A Theory of Ethics Positions

The link between moral values and moral behavior has long- intrigued social psychologists. As early as 1928, Hartshorne and May, in their Studies in the Nature of Character, reported some surprising inconsistencies among moral values and moral actions. These researchers developed thirty-three measures of deceit–cheating, lying, and stealing–and administered these tests to hundreds of children. Although some of the children behaved immorally more consistently than others, in many cases the situation, and not the personality characteristics of the children, determined who would yield to temptation. Furthermore, when Hartshorne and May extended their studies by searching for other aspects of the childrens’ moral outlook that would better predict their actions, their efforts proved fruitless. Measures of their moral values, knowledge, and judgments about moral dilemmas were only weakly related to actual conduct. Despite the counterintuitive nature of the Hartshorne and May findings, subsequent researchers have frequently reaffirmed the disparity between moral thought and moral action.

While moral behavior remains an unpredictable puzzle for psychological researchers, some success has been achieved recently by taking individuals’ personal moral philosophies into consideration. Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1980, Forsyth argued that individual variations in approaches to moral judgment and behavior may be conceptualized in terms of two basic dimensions: relativism and idealism. First, while some personal moral codes emphasize the importance of universal ethical rules like “Thou shalt not lie,” others maintain a posture of relativism that skeptically rejects universal principles. Second, while a fundamental concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of some individuals’ moral codes, others do not emphasize such humanitarian ideals; the former assume that we should avoid harming others, while the latter assume harm will sometimes be necessary to produce good.

Rather than classify individuals as either relativistic or idealistic, Forsyth recommends a four-fold classification based on both dimensions (See the Table). Individuals who are highly relativistic and highly idealistic are called situationists; they feel that people should strive to produce the best consequences possible, but that moral rules cannot be applied across all situations. This ethical outlook is labeled situationism because its adherents prescribe close inspection of the situation in reaching a contextually appropriate moral evaluation. Absolutists, like situationists, are also idealistic; they approve of actions that yield many positive, desirable consequences. However, unlike situationists, absolutists are not relativistic. They feel that some ethical absolutes are so important that they must be included in any code of ethics.

The remaining two personal moralities are both low in terms of idealism. Subjectivists reject moral rules (high relativism) and are also less idealistic about the possibility of acheiving humanitarian goals. This ideology is labeled subjectivism because its adherents describe their moral decisions as subjective, individualistic judgments that cannot be made on the basis of more “objective” information, such as universal moral absolutes or the extent to which the action harms othrs. Lastly, exceptionists are low in both relativism and idealism; they believe that moral rules should guide our behavior, but that actions that yield some negative consequences shouldn’t necessarily be condemned. Hence, they are willing to make exceptions to their moral principles.

Forsyth (1980) developed the Ethics Position Questionnaire (EPQ) to assess personal moral philosophy. It asks individuals to indicate their acceptance of items that vary in terms of relativism and idealism. The relativism scale includes items like “Different types of moralities cannot be compared as to ‘rightness'” and “What is ethical varies from one situation to another.” The idealism scale, in contrast, measures one’s perspective on positive and negative consequences with such items as “A person should make certain that their actions never intentionally harm another even to a small degree” and “If an action could harm an innocent other then it should not be done” (Forsyth, 1980). Overall, high scorers on the idealism subscale of the EPQ more strongly endorse items that reflect a fundamental concern for the welfare of others, whereas those who receive high scores on the relativism subscale of the EPQ tend to espouse a personal moral philosophy based on rejection of moral universals (Forsyth, Nye, & Kelley, 1985).

For more information about this theory, and the questionnaire, please explore the links at right.

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