We all recognise that ethical decision-making is a sine qua non of a sustainable business and country. Why is it so hard to get people to make ethical decisions?

Hansie Cronjé had it all and was, on the face of it, a very moral person. And yet, he embarked on a series of unethical actions that cost him everything and which seemed wholly out of character. His explanation that “Satan made me do it” was treated as risible but actually had a grain of truth in it in that he appeared to be acting out of character.

The same sort of bizarrely destructive and inexplicable behaviour was on display at the Zondo Commission recently when President Ramaphosa defended the government’s transformation policy, particularly its use of cadre deployment, even pleading with the deputy chief justice not to find against the ANC’s secretive and sinister deployment committee. Could one have a clearer example of a leader doubling down on a morally dubious course of action, despite the overwhelming evidence that it has not only failed in its ostensible goal of black empowerment but is responsible for bringing the entire country to the very brink?

Cadre deployment flouts multiple tenets of governance best practice and actually serves as a confirmation of the contention of the King Committee that good governance and sustainability are inextricably linked.

It’s particularly puzzling because the president and some of his cabinet are ostensibly well-intentioned and would unhesitatingly affirm their belief in good governance and thus of ethical decision-making.

With an academic interest in behavioural decision-making and strategic leadership, Professor Charlene Lew has given these issues a lot of thought. She argues that ethical decision-making involves a process of moral reasoning, but, she adds, the dynamics of this process are still not fully understood.

“We need to develop a more integrated understanding of how ethical decisions are made, not least to be able to provide guidelines for how to incorporate them into business practice,” she says.

One useful model for moral reasoning was proposed by JR Rest, a prominent American psychologist. Rest postulates several phases, namely awareness of an issue as a moral concern, judgement on what would be right to do, developing intent to do what is right, and acting on it.1 Recent research by Cherise Small and Lew demonstrates a relationship between ethical judgement and intent and suggests that mindfulness predicts moral responsibility (the desire to act in the best interests of others). Thus, people who are mindful develop the virtue of having the best of others at heart.2 Another model, that of Mark Schwartz, associate professor of law, governance and ethics at York University, Toronto, adds that behaviour should be followed by retrospection in order to learn from experience.3

The essence of ethical behaviour, Lew says, begins with the intention of not harming other people, or at least minimising harm. As advocated by Harvard Business School’s Professor Max H. Bazerman, a complimentary, practical approach looks at ethical decision-making from a utilitarian perspective. Based on the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism argues that ethical behaviour maximises utility – or value – in the world. Professor Bazerman writes: “This includes maximising aggregate well-being and minimising aggregate pain, goals that are helped by pursuing efficiency in decision-making, reaching moral decisions without regard for self-interest, and avoiding tribal behaviour (such as nationalism or in-group favouritism).”

This approach marries philosophy with business-school pragmatism, he argues.

However, as noted above regarding Ramaphosa and, indeed, the ANC as a whole, pure rationality does not necessarily prevail. Bazerman alludes to the concept of ‘bounded rationality’, which describes how biases and other cognitive limitations trump the desire to act rationally. A related concept is ‘bounded ethicality’, in which cognitive biases prevent an individual from acting as ethically as they wish to.

It’s a curious dynamic not unrelated to the eternal battle of good versus evil posited in moral theology or, indeed, humanity’s aspiration to the divine being thwarted by its fallen nature.

Tuning out our better natures

Lew points out that various mechanisms may cause individuals to disengage their moral responsibility. These are moral justification, euphemistic language, advantageous comparison, displacement of responsibility, diffusion of responsibility, disregarding or distorting the consequences, attribution of blame or dehumanising another person. Examples of such disengaging cognitive mechanisms could include thoughts such as: “If someone at work causes trouble and misbehaves at work, it is their manager’s fault”, “Someone who is obnoxious does not deserve to be treated like a human being”, “If people are careless where they leave their things, it is their own fault if they get stolen”, or “Teasing someone does not really hurt them”.4

Bazerman suggests blindness motivated by self-interest as another disengagement mechanism. A good example one frequently encounters is “It’s my turn to eat”. This justification allows an otherwise ethically well-intentioned person to avoid exercising the process of moral judgement that would usually govern behaviour.

In short, the desire to act ethically by exercising moral judgement is not enough – one can be betrayed by one’s very nature. Thus, eternal vigilance is not just the price of liberty but also of the ethical life, one might say.

When it comes to ethical decision-making, a perennial problem is whether the decision-maker even recognises that there is an ethical decision at all, Lew notes.

To make a complex problem even more complex, Bazerman argues that we also need to factor in using two systems for making decisions, as popularised in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow. System 1 uses intuition to make decisions quickly, emotionally and almost automatically. As a result, most decisions are made using this system.

By contrast, System 2 is more deliberative – slower, conscious and logical. It takes more effort to use System 2, but it brings us closer to rationality.

Based on this taxonomy, the philosopher and psychologist, Joshua Greene, proposed two parallel systems of ethical decision-making: intuitive and deliberative.

Here’s the big take-out: the deliberative system leads to behaviour that is more ethical.

Practical ways to drive ethical decision-making

Given that it results from a subtle interplay between aspiration, self-interest and even survival, there is no way to ensure individuals always make decisions ethically. But experts do offer various practical ways of nudging individuals – particularly employees – to adopt a posture that, at least, inclines them towards making ethical choices:

  • Make decisions holistically by comparing options rather than assessing each alternative individually, argues Bazerman. When we evaluate a single option, we tend to lean on System 1 thinking, whereas System 2 thinking is more likely to be employed when considering multiple options. As a result, the decision is likely to be better thought through and less biased.
  • He also recommends adopting the ‘veil of ignorance’, in the words of the philosopher, John Rawls. This means looking at issues without taking into account one’s own particular position. “Not knowing how we would benefit (or be harmed) by a decision keeps us from being biased by our position in the world,” Bazerman says.
  • Create a culture where ethical decision-making is a natural expectation, advises Lew. Value systems should be integrated into the organisational mission statement, and behavioural change should be motivated. “Any environment offers clues as to how one should behave in it, so make sure they are present,” she says. “Rewards are one example.”
  • Leadership remains crucial – this is the “tone at the top” that is so crucial in creating an environment in which people feel safe to act ethically. People follow their leaders' example, which may explain the recent outbreak of looting and much else.
  • Offer workshops that allow employees to practice identifying ethical issues and then how to navigate them rationally and intuitively. “Scenario-based examples explicitly related to the specifical organisational context can offer valuable practice,” says Lew.

Changing behaviour at this profound level is never going to be easy, particularly as it’s often irrational, but it can be done given the right strategy and strong leadership. The question is: will we get it?

Building an ethical career

For those wanting to integrate ethics into the way they conduct themselves in business, Maryam Kouchaki, associate professor of management and organisations, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, and Isaac H. Smith, assistant professor of organisational behaviour and human resources, Brigham Young University’s Marriot School of Business, offer practical guidelines. Key recommendations include:

Start from a position of moral humility. We can all transgress if we’re not vigilant, especially if our short-term interests seem threatened.

Prepare yourself for moral challenges. People may be aware of what they should do in theory, but they tend to default to what they want in the moment. This will mean understanding your strengths and weaknesses, what your values are, and when you are most likely to go against them.

Recognise what you want to be remembered for. One can distinguish resumé virtues (skills, abilities and accomplishments that can go on your CV) and eulogy virtues – how people will remember you when you die. “Framing your professional life as a quest for contribution rather than achievement can fundamentally change the way you approach your career,” they write.

Set goals. Success often depends on goal setting, but few think to apply the same principle to achieving goals that we would want to be remembered by.

Develop the right habits. Good intentions are all very well, but they can easily be subverted. Studies show that good-quality sleep, personal prayer for the religious, and mindfulness can help improve self-control and the ability to resist temptation.

Use ‘if-then’ planning. It’s been shown that thinking about what you would do if something happened is a good way to change behaviour. These plans must be both simple and specific: “If I am solicited for a bribe, I will consult my company’s legal team and policies for guidance.”

For more, read Maryam Kouchaki and Isaac H. Smith, Building an ethical career, Harvard Business Review (January-February 2020), pp 135-9.


1 See JR Rest, Moral development: Advances in research and theory. New York: Praeger, 1986
2 Cherise Small and Charlene Lew, Mindfulness, Moral Reasoning and Responsibility: Towards Virtue in Ethical Decision‑Making, Journal of Business Ethics (2021) 169: 103-117, available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04272-y.
3 M Schwartz, Ethical decision-making theory: An integrated approach, Journal of Business Ethics (2016) 139(4), 755-776.
4 Bandura, A., Barbaranelli, C., Caprara, G. V., & Pastorelli, C. (1996). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 364-374.

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