In the Eye of the Beholder: Moral disengagement and ethical decision making among Information Systems professionals

Kevin P. Pauli and Tammy Y. Arthur


The field of information systems is beset with ethically challenging situations (i.e., monitoring, information use, information disclosure) and yet research is only beginning to examine the variables that influence the IS professional’s ethical decision making. This paper proposes the application of moral disengagement, which is defined as an individual difference found to influence ethical intentions (Bandura, 1986), to the ethical decision making model proposed by Rest (1986). The specific research question is as follows: Does the moral disengagement of information system professionals influence the relationship between their judgments and their intentions? A series of propositions will be developed which argue that individual levels of the various disengagement dimensions will moderate the relationship between the moral judgments and the moral intentions of the IS professional.

Information System Professionals

Research examining the personalities of information system professionals has found them to be more introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judgmental than the majority of the general population (Lyons, 1985). Less formal academic journals have deemed them to be weird, anti-social, and ultimately referred to simply as “nerds” (Corbin, 1991).

So how do these individuals fit within the modern organization? IS managers have been accused of being obsessed with the technological capabilities of their tools (Manes, 1999), of spending insufficient time finding out about user needs, and of being a source of management frustration (Thorn, 1995). As a result, they have been segregated from the normal social controls of the organization, which has the potential of creating ethical dilemmas. To date little effort has been made to understand the ethical decision making processes of these individuals (Banerjee, Cronan & Jones, 1998).

Ethical Decision Making Framework

This paper focuses on the descriptive process of ethical decision making. In contrast to the normative model, this process examines how philosophical rules and ideas are actually used in concert with the world of facts in which we live (Bonevac, 1996). It also attempts to identify the reality of what is occurring and the forces that are shaping an individual’s reasoning and actions.

In his initial development of one such process, Rest (1986) identified a four-stage model: moral recognition, moral evaluation, moral intentions, and moral behavior. The first stage reflects the identification of a situation by the moral agent as containing a moral issue. The second stage entails the moral evaluations individuals make when attempting to deal with the issue identified. The establishment of moral intent follows the evaluation process (Dubinsky & Loken, 1989; Hunt & Vitell, 1986; Jones, 1991; Rest, 1986). Finally, since intentions are the best predictors of individuals’ subsequent behaviors (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1977; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), intent will often lead to actual behavior (Ferrell & Gresham, 1985; Trevino, 1986).

Proposed Model

This paper adds to ethics literature by incorporating the construct of moral disengagement. Based upon the work of Albert Bandura (1986), moral disengagement is the propensity to disengage self-regulatory processes from the actions taken. This research takes Bandura’s model further in proposing that the dimensions of moral disengagement are expected to influence the relationship between moral judgement and the individual’s moral intention.

The individual brings a lifetime of experiences and learning to the ethical decision making process. Social cognitive theory (Martin, 1996) proposes that individuals possess self-regulatory mechanisms which provide a level of stability in interactions with the environment. If motivated solely by external rewards and punishments, behavior would fluctuate erratically (Bandura, 1986). Instead, Bandura (1991) suggests that, in many areas of social and moral behavior, the individual’s standards for behavior remain relatively stable.

Bandura identifies four distinct points at which the individual can disengage from these internal self-regulatory mechanisms (Martin, 1996). Specifically, internal self-sanctions can be disengaged from detrimental conduct by reconstruing the conduct itself through the processes of moral justification, advantageous comparison, and euphemistic labeling. Individuals may also disengage by clouding personal causal agency through displacement and diffusion of responsibility. The third way in which an individual can disengage self-sanctions is by diminishing or disregarding the consequences of his/her actions. The individual’s final disengagement mechanism is to disparage the recipients of the actions through dehumanization or attribution of blame. It is expected that each of these points will weaken the linkage between the individual’s moral reasoning and intention to behave in accordance with that reasoning.

Exploration of the ethical decision making processes used by the information technology management profession has been glaring in its absence (Banerjee, Cronan & Jones, 1998). Research has found that they view the ethicality of some situations differently than non-technical individuals (Wagner & Benham, 1995). Additionally, technical individuals are often culturally and physically separate from the organizational mainstream. A specific examination of the ethical decision making processes of information system professionals should increase our understanding of those charged with maintaining the organizational “nervous system” (Martin, 1996).


IS professionals have become critical components of organizational success and effectiveness. An understanding of their ethical decision making processes helps organizations and the profession better understand how to operate effectively, efficiently, and ethically. This paper has begun the process by applying the moral disengagement dimensions developed by Bandura (1986) to the ethical decision making model developed by Rest (1986). Research into how IS professionals reason and what individual differences may influence that reasoning allows organizations and the IS profession to identify ways to strengthen ethical behavior and protect individual rights as well as protect organizational assets and information.


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