Moral Intuitions and Organizational Culture

49 Pages Posted: 9 May 2008 Last revised: 29 Oct 2010

Date Written: May 8, 2008


Many efforts to understand and respond to a succession of corporate scandals over the last few years have underscored the importance of organizational culture in shaping the behavior of individuals. This focus reflects appreciation that even if an organization has adopted elaborate rules and policies designed to ensure legal compliance and ethical behavior, those pronouncements will be ineffective if other norms and incentives promote contrary conduct.

Responding to the call for creating and sustaining an ethical culture in organizations requires appreciating the subtle ways in which various characteristics of an organization may work in tandem or at cross-purposes in shaping behavior. The idea is to identify the influences likely to be most important, analyze how people are apt to respond to them, and revise them if necessary so that they create the right kinds of incentives when individuals are deciding how to act.

This can be a tall order even if we assume that most behavior is the result of a deliberative process that weighs multiple risks and rewards. It's even more daunting if we accept the notion that conscious deliberation typically plays but a minor role in shaping behavior. A focus on what two scholars describe as "the unbearable automaticity of being" posits that most of a person's everyday life is determined not by conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes outside of conscious awareness.

In this article, I discuss a particular strand of research that is rooted in the study of non-conscious mental processes, and consider its implications for ethics and culture in the organizational setting. This is work on the process that we use to identify and respond to situations that raise what we think of as distinctly moral questions. A growing body of research suggests that a large portion of this process involves automatic non-conscious cognitive and emotional reactions rather than conscious deliberation. One way to think of these reactions is that they reflect reliance on moral intuitions. When such intuitions arise, we don't engage in moral reasoning in order to arrive at a conclusion. Instead, we do so in order to justify a conclusion that we've already reached. In other words, moral conclusions precede, rather than follow, moral reasoning.

If this research accurately captures much of our moral experience, what does it suggest about what's necessary to foster an ethical organizational culture? At first blush, the implications seem unsettling. The non-conscious realm is commonly associated with irrational and arbitrary impulses, and morality often is characterized as the hard-won achievement of reason over these unruly forces. If most of our moral judgments are the product of non-conscious processes, how can we hope to understand, much less influence, our moral responses? Are moral reactions fundamentally inscrutable and beyond appeals to reason? If reason has no persuasive force, does appreciation of the non-conscious source of our moral judgments suggest that any effort to promote ethical conduct must rest on a crude behaviorism that manipulates penalties and rewards?

I believe that acknowledging the prominent role of non-conscious processes in shaping moral responses need not inevitably lead either to fatalism or Skinnerian behaviorism. Research has begun to shed light on how these processes operate. Related work has suggested how our moral responses may be rooted in human evolution. This perspective focuses on the ways in which our capacity for moral judgment is embedded in physical and mental processes that have provided an adaptive advantage in human evolution. These bodies of research contribute to a richer portrait of human cognition and behavior that can be valuable in thinking about how to promote ethical awareness and conduct.

As Owen Flanagan has put it, "seeing clearly the kinds of persons we are is a necessary condition for any productive ethical reflection." If there were such a thing as a normative theory of human movement, it would be futile if it exhorted us to fly. Efforts to create an organizational culture that encouraged people to fly would be doomed as well. In thinking about ethics, we need to have a sense of what lies between simply accommodating what we tend to do and demanding that we fly. My hope is that this article takes a small step in that direction.

Keywords: organizations, ethics, legal profession, corporations

Suggested Citation

Regan, Milton C., Moral Intuitions and Organizational Culture (May 8, 2008). St. Louis University Law Journal, Vol. 51, p. 941, 2007, Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 1130858, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1130858, Available at SSRN:

Milton C. Regan (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9414 (Phone)
202-662-9408 (Fax)

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