Ethical Reasoning

When leaders fail, it is usually not because of a lack of IQ, but more often, because of a lack of ethics.  There are many smart leaders who could be successful were they to take ethical responsibilities more seriously. 

We tend to think that the easy thing is to act ethically and that the hard thing is to act unethically, because unethical action must entail an extra step—that is, we come up with the ethical solution in response to a situation and then we think about how we might depart from that solution.  I have proposed an eight-step model of ethical reasoning that suggests the opposite is true—that it is difficult to act ethically because there are at least eight steps involved in ethical reasoning and if any one of them is omitted, the chances are that one will act unethically.  The eight steps are:

1.  recognize that there is an event to which to react;

2.  define the event as having an ethical dimension;

3.  decide that the ethical dimension is of sufficient significance to merit an ethics-guided response;

4.  take personal responsibility for generating an ethical solution to the problem;

5.  figure out what abstract ethical rule(s) might apply to the problem;

6.  decide how these abstract ethical rules actually apply to the problem so as to suggest a concrete solution;

7. prepare for later possible repercussions of having acted in what one consider an ethical manner;

8.  enact the ethical solution.

I recently have submitted a grant pre-proposal for funding that would enable me and any interested colleagues to test this model of ethical reasoning. In particular, we would investigate the construct validity of the model above.  This testing would involve alternative instructional programs, one based on the model above, one asserting the importance of ethics without adhering to any particular model, one involving an analysis of the story of the Good Samaritan, and one not involving ethics at all.  The research also would involve cuing individuals with parts of the model of ethical reasoning to determine whether such cuing improves the quality of their reasoning in ethically-based situations.

I am also interested in comparing ethical reasoning across cultures and am planning with German colleagues at Heidelberg University Germany, to compare ethical reasoning among US and German college students.



                                                                  Key References


Sternberg, R. J. (2009).  Ethics and giftedness.  High Ability Studies, 20, 121-130.

Sternberg, R. J. (2009).  We need to teach for ethical conduct. The Educational Forum, 73 (3), 190-198.

Sternberg, R. J. (2010). Teaching for ethical reasoning in liberal education. Liberal Education, 96(3), 32-37.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012).  Ethical drift.  Liberal Education, 98(3), 60.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012).  A model for ethical reasoning.  Review of General Psychology, 16, 319-326.

Sternberg, R. J. (2012). Teaching for ethical reasoning. International Journal of Educational Psychology, 1(1), 35-50.