Philosophical underpinnings of approach to ethical dilemmas: study of Indian managers.

AuthorPande, Sanjay

These days we need not strain ourselves to gather examples of unethical business conduct, erosion of values and moral delinquency in business settings. What is that the mangers draw from while taking a decision in the face of ethical dilemmas? This study investigates in to the ethical theories relied on by Indian managers when faced with ethical dilemmas in business settings. The study reveals valuable and interesting patterns in the deployment of ethical theories by the Indian Managers across ethical dilemmas varying in moral intensity.


When facing a moral dilemma what is the right thing to do? The question progressively acquires the central position in business settings. A search for a satisfactory answer to this question, leads us to a more fundamental question. What moral philosophies are being relied upon by business managers while they face a moral dilemma? The question is more fundamental because it would help us understand why certain ethical dilemmas are considered important by some managers and not so important by others. It would also help us understand the underpinnings of a particular decision of a manager facing a moral dilemma.

This paper examines the role played by various ethical theories in the decision making of Indian business managers when faced with ethical dilemmas. The study adopts the multidimensional ethics scale approach of analyzing the decision making process of managers. This scale has been widely utilized in many researches. However, studies attempting to unearth the philosophical underpinnings of the unethical/ethical decision making of Indian managers have been very scarce. The study in hand fills this gap. Further, the three scenario and the scale to be utilized in the study, were developed to reflect the Indian realities with a sharp focus.

Ethical Theories

Utilitarianism: This draws heavily from the works of Hume, Bentham (1789, 1973), MiII (1861, 1969), Sidgwick (1874) and more recently Harsanyi (1955, 1975). It suggests promoting overall human welfare in such ways as to result in the greatest net, beneficial minus harmful, consequences. According to utilitarianism an act is ethically right if it leads to a net increase in the overall good; and it is ethically wrong if it leads to a net decrease in the overall good.

Egoism. The normative perspective of this moral philosophy prescribes that people ought to act in their self-interest, exclusively. The only obligation of a person is to enhance his or her own long-term welfare and commitments to others are not binding. One should go back on these commitments if they cease to be advantageous to him (Beauchamp & Bowie, 2004).

Justice. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates are some of the earliest philosophers to have pondered over the question of justice. The idea of distributive justice reflects clearly in the observation of Rawls (1999) that "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override".

Contractualism has been defined by Scanlon (1998) as an account of moral reasoning. Contractualism is named after the conception that governs it. This concept views morality as the result of an imaginary-not actual- (Carruthers, 1992) contract between rational agents who agree upon rules to govern their subsequent behavior.

Relativism. Ethical relativists hold that all ethical beliefs and values are relative to one's culture, feelings, or religion and that there can be no rational, objective basis for a moral judgment. No action is universally right or wrong. The argument of relativism finds apt reflection in the opinion of Wong (1984) that "One of the gravest normative problems with which we must deal is the existence of deep and apparently irresolvable moral disagreements."


We developed three scenarios which were presented to the respondents. Each scenario depicted an ethical dilemma. At the end of each scenario was an action statement. This statement depicted the action taken by the main protagonist in the scenario. After the respondent had gone through the scenario and the action statement, he/she was presented with a questionnaire which contained items representing various ethical theories discussed above and the respondent had to evaluate the action statements of the scenarios against each of the items of the questionnaire on a Likert scale.

The questionnaire

The questionnaire used in our study is a multidimensional ethics scale developed by Reidenbach and Robin (1986). It represents the "evaluative criteria" that individuals use in making a moral judgment (Reidenbach & Robin, 1995). It assumes that more than one rationale is used when making an ethical judgment by an individual (Clark & Dawson, 1996). Reidenbach and Robin (1986) initially developed a 33 -item multidimensional ethics scale (MES) based on five ethical theories: justice, deontology, relativism, utilitarianism and egoism to measure moral reactions of people. The 33 item scale was later refined into a more parsimonious 8-item scale in Reidenbachand and Robin (1990). Multidimensional ethics scale (MES) has been used in several different empirical studies like Reiden-bach and Robin, 1988; Cohen et. al., 1993; Cruz et. al, 2000; Kujala, 2001; andTsalikis and Nwachukwu (1988)

Cohen et al. (1993) suggested to construct and validate R&R's original multidimensional scale for each application. Kujala's (2001) investigation of Finnish business manager's moral decision-making utilized a scale developed by comparing the scales used in six previous studies and dropped a number of items representing each of the moral philosophies and rephrased some items or amalgamated items to suit Finnish circumstances. We followed a similar process to adopt the scale for Indian sensitivities. For this purpose we referred the 33 item R&R scale to a group of five Professors and Research scholars drawn from the faculty of philosophy and linguistics. They were also detailed the procedure adopted by Kuj ala (2001) in amending the scale. The group primarily recommended deleting some items and amalgamating some others, apart from rephrasing a few. The scale developed by incorporating these recommendations was put for pre-testing amongst 40 students of management in Delhi University. Based on the inputs from the students a few items were again rephrased and the scale so finally developed was used for the present study. The questions used in the presents study can be seen at...

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