This paper focuses on judgment as the critical stage in Rest's ethical decision-making model because judgment is central to ethical decision making, is the most complex of the four steps, and has had its rational basis challenged by recent research.
The centrality of judgment
Although ethical failure can take place at any of the four stages (Rest 1994), judgment would appear to be the core stage because it takes the vagueness of an ethical dilemma and transforms it into the intention to behave in a specific way (Sparks & Pan 2010). Awareness recognizes the moral nature of a situation but does not prescribe any particular response. While intent and behavior are important, they merely carry out the decision that was determined by judgment. All four components are necessary for implementing an ethical decision, but the judgment stage examines the situation and formulates a specific plan of action.
Judgment also appears to be the best target for ethical training since it is more consciously determined by the decision maker than the other three stages. Failures in the other three stages tend to be related to insensitivity (for awareness-related failures) or competing external influences (for intent- and behavior-related failures) (Rest 1994). In contrast, failures in judgment come from processes that are more directly under the control of (and can be corrected by) the decision maker.
The complexity of judgment
Ethical judgment can be complex (Sparks & Pan 2010), and judgment failures are multifaceted, as individual decision makers may (a) misunderstand a situation (e.g. not seeing software piracy for what it is), (b) hold a false rule (e.g. judging software piracy to be ethical), or (c) misapply a correct moral rule (Reynolds 2006a).
Compounding this complexity is the epistemological issue of determining what is a false moral rule and what is a correct moral rule. Individuals at different levels of moral development (Kohlberg 1976) may disagree on what constitutes moral action and, more importantly, how moral decisions are justified. Cultural relativism, ethical subjectivism and psychological egoism (Rachels 1993) each proposes that we ‘know’ what is right by different means (i.e. culture, feelings, self-interest), but all share the error that believing something is true makes it true.
The methods for measuring each of Rest's four steps also support the idea that judgment is especially complex. Ethical awareness has been typically measured by asking subjects the degree to which a scenario contains ethical issues (Robin et al. 1996, May & Pauli 2002, Singhapakdi et al. 2000). Ethical intent has been typically measured by asking subjects if they would behave in a particular way (Robin et al. 1996, Schwepker 1999, Barnett & Vaicys 2000). Ethical behavior has been less frequently studied but has been measured by observing current behavior in a simulation (Hegarty & Sims 1978) or by asking subjects if they have behaved in a particular way in the past (Honeycutt et al. 2001).
Each of these three steps could be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (e.g. Are there ethical issues present? Would you behave in this way?), but researchers have commonly allowed subjects to respond in a less dichotomous way (e.g. To what degree are ethical issues present? How likely would you be to behave in this way?), allowing for a range of disagreement/agreement or a probability estimate.
While judgment has occasionally been measured in a similar way (e.g. To what degree is this behavior ethical?) (Honeycutt et al. 2001), the most common measure of judgment is the multidimensional ethics scale (MES), developed by Reidenbach & Robin (1990). The MES recognizes that ethical judgment is a complex construct, based on moral equity (i.e. what is fair, just, morally right and acceptable to one's family), relativism (i.e. what is culturally and traditionally acceptable) and contractualism (i.e. what is consistent with an unspoken promise or unwritten contract). However, even this more sophisticated measure does not capture the full complexity of judgment because it presents only a single possible action for the individual to evaluate and does not engage the individual in creatively generating alternatives and evaluating them. In short, it presents ethical judgment as a simplistic ‘true/false’ question rather than as an open-ended ‘essay’ question.
While the MES may be appropriate for evaluating the actions of others (as is typical in scenario-based research), it does not address the decision making that necessarily precedes (or is an element of) judgment (Ferrell & Gresham 1985, Mowen 1988, Sparks & Pan 2010). When individuals are faced with an ethical dilemma, they typically face a problem to be solved, not a single alternative to be critiqued. Judgment is made through the process of gathering, understanding and analyzing the relevant facts so that the situation can be evaluated and the appropriate action determined. Behavioral intention is based on judgment (Mellers et al. 1998), and Gaudine & Thorne (2001) use the term ‘prescriptive judgment’ to emphasize that judgment results in what is believed to be the optimal behavioral response.
While the Rest model has proven to be a useful framework to explain the ethical decision-making process, one shortcoming is that it only identifies that judgment takes place – ‘labeling one possible line of action as what a person ought (morally ought) to do in that situation’ (Rest 1986: 3) – and does not describe or recommend any process for making a judgment. According to Rest (1994), errors in ethical judgment ‘come about from overly simplistic ways of justifying choices of moral action’ (p. 24), suggesting that judgment can be improved if it is based on a more complete, thoughtful analysis. Such a recommendation may be beyond the model's intended scope, since its emphasis is on describing the ethical decision-making process, not improving it.
Extensive research has already been conducted on the individual, situational and issue-contingent factors that influence this process (Ford & Richardson 1994, Loe et al. 2000, O'Fallon & Butterfield 2005, Treviño et al. 2006, Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe 2008, Kish-Gephart et al. 2010), as well as the impact of emotions (Gaudine & Thorne 2001, Haidt 2001) and moral disengagement (Bandura 1999, Detert et al. 2008). However, the focus of this paper is the core decision-making process that results in an ethical judgment and how that process can be structured so that it encourages a careful, comprehensive examination of ethical dilemmas.
The illusion of judgment
Recent research has challenged Rest's premise of rational ethical decision making and suggests that individuals may act on ‘ethical impulses’ and not engage in careful, thoughtful consideration when making ethical decisions (Haidt 2001, Kish-Gephart et al. 2010, Sparks & Pan 2010). Some ethical judgments may be quick and intuitive, driven by emotions, and rationalized afterwards.
A helpful middle ground proposed by Reynolds (2006b) suggests that individuals tend to follow one of two decision-making processes. Deliberate, rational ethical judgment emphasizes moral rules and ‘active judgment’ that leads to intention and behavior, consistent with Rest's model. However, some individuals may instead engage in ‘reflexive judgment’ with a nonconscious, automatic emphasis on intentions and behaviors, which are later rationalized. The choice between these two processes depends on the presence of a ‘prototype’ – a previously considered, similar situation from which individuals can draw when making decisions. If an individual faces a situation that is similar to the prototype, rather than carefully analyzing the situation, the individual will respond intuitively with ‘reflexive judgment’. If an individual faces a situation where no prototype exists, then a more thorough analysis, using ‘active judgment’, will be conducted.
In either case, tools are needed to help individuals work through the judgment process. If a decision has no prototype, such tools could help an individual come to a carefully considered judgment. But these tools, when used as a part of either business coursework or continuing ethics training, could also help individuals develop prototype responses in advance by applying them to case studies or hypothetical scenarios, and these responses can be used as prototypes when a similar situation presents itself.