The dynamics of ethical decision-making in business settings: Some implications for the teaching of ethics in business education

Edgardo Martinez

MPhil thesis, conferred 2016

This study investigated ethical decision-making in the context of business settings and the teaching of ethics in business education. Over the past century or so, there has been a general acceptance of the need to teach business ethics in business education. However, close scrutiny shows that it has been patchy, and where it has been taught it is often only as an elective. Nevertheless, ethics is important in the business world and unethical behaviour can exact severe punishment. This suggests it should be taught, but that raises questions of how, and on what theoretical basis? For the past half-century, Kohlberg’s developmental theory of moral development has provided the main model in business education, but in the last decade criticisms have come from the social-intuitionist approach and from dynamic systems theory (DST).

A dynamic systems approach was used as the main theoretical framework for this study. The adoption of this approach impacted the research methodology of this study and the interpretation of the data. In terms of method, whereas Kohlbergian and similar cognitivist approaches used hypothetical dilemmas in conducting research, this study employed five scenarios that attempt to mirror real-life ethical dilemmas that arise within a business context. Each scenario contained an ethical dilemma, but it was up to the participant to identify it. In terms of the analysis of data, whereas previous approaches applied supposition-laden scoring schemes based on assumed stabilities (e.g., stages and levels) in development, this study attempted to identify emerging and shifting patterns of decision-making in different contexts. Research was undertaken with 16 MBA students enrolled in a business school in a university in Sydney.

The findings of this study appear to provide important clues about ethical decision-making, which could be used in future to design alternative pedagogies and teaching materials, when teaching business ethics in the context of business education.

Supervisor: Dr Minkang Kim