Ethical sensitivity and managerial decision-making: An experiment

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Administration


Stuart Bretschneider


Ethics, Decision-making, Management

Subject Categories

Public Administration


Normative analysis has been the major mode of inquiry in public administration ethics and, more generally, in organization and management ethics. The empirical research that has been done has tended to rely on few methodologies. This study is an exploratory effort to extend and expand managerial ethics in two ways. First, it takes an empirical and behavioral approach to the study of managerial decision making in ethical situations. Second, it uses an experimental methodology in studying ethical decision making behavior.

An emerging literature in behavioral ethics (from moral psychology and business ethics) conceptualizes ethical awareness, recognition, perception, or sensitivity as a critical part of the decision making process. This study develops a measure of "ethical sensitivity" and empirically tests the measure in a decision making exercise. An experimental variable ("personalized information") is introduced and empirically tested for its effect on ethical sensitivity. Ethical sensitivity is then examined, along with other individual variables (e.g. cognitive moral development and locus of control) to determine relationships to decision outcomes. Subjects were students in public administration, business management, and engineering to determine possible relationships between sector or educational program and the variables under study.

Although exploratory and tentative, individual differences in ethical sensitivity were observed. Results indicated that increased levels of personalized information did generally increase an individual's level of ethical sensitivity, and ethical sensitivity was found to be related to decision outcome. While level of moral development was not found to be related to decision outcome, individual moral development was found to be related to ethical sensitivity. Sector differences were not observed for ethical sensitivity. However, sector was found to be related to differences in stage of cognitive moral development as well as differences in decision outcomes. Subjects in public administration used higher levels of conventional (Stage 3) reasoning than business or engineering students. Business students employed greater levels of principled moral reasoning (Stage 5) than public administration students.

The results provide empirical support for the importance of ethical sensitivity in managerial decision making. The results suggest approaches to ethics training and education in management programs.


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