics and Moral Judgment


Studies of Moral Thought, Behavior, and Action

Table of the Taxonomy


The Ethics Position Questionnaire

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How do groups and individuals formulate their judgments of what is moral and what is immoral? Whereas most agree that certain reprehensible actions are morally wrong, in less clear-cut cases moral judgments quickly become grey areas where reasonable people simply disagree.


The link between moral values and moral behavior has long- intrigued social psychologists. As early as 1928, Hartshorne and May, in their Studies in the Nature of Character, reported some surprising inconsistencies among moral values and moral actions. These researchers developed thirty-three measures of deceit--cheating, lying, and stealing--and administered these tests to hundreds of children. Although some of the children behaved immorally more consistently than others, in many cases the situation, and not the personality characteristics of the children, determined who would yield to temptation. Furthermore, when Hartshorne and May extended their studies by searching for other aspects of the childrens' moral outlook that would better predict their actions, their efforts proved fruitless. Measures of their moral values, knowledge, and judgments about moral dilemmas were only weakly related to actual conduct. Despite the counterintuitive nature of the Hartshorne and May findings, subsequent researchers have frequently reaffirmed the disparity between moral thought and moral action.

While moral behavior remains an unpredictable puzzle for psychological researchers, some success has been achieved recently by taking individuals' personal moral philosophies into consideration. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1980, Forsyth argued that individual variations in approaches to moral judgment and behavior may be conceptualized in terms of two basic dimensions: relativism and idealism. First, while some personal moral codes emphasize the importance of universal ethical rules like "Thou shalt not lie," others maintain a posture of relativism that skeptically rejects universal principles. Second, while a fundamental concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of some individuals' moral codes, others do not emphasize such humanitarian ideals; the former assume that we should avoid harming others, while the latter assume harm will sometimes be necessary to produce good.

Rather than classify individuals as either relativistic or idealistic, Forsyth recommends a four-fold classification based on both dimensions. Individuals who are highly relativistic and highly idealistic are called situationists; they feel that people should strive to produce the best consequences possible, but that moral rules cannot be applied across all situations. This ethical outlook is labeled situationism because its adherents prescribe close inspection of the situation in reaching a contextually appropriate moral evaluation. Absolutists, like situationists, are also idealistic; they approve of actions that yield many positive, desirable consequences. However, unlike situationists, absolutists are not relativistic. They feel that some ethical absolutes are so important that they must be included in any code of ethics.

The remaining two personal moralities are both low in terms of idealism. Subjectivists reject moral rules (high relativism) and are also less idealistic about the possibility of acheiving humanitarian goals. This ideology is labeled subjectivism because its adherents describe their moral decisions as subjective, individualistic judgments that cannot be made on the basis of more "objective" information, such as universal moral absolutes or the extent to which the action harms othrs. Lastly, exceptionists are low in both relativism and idealism; they believe that moral rules should guide our behavior, but that actions that yield some negative consequences shouldn't necessarily be condemned. Hence, they are willing to make exceptions to their moral principles.

A Taxonomy of Personal Moral Philosophies

 Ideology                Approach to Moral Judgment

Situationists  Reject moral rules; ask if the action yielded the
               best possible outcome in the given situation. 

Subject-       Reject moral rules; base moral judgments on personal
ivists         feelings about the action and the setting. 

Absolutists    Feel actions are moral provided they yield positive
               consequences through conformity to moral rules.

Exceptionists  Feel conformity to moral rules is desirable, but
               exceptions to these rules is often permissible. 

Forsyth (1980) developed the Ethics Position Questionnaire (EPQ) to assess personal moral philosophy. It asks individuals to indicate their acceptance of items that vary in terms of relativism and idealism. The relativism scale includes items like "Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to 'rightness'" and "What is ethical varies from one situation to another." The idealism scale, in contrast, measures one's perspective on positive and negative consequences with such items as "A person should make certain that their actions never intentionally harm another even to a small degree" and "If an action could harm an innocent other then it should not be done" (Forsyth, 1980). Overall, high scorers on the idealism subscale of the EPQ more strongly endorse items that reflect a fundamental concern for the welfare of others, whereas those who receive high scores on the relativism subscale of the EPQ tend to espouse a personal moral philosophy based on rejection of moral universals (Forsyth, Nye, & Kelley, 1985).

Do these differences in ethical ideologies predict differences in moral judgment and moral behavior? Looking first at moral judgments, several studies suggest that absolutists are particularly harsh when judging other people. For example, Forsyth (1985) asked representatives from all four ideologies to morally evaluate individuals who, by either violating or conforming to a moral principle (such as "tell the truth," "do not steal," or "keep your promises"), produced positive or negative consequences for innocent others. As predicted, the idealistic absolutists and situationists tended to more strongly condemn individuals who caused extremely negative consequences, while the relativistic subjectivists and situationists were more lenient when judging individuals who violated a moral norm. Similarly, in study conducted with William R. Pope of Mary Washington College (Forsyth & Pope, 1984), representatives from all four ideologies evaluated the morality of sixteen ethically controversial psychological studies. Again, absolutists tended to be more negative than all other individuals, apparently because they focused on the potential harm for subjects created by researchers. Lastly, evidence also indicates that the absolutists--particularly males--endorse more conservative attitudes on contemporary moral issues. More than respondents within each of the other ethical categories, male absolutists felt that test-tube creation is immoral, that mercy killing should not be tolerated, and that marijuana use, homosexuality, and abortion are "wrong." Situationist males, however, tend to be the most liberal, particularly with regard to euthanasia.

Turning to behavior, attempts to link these four ethical ideologies to moral action have yielded mixed results. In the first of two studies conducted with Rick E. Berger of the Psychophyical Research Laboratories in Princeton, 33 students enrolled in courses at Virginia Commonwealth University were given a bogus test of "social sensititivity" in a laboratory setting. As described in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1982, in this study the experimenter motivated subjects by claiming the test measured social skill, competence, and ability to make and keep friends. Also, the researcher offhandedly ridiculed a previous subject who done poorly by stating: "The last person only got four right out of 12. See, look at all the mistakes. I am sure you can do much better than that." After these words of encouragement, the experimenter returned the scoring key to the work basket near the subject, explained he had some phone calls to make in another office, and left the subject alone in the locked room for fifteen minutes.

The multiple-choice social sensitivity test actually had no correct answers. Although three three alternatives followed each question, all three were equally likely. Hence, although subjects weren't observed while taking the test, cheating could be easily detected by checking their scores; if they they answered too many questions correctly (say, 6 of the 12 possible), then they almost certainly cheated. Thirty-six percent did obtain such scores, but the cheaters included subjects from all four moral categories; as is so often the case, moral values did not predict moral behavior.

A second attempt to test resistence to moral temptation was carried out using an accomplice. Claiming that the study was an attempt to examine "dyadic analytic ability"--the ability to solve difficult cognitive tasks in two-person groups--the experimenter asked sets of two subjects to work on a series of 12-letter anagrams. While working in a locked room, one of the subjects (actually a confederate of the research team) seemed to break his pencil. Searching for a sharpener, he "discovered" the answer key in some papers on the experimenter's desk. Later in the session, when it appeared that the dyad couldn't solve the questions on the test, the confederate took several answers from the key, and then urged the subject to do likewise. Eighty-three percent complied by cheating, but again ethical ideology failed to predict who would succumb to the temptation.

Before concluding that moral values fail as predictors of moral behavior, a third study was conducted manipulating several aspects of the behavioral setting. As an interactionist approach to social behavior suggests, features of the social setting may possibly enhance--or reduce--the causal impact of values on behavior. For example, because absolutists and exceptionists emphasize the importance of moral rules, individuals who subscribe to these two types of personal moral philosophies may be more reluctant to engage in immoral behavior when moral rules are made salient by situational factors. Similarly, since the idealistic ideologies--situationism and absolutism--stress the need to achieve positive, humanitarian consequences, then individuals who accept these ideals might be more likely to engage in immoral action if such actions are the means to help others.

The final study, which was conducted with Judith Nye, who is now at Monmouth College, focused on lying rather than cheating. After assessing ethical ideology in an unrelated context, 112 subjects who could be classified as either situationists, absolutists, subjectivists, or exceptionists were shown a videotape of a male taking an intelligence test. Subjects, however, were led to believe that they were watching a closed-circuit television monitor, and that the test was being administered in the adjoining room. After rating the stimulus person, subjects were asked to give negative feedback to the test-taker suggesting that he had a very low IQ and would probably not finish college. In making this request, the experimenter emphasized that the information was simply a form of feedback (nonsalient moral norm) or that the information was a lie (salient moral norm). In addition, one half of the subjects were told that they would receive a bonus of three dollars by giving the information (either lie or feedback), while the remaining subjects were told that the information would probably lead to a "boomerang" effect that would improve the test-taker's grades over the next few weeks. If subjects agreed to misinform the videotaped individual about his I.Q. score, they were classified as nontruthful; those who refused were classified as truthful.

As anticipated, the two situational variables--the salience of moral norms and the consequences of action--had a strong impact on moral action. While only 50.0% of the subjects lied when they were offered $3 and were told that they would be lying rather than giving feedback, this percentage increased to 76.2% in the other three conditions. In addition, personal idealism influenced moral behavior, but in a surprising fashion. Although high idealists espouse a philosophy that condemns harming others, they were more likely to lie than the low idealists. Fully 91.66% of the situationists and absolutists (high idealists) agreed to tell the lie, while only 70.83% of the subjectivists and exceptionists (low idealists) complied with the experimenter's request. In fact, situationists and absolutists usually lied no matter what the consequences or salience of moral norms. Exceptionists, in contrast, were less likely to lie if offered money to lie and subjectivists were less likely to lie if they stood to gain from the lie and the action was labeled a lie.

This experiment also verified a tendency noted in the first two studies. After cheating or lying, absolutists tended to rate themselves more negatively than individuals in the other three ethical ideologies. Klass (1978), after reviewing a number of previous studies of individuals' feelings of guilt, shame, and self-esteem after breaking moral norms, concludes that "the same overt action seems to make some people feel better and others feel worse, and for still others, has no effects" (p. 766). The personal moral philosophy model accounts for these divergences by suggesting that individuals who emphasize obedience to moral norms (low relativists) but nonetheless find themselves acting contrary to a salient moral norm should display much more negative post-transgression reactions than other subjects. In contrast, idealistic individuals who achieve positive consequences for others should display more positive affective reactions following their transgression.

In the study of cheating mentioned earlier, these predictions were partially confirmed. The more absolutists cheated the more negatively they rated themselves, and exceptionists rated themselves more positively the more they cheated (Forsyth & Berger, 1982, Study 1). In the second study, absolutists who were prodded into cheating on a test rated themselves as more negative, weak, unlikable, and dirty than individuals in all the other personal moral philosophy categories (Forsyth & Berger, 1982, Study 2). Similarly, Forsyth and Nye (1990), in their study of lying, found that when subjects were lying to secure positive consequences for themselves, no differences due to personal moral values were obtained. When lying was motivated by a desire to help another person, situationists rated themselves very positively, especially in comparison to the absolutists.

Personal moral philosophies also tempered self-evaluations in a study of reactions to failure and success when working for personal profit or for a charity. Given high idealists' desire to achieve positive outcomes for others, they should feel more positive following charitable actions rather than for themselves. Relativists, in contrast, should not feel as positive about themselves after they help others than would nonrelativists. In a preliminary test of this prediction subjects assigned to the self- interest condition were informed that any money they earned during the study should be considered their salary. Subjects in the charity condition were told that any money they earned would be donated to the State Charity Foundations, and they were given a booklet describing this organization. After completing their work subjects were told their performance was a success (they were paid) or a failure (they were not paid), at which time they completed measures of affect, morality, and self-esteem.

Overall subjects' self-ratings were more positive when they succeeded rather than failed. Differences due to personal moral philosophy, however, were obtained after failure. Once again absolutists demonstrated an hypocrisy effect, for they felt more moral when they failed in a charitable action than when they failed while trying to secure personal gain. Exceptionists, in contrast, rated themselves as particularly moral when they failed when working for personal gain. Lastly, low relativists' self-esteem scores were more positive when they failed rather than succeeded, irrespective of the nature (selfless vs. selfish) action (Forsyth, 1993).

Before drawing conclusions from these findings, we should note that the subjects in all three of these experiments were debriefed immediately after their sessions. Although the first few minutes of this interview probed for suspiciousness about the procedures, the bulk of the session concentrated on reassuring subjects that their behaviors said nothing about their "moral character." Subjects were told about previous studies demonstrating the relatively large impact of situational factors on behavior, and their own reluctance to proceed with the experiment was noted. Lastly, when subjects cheated or agreed to lie, their actions were likened to a mild social infraction, as when an individual watching a large group of people cross the street against the flashing "Don't Walk" sign decides to cross as well. All subjects expressed retrospective approval of the research, and a number of participants requested copies of the conclusions.

Ethical concerns for subjects aside, these findings these findings should be interpreted with caution. Although the increase our ability to predict who will behave immorally, they also testify to the large impact of situational factors on moral action. Furthermore, they also seem to support the commonsense notion that people who espouse lofty moral values may tend to behave the most immorally. Although both situationists and absolutists strongly endorse such beliefs as "One should never psychologially or physically harm another person" and "It is never necessary to sacrifice the welfare of others," both groups were willing to tell a total stranger that his I.Q. was so low that he needed to drop out of college. While these findings are not too damaging for situationists since these individuals believe that lying is permissible in some settings, absolutists staunchly maintain that lying violates fundamental moral principles, and are quite harsh when juding others who have broken this moral absolute. Yet, when they themselves were tempted to lie, they were more likely to succumb. Although additional research is needed to further explore the moral thought of absolutists, the current research attests to a "hypocrisy effect" that may be obscuring the link between moral values and moral behaviors: People who say they are the most morally upright may be most likely to fall prey to temptation.