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Moral Ethical Development | Psychology Dissertations

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Moral Ethical Development

Chapter II: Literature Review

Researching the moral development, ethical decision making approaches, and the adoption of utilitarian ethics on the part of Taiwanese CPAs begins with a thorough literature review of these specific topics. The intent of this chapter is to evaluate the research instruments used for supporting and validating the hypotheses of this study as well. For purposes of clarity, this chapter is organization into three sections, starting with a review of moral development theories. The second section concentrates on the most commonly used instruments for completing measurement of ethical judgment and decision-making, with the last section of the chapter presenting an overview of empirical studies designed specifically to measure Taiwanese CPAs’ relationship to ethical evaluation and ethical intentions and overall moral development.

Introduction to Moral Development

Much of the foundational work completed in moral development is attributed to theorists who together have refined the key aspects of this field in the last twenty-five years. The evolution of moral development theories has concentrated on increasingly on its role in defining psychological aspects of moral development (Rest, 1979). Adding to the body of knowledge on moral development are the works of Kohlberg (1976) and Piaget (1932). In conjunction with Rest (1979), the works of these two theorists show specifically how the development of moral delineations and definitions are formative and not absolute, and have specific attributes associated with each.

As accountancy is a field that relies heavily on trust and the fulfillment of fiduciary responsibilities, the importance of ethical judgments in the field of study is clear. Accountants and CPAs need to be the sustainers of public trust in the accounting and auditing professions. Ironically however one of the world’s largest scandals, Enron, was architected by accountants and auditors, which lead the U.S. government to legislate into law the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act of 2002.

Later in this literature review the basis of the SOX Act will be discussed. As a result of the importance of ethical judgments in the accounting profession, several studies that are empirically based have had as their objective an assessment of the development of moral judgment, moral frameworks, and skills at assessing the ethical dilemmas that occur in the fulfillment of their professions.

In researching and defining the moral development of organizations, the work of Paiget (1932) serves as a foundation, based on his assessment of how children form ethical and moral values through the study of their respect for rules. Paiget (1932) wrote The Moral Judgment of the Child to add to the field of knowledge on moral development. Paiget writes that “all morality consists in a system of rules, and the essence of all morality is to be sought for in the respect which the individual acquires for these rules” (p.13).

Relying on observation as a research approach and completing interviews with a cross-section of boys to see how their comprehension of rules influencing the game was completed, Paiget was able to construct theories of moral development and the development of moral judgment. Paiget defined the concept of children developing morally through a progression from heteronomy, through stages of autonomy, finally to equity. Based on this research Paiget created a specific framework which describes the stages in conceptualization of moral decision-making and judgment, leading to the finding of rules presence and consciousness of rules as the foundation for developing moral judgment (Ponemon, 1990).

The development of stages of Cognitive Developmental Theory (Piaget, 1997) are defined as follows. The first phase is where sensory-motor intelligence (younger than two years old) is prevalent. The second stage is pre-operational thought (two to seven years old) that serves as the foundation for creating more concrete concepts in the future. The third stage is called concrete operations and occurs between seven to eleven years old, with the fourth stage being formal operations that occur from eleven to adulthood. Paiget observed that by age 7, children begin playing with and cooperating with one another. Secondly Paiget observed children in the 11 to 12 age range see rules as permeable, capable of being negotiable and mutually agreeable.

Theorizing that children are not born with the ability to understand and apply moral standards yet learn them over progressive stage, Piaget (1997) began creating a moral development theory that forms the foundation of Kohlberg’s creation of his own theories of moral development as well. Kohlberg refined and developed a six-stage sequence mode model and subsequently and empirically proved the assumptions of Piaget (1997), (Kohlberg 1976). His moral reasoning theory is a cognitive developmental theory that seeks to understand the reasoning behind how adults decide what course of action in morally right or wrong. Furthermore, Kohlberg’s theory develops sequentially through three levels of moral development,, with each level subdivided into two stages (Table 1), Kohlberg’s cognitive development theory is today regarded as a model and framework for ethics education according to Baxter and Rarick (1987) and Shenkir (1990). (Baxter & Rarick, 1987; Shenkir, 1990)

It’s clear that Piaget had a significant influence on the findings and conclusions of Kohlberg. This is evident for example in the second and third stages Kohlberg defines, which are exactly the same as Piaget’s. Despite this same approach to defining the specific level of moral development, Kohlberg differs from Piaget on the fourth through sixth stages of development. The factors that are driving the differences are the interpretations of internal moral convictions justice and that Kohlberg sees as overriding social expectations, norms, and values.

Kohlberg’s work on moral development provided a foundation for further analysis of moral development and the formation of moral judgment as well. Specifically focused the measurement of the changes by stage of morale development, Kohlberg had defined a hypothesis that over time and throughout maturity children, then adults, become more attuned to moral development.(Kohlberg, 1981). Throughout the remainder of this life Kohlberg concentrated his efforts on moral education and the propagation of his theories.

Despite the alignment of Kohlberg’s findings and analyses to Piaget (1997) and others in the area of normative moral development being aligned to the developmental phases of a child’s then adults’ life there are many critics of this view including the following academicians and theorists (Gilligan, 1993, , 1998; Gump, Baker, & Roll, 2000; Reimer;, Paolitto, & Hersh, 1990; Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, & Bebeau, 1999, , 2000; Shweder, 1982; Spohn, 2000; Sullivan, 1977). Specifically these theorists have centered on four specific questions that form the foundation of their critique of Kohlberg’s theories (et.al.).

First do the processes involved in moral reasoning foster and sustain moral behavior over time? Theorists remark that Kohlberg’s theory supports critical thinking regarding morality yet does not concentrating on what ought to be done versus what is actually accomplished (Sullivan, 1977). As part of this argument theorists contend that the lack of longitudinal empirical evidence to support the claim that the higher the level of moral judgment, the higher the level of moral behavior. During his lifetime, this was often discussed and presented as a critique of his work, an assessment he agreed with saying “I understand the theory of justice reasoning to be necessary but not sufficient for defining the full domain of what is meant by moral development” (Kohlberg, 1984). Whether or not knowing is equal to doing, knowing must typically come before doing, and so Kohlberg states that “the study of moral reasoning is valuable in its own right” (Kohlberg, 1984).

Second, the suppositions that the only aspect of moral reasoning is justice when in fact there are many other factors to consider. The theorists have said that Kohlberg’s theories tend to overemphasize the perception of justice as the foundation for making decisions. Theorists have long argued that in addition to justice, additional factors including compassion, caring, and other interpersonal feelings may play an important part in moral reasoning. (Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, & Bebeau, 1999; Spohn, 2000)

The third major question of Kohlberg’s analysis is the minimal amount of empirical evidences for post-conventional level thinking , a critical assumption that underscore much of what Kohlberg based his analysis on(Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, & Bebeau, 1999)The fourth question that emerges from the analysis is an assessment of Kohlberg’s theories and the over-reliance on the role and influence of Western culture. Critics and theorists contend that there is equally if not more emphasis specifically from Eastern cultures as well that have not been taken into account (J. C. Gibbs, 2003; Spohn, 2000).

As a result of these critiques specific to his work, in 1985 Kohlberg decided to eliminate the sixth stage of his work, citing a lack of empirical evidence and proven causality once thought to be present. In addition, there appears to be a dearth of evidence of support the fifth stage of his model, and in fact theorists pointed to little support from previous empirically derived research.

In addition to the above points, theorists contend that there is a dearth of evidence for the fifth level of scoring as defined by Kohlberg (Snarey, 1985). Gibbs (1979) is credited with being a co-developer of the scoring system and concentrates on moral judgment development throughout the fourth stage of the Kohlberg framework. In addition, Kohlberg defended the empirical data for the fifth and sixth stages stating that statistically significant findings had supported his framework, despite the critics and the lack of empirical studies that could be replicated by other theorists.

The fifth and sixth stages are clearly centered on post conventional thinking, which is a limitation of Kohlberg's framework. The book Lawrence Kohlberg: Consensus and Controversy (Modgil & Modgil, 1986) defines the shortcomings of the fifth and sixth stages of the Kohlberg model in depth, with several of the theorists mentioned in this literature review being the primary critics of Kohlberg’s theories.

Analysis of Rest’s Theories

James Rest (1979) developed a revision of the developmental process of moral judgment by looking at the shortcomings of Kohlberg (et.al.) and Piaget (1997). As a result, Rest’s moral judgment model is significantly different than Kohlberg’s (Rest, 1979). According to theorists, “For the measurement of moral reasoning, Rest’s model assesses an individual’s tendency to use concepts of justice based on social cooperation in his or her moral thinking, while Kohlberg’s model assesses an individual’s use of justice concepts, focusing more on exchange and individual interests” (Elm & Weber, 1994), p. 346)

Rest (1986) consequently a Four Component Model that captures for types of psychological processes must take place for an individual to experience moral behavior. The Rest Four Component Model is summarized by the key points below:

Moral Judgment: the individual must make judgment on what should be the right thing to do. In other words, a person should be able to determine the appropriate action that is morally correct.

Moral Sensitivity: This is defined as the interpretation of individuals’ actions in terms of responding to their overall assessment of situation. The intent of this aspect of the model is to refer to how an individual’s conduct is analyzed in terms of how is going to influence themselves and those who are associates and friends.

Moral Motivation: the essence of defining and prioritizing moral decisions over competing contextual perceptions of morality. Moral values are, according to this model, above personal values. Moral values are always thought about first when making a decision.

Moral Action: The sense of this specific element of the model requires the development of competence in the development and use of strategies that develop a moral foundation. According to this specific aspect of the model, the individual needs to have the integrity and self-determination to stay in alignment with their need for behaving morally and ethically over time. The point of this specific aspect of the model is that self-determination is a critical aspect of the total model.

Assessing the Cognitive Moral Decision-Making Model

The ethical decision-making of accounting, auditing and financial professionals have increasingly come under fire due to the major ethical lapses of these professionals that led to some of the largest scandals in history. Enron, MCI, Tyco and many other scandals are directly responsible for SOX legislation in the U.S. and a marked rise in compliance globally, preceded by the savings & loan debacle of the 1980s, have together served as the catalyst of high levels of interest in the ethics of CPAs and finance professions (Cohen & Pant, 1993; Lampe & Finn, 1992; McNair & Milam, 1993; Ponemon & Gabhart, 1990; Shaub, 1994)

From this body of research with regard to compliance surrounding ethics, Lampe and Finn (1992) have defined three dominant types of ethical decision making models. These are defined with the context of audits, and include agency models, cognitive models, and professional code-implied models. The intent of the study is primarily focused on the cognitive model component first, as it is the most pervasively used in evaluating the decision-making process of auditors (Ponemon & Gabhart, 1993).

Accounting ethics research, in the majority of studies is based on a cognitive moral decision making model as first analyzed and published by Rest (1986). Modeling the individual moral decision processes that include the reasoning and action processes in completing and carrying out ethical decisions and actions is defined in the model as well. According to the theory the person with a strong sense of morals is that that evaluates an ethical dilemma and situation to ensure that actions are evaluated for their ethicity first. In defining this model Rest (1984) states that interpreting the situation including the decision to try and decide which choices are, and if and how a decision might affect others (i.e., they try to determine if an ethical issue exists).

The analysis next begins with an assessment that the use of moral judgment is also critical for the development of doing what ought to be done. The next step is to develop the moral intent and define just what exactly needs to be done. As part of this step the relative strengths and weaknesses of each decision is weighed by the emotions, perceptions, and socialization of the decision-maker. The final step is the selection of a given alternative that may or may not be taken based on the ethical judgment of the leader. (Rest, 1984).

Recognize Moral Issue

(Moral Sensitivity)

Make Moral Judgment

(Moral Judgment)

Establish Moral Intention

(Moral Motivation)

Act Moral Behavior

(Moral Action)

In summary, the defined model of cognitive moral decision making, which is often referred to as Rest’s four component model, is used pervasively through the majority of accounting ethics research, and is also used for the insights into causality it provides. As a result of its pervasive use, this model serves as the foundation of the analysis of survey results completed as part of this dissertation as well. The Cognitive Ethical Decision Making Model is specifically focused on the development of the research plan and methodology in addition to analyzing the key results and findings from this research effort.

Illustrating the Defining Issues Test (DIT)

One of the other major contributions Rest (1979) made in ascertaining the ethics levels of respondents throughout his research was the development of the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which is also used in the research completed on this dissertation as a means of measuring theory of moral reasoning. Rest contends that the DIT model continues to supplant and enhance knowledge in the key area of empirical ethics research (Rest, 1979).

How the DIT is constructed begins with a measurement of the individual’s responses to moral dilemmas often defined in the context of scenarios or short vignettes that explain the key concepts behind the concepts being tested. Through the use of these scenarios or vignettes, the respondents’ views of ethics and morality emerge (Rest 1979). The test is typically written yet has also been placed on websites to make it possible for respondents from many different locations geographically to take the test at the same time.

It is considered one of the more effective tests at standardizing moral and ethical dilemmas and issue questions. The test is constructed with six dilemmas (three in the short version) is accompanied by 12 stage specific questions (items). The respondent next reads the dilemma and chooses one of three decisions that align with their perception of the situation. Following this, the respondent rates the importance of each of the 12 items to their decision. Finally, the respondent is asked to rank the four most important items using multiple choice questions.

The Moral Judgment Interview (MJI) is a comparable test and allows the respondent to specifically respond with their statements about moral and ethical dilemmas presented. As is true with most research methods, the use of multiple-choice questions is more sound from a methodological standpoint and therefore improves the reliability factor of the DIT instrument over the MJI. The MJI requires the interviewer to assess the subject’s response and assign a value to that response, introducing bias into the analysis of results (Elm & Webber, 1994). This method of scoring used in MJI could potentially influence the reliability of the results since the analyst who is interpreting the responses of the subject rather than the subject choosing a response from alternatives (Elm & Webber, 1994).

A typical structure of the DIT is a multiple-choice questionnaire that contains multiple scenarios or vignettes, and has been designed to have up to 12 moral arguments in each dilemma relating to moral reasoning. Each of the questions on the questionnaire asks the subjects to select the most illustrative or definitive response for each situation given their perspective of it. The DIT then uses a point system on a four-point scale to measure the overall responses and create a score that indicates the respondents’ moral and ethical reaction to the points made.

A score of four points is given for the most important response, and one point given for the least important response. Both manually-based and machine-based approaches are used for tallying and analyzing the scores, with statistical analysis programs increasingly being used to manage this process. Often the scores are also measured as a series of indices as well. The Principled Index (P index or P score) is the most commonly used one in this field of research today (Rest, 1979).

The first score mentioned is often the “P” score (principled morality) which defines the level of a respondents’ ethical cognition. This is a metric that quantifies the level of respondents’ reaction to scenarios and vignettes that are identified as Stage 5 and Stage 6 in the Rest’s theory. In addition to the “P” score, the “D” score quantifies responses fro all stages rather than just those identified in Stages 5 and 6. Critics have contended that the “P” score is more reliable and therefore more trustworthy as a measure of ethical cognition, a point that Rest has agreed with from his analysis (Rest, 1990). In re-assessing the value of “P” as a measure of ethical cognition, Rest wrote “…represents the sum of the weighted ranks given to principled items and is interpreted as the relative importance given to principled moral consideration in making a moral judgment. (p.101).

Further supporting the reliability of the DIT test are the inclusion of control variables, or items that are purely included to provide a random check of consistency of responses (Rest, 1990). In more advanced research instruments, this approach to ensuring that the responses are consistent is commonly used. When incongruent or inconsistent responses are found they are given a code of “M” and tallied at the end of the survey. If this specific factor score is too high then the individual survey is considered unusable.

Since its initial development, the test has been used in more than 500 documented studies globally, as claimed by its author (Rest, 1990). In quantifying the value of the research instrument from a reliability standpoint, there have been a series of internal validity measures completed as well, with a test-retest methodology used to track internal validity. Scores on these tests using the statistical technical called Chronbach’s alpha index deliver a consistently high level of reliability, with a .70 on the score of this specific statistical metric (Rest, 1986). One of the findings that Rest (1990) has seen from the work completed cumulatively is that the DIT scores tend to have a high correlation level to education and a low correlation to gender, religious beliefs and affiliates, and gender.

The ability to empirically test moral development has been achieved with the DIT methodology, and by 1999 Rest and his colleagues created a new version, DIT-2 which is a revised updated stories and issue statements, was introduced. This new instrument is an improved version of the DIT, specifically including more measures of reliability and validity and the purging of questions that could lead to erroneous results despite the presence of control variables (Rest, Narvaez, Thoma, & Bebeau, 1999). The DIT was chosen as the moral development instrument has the DIT-2 version has not been thoroughly tested enough therefore limited comparative data is available. This is especially true for accountant specific studies undertaken since the introduction of this second rating methodology. Secondly, while the DIT-2 generally is considered to be just as reliable as DIT given the latters’approach to managing reliability (Rest & Narvaez, 1998). This specific dissertation will then focus on DIT as the measurement instrument for evaluating the ethics of Taiwanese CPAs.

Empirical Analysis of Accountants through the use of DIT

The concepts of moral development theory have provided the financial accounting profession with much opportunity for empirical research and investigation. While specific empirical studies have defined the current level of moral development of business majors including finance and accounting students, professional auditors, tenured and lecturing accounting educators, CPAs, and CMAs, there are many other empirically-derived studies that have focused on the relationship between moral development and various accounting specific behaviors.

The intent of this area of the literature review is to represent the specific aspect of moral development research that has been conducted with respondents who are accountants. The impact of the six stage theory Kohlberg has often discussed and analyzed in the works cited in this research are also analysed using Rest’s four component model as foundation for completing an analysis using DIT results as the foundation for these efforts to create a pragmatic approach to analyzing the research.

Validation of the DIT research instrument for use in conjunction with analyzing the ethical development of CPAs has been pioneered by Armstrong (1987) through the use of two samples of respondent group CPAs who were given the DIT. Using the mean DIT P scores of each respondent group and then comparing their relative means through the use of large samples of undergraduate college students, college graduate students, and adult respondents as reported by Rest (1979).

After completing the analysis and calculating the mean DIT P scores, the results showed scores between the two CPA respondent groups as 37.1 and 38.5 respectively. Calculated mean DIT P scores of the three respondent audiences were as follows: college students (42.3), college graduates (53.3), and the adults in general (40.0). Armstrong (1987) stated that with the CPAs averaging only 1.1 years of post graduate education there was a significantly lower DIT P score reported and achieved by the CPAs. What also was found from the Armstrong analysis was that significantly lower DIT P scores obtained from CPAs occurred compared to both college students and adults as a general respondent group. From this analysis it’s clear that there is a normal progression in moral development that generally takes place in college, yet did not take place with the CPA groups. Their moral development, as measured by the DIT, had not progressed beyond that achieved by the general adult population.

In addition to the research completed by Armstrong (1987) there has been significant work completed on the topic of moral development and theories of moral maturity relating to accounting students and professionals (St. Pierre, Nelson, & Gabbin, 1990). This second study defined a respondent base of 479 seniors divided into 10 groups by major who were then given the DIT instrument to measure their level of cognitive ethical development. What is unique about this specific study is the definition of specific disciplines in the study as well including math, psychology, and social work. What is noteworthy from this student is that the mean DIT P scores for the respondent base of accounting majors were significantly below those of psychology majors.

The researchers list the mean DIT P scores of 38.75 for the respondents who are male accountants and 45.85 for respondents are female accountants. This finding supported previous empirical studies relating to the development of ethical cognition in students, with female students receiving significantly higher scores, attributable to the previous results of empirical studies. Exacerbating these findings were also the DIT P score median value of 43.19 for college seniors. The use of the “M” value to ascertain the reliability of the study was also completed to better manage the sampling bias and potential errors. Based on these factors the research showed that there were no significant differences in DIT PI scores based on the exposure or not to an ethics course.

Clearly the DTP P scores were seen as delineators of cognitive ethical development independent of formalized processes; there is in fact indication that ethically-oriented people do tend to gravitate towards majors that have a relatively high level of accountability, as psychology does for example.

In an ancillary study, the work completed by Ponemon (1990) illustrated that through the study of 52 accountant respondents who ranged in position levels of staff, supervisor, manager, and partner were given the MJI to ascertain the relationship between moral stage development and hierarchical position. The results of the survey showed statistically significant results with the mean stage level increase from 3.4 at the staff level to 3.7 at the senior level and then to 4.1 at the supervisor level. While the MJI peaked at the supervisor level, mean stage levels decreased to 3.6 at the manager level and to a low of 2.9 at the partner level.

Clearly the decline in MJI scores in this specific study contradicts the core concepts of moral development theory. Citing both a decline due to socialization and self-selection, Ponemon (1990) has stated that the results of this specific project do not necessarily refute ethical moral development theories. Following this research an paradigm (independence level) and the DIT were next analyzed (Ponemon & Gabhart, 1990) in an empirical study of 119 respondents in a CPA firm group of audit managers and partners.

Results of this specific analysis indicate that managers and partners who achieved low DIT P scores had the propensity to be more cognitively focused on the potential penalties than those respondents who have higher DIT P scores from the research. Not surprisingly there is a key finding from this research, that shows a significant negative relationship between rank and DIT P scores (managers-35.7; partners=30.1) in addition to the age and experience of respondents relative to their age and experience scores.

Ponemon and Glazer (1990) also completed empirical research that attempted to add insights into the effects of a liberal college curriculum relative to the level of moral development. Respondents in this study are alumni practitioners in addition to two groups of students including freshmen, and accounting seniors. To ensure the study would be representative, respondents were randomly selected from two institutions that offer accounting degrees. The first institution included in the survey drew respondents from a private college where the accounting major curriculum is part of the liberal arts program.

The second institution is a state university where accounting majors were not required or encouraged to take liberal arts courses. There were 143 total respondents in the study that completed the DIT, and the analysis of the results highlighted statistically significant scores between respondent groups. Further, the analysis revealed mean DIT P testing of freshman from both learning institutions was not significantly different between each of the learning institutions. At both the senior and alumni levels, the mean DIT P scores increased.

Paradoxically the institution that had accounting as part of the liberal arts program had the higher DIT P scores than the institution that specifically focused on accounting as a core curriculum. In analyzing the results of the survey differences the researchers stated that to “…suggest that liberal learning in college may be an important factor in the development of the student’s and accounting practitioner’s moral reasoning” (p.204). The integration of accounting curriculum in liberal arts broader learning institutions has since become a foundational element in ethics research, and is relied on as a theoretical construct of the research completed in this dissertation.

The dynamics involved in the moral development and perception of “whistle blowing” was studied in an empirical study that had 106 internal auditors as respondents by Arnold and Ponemon (1991) These researchers relied on the DIT research instrument to specifically assess the moral development in the context of experimental scenarios and vignettes surrounding a fraud case and experimental treatments that elicited the perception of internal auditors of “whistle blowing”. The results of this research illustrated the fact that internal auditors who scored low on the DIT P scale perceived the act of “whistle blowing” from the standpoint of personal punishment as a risk of unethical behavior than those with high DIT P scores.

Clearly this supports the fact that the DIT P measurement instrument supports the contention that those internal auditors that have higher DIT P scores have a higher level of ethical cognition relative to those with lower DIT P scores. The internal auditors who scores lower on DIT P scores saw the act of “whistle blowing”, it can be inferred, as an external event that had negative consequences if a person was caught. This leads to the observation that internal auditors with low DIT P scores significantly externalize the ethical role of whistle blowers, while those with higher DIT P scores have already internalized ethical cognitions and see whistle blowing as incidental.

Paradoxically however the main affiliation factors including punishment of others had little if any influence on the perception of “whistle blowing” as a determinant of ethical cognition and moral development. Internal audits however did share the perception that external auditors have a higher probability of being whistle blowers. This finding shows that affiliation of internal auditors doesn’t necessarily lead to lower levels of ethics, but the externalization of “whistle blowing” as a deterrent for those with low DIT P scores.

Related to the empirical study of internal auditors is another study completed by one of the researchers cited in the previous study (Ponemon, 1992) who evaluated the significance of the relationship between the underreporting of audit time and the development of moral cognitive abilities, which were used in the study as an indication of moral development. The respondent population for the study was 88 newly hired staff auditors, who were both given the DIT measurement instrument and also assigned an audit task. Respondents were first asked to measure and report their time for an audit task in what they were led to believe as an unproctored session.

The accuracy of making accurate time measurements was emphasized during the initial instruction period despite the sessions being unproctored. Unknown to the respondents however they were being viewed through a one-way mirror so the researchers could measure the times of their audit tasks. For purposes of the experiment, the respondents were divided into three groups to isolate the influence of time pressure on their ethical and moral approaches to reporting time. The first group was purposely put under undue time pressure with the instructions misstating that the standard task completion time would be 35 minutes instead of the actual 60.3 minutes.

The second group concentrated on the effects of peer pressure, with the inclusion of several confederates who were given a shortened version of the task so they would appear to complete their work more efficiently than others. The third group was the control group of the research study, who had no time constraints. The findings from this research study showed that there was significant correlation between the level of moral development of the respondent and their underreporting of time taken to complete the task. The lower the DIT P score, the greater the tendency on the part of auditors to underreport their time taken on the audit task, and the converse was also true; the higher the DIT P score, the lower the incidence of under-reporting of time to complete the audit task.

When the factor of peer pressure was taken into account, those respondents with lower DIT P scores under-reported the time to complete the task by an average of 16.57 minutes, compared to those respondents with high DIT P scores underreporting only 5.53 minutes. Across all empirical studies as to the reliability and validity of the DIT P measurement instrument, this is one that highlights dramatically the judgments those with high versus low DIT P scores make in regard to their accuracy of time reporting. This study has broader implications as well for the auditing profession, as many firms that specialize in auditing services base their fees on a per-hour business model.

An additional empirical study that further supports the validity of DIT P scores as indicators of the relative moral cognitive development of CPAs (Ponemon 1992) addresses scoring on this measurement instrument by the hierarchical position attained by CPAs in their firms. This specific research study also confirms the work completed by Ponemon and Gabhart (1990) and Ponemon (1990) that present the hypothesis that DIT P scores of practitioners, over time, increase as CPA progress from staff level to supervisor positions. Ponemon (1990) states that the hypothesis also includes a set of assumptions that as CPA supervisors progress from supervisor to manager, their relative DIT P scores drop, and drop further when the manager becomes a partner.

This is disconcerting and says that the majorities of supervisors in CPA firms included in the sample have the most ethics; yet as the progression is made to manager and further on, to partner, ethics drops of precipitously. Considering efforts in the U.S. to enforce compliance through the use of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) (2002) the findings of this specific research study make this level of legislation arguably essential for the preservation of public trust in both corporations and capital markets. The DIT P scores that were empirically derived from this research are as follows. Partners received a DIT P score of 32.17, the lowest from the research completed; managers, 35.67; supervisors, 47.74; senior staff members, 42.4; and staff, 44.71. What is truly remarkable from this research is the drop-off in DIT P score from supervisor to manager. Clearly there is the need for additional research on this specific aspect of how supervisors rationalize such a significant drop in their perception of moral decision making and ethics.

The definition of a five element model that critically evaluates the auditor’s ethical decision making process, using the DIT P measurement instrument as its foundation, was created by Lampe and Finn (1992). In validating this model, Lampe and Finn gave the DIT P research instrument to 112 auditing students and 207 auditors at the staff and manager levels. Consistent with previous studies in this area including those cited in this dissertation including the following (Armstrong, 1987; Ponemon & Gabhart, 1990; Ponemon, 1992a; Ponemon, 1992b).

A key insight gained from these many studies is that accounting professions, in some cases internal auditors, managers and partners have lower mean DIT P score versus undergraduate accounting students who are enrolled in this major in a liberal arts-based institution. The degradation of accounting professionals’ DIT P score is fascinating and troubling, as this is a profession that needs to embrace transparency and accountability to clients in all matters, from the management and reporting of time to the development of complex financial reporting systems and the presentation of financial results.

Further studies by the Ponemon (1990; 1992b) found that as students progress through their education, the audit student level (34.49) score did progress through the staff level (39.77). There is, according to this specific area of Ponemon’s research, an increase in the DIT P score to the management level to a score of 41.90. Significant about this specific study was that the DIT P scores were not statistically different between the staff and manager levels.

In further research Ponemon (1993) found that the perception of competence and integrity on the part of management was statistically significant in explaining the assessment of audit risk. The findings from this study supported earlier work by Ponemon that showed those audit professionals with low DIT P scores were driven more by external events than those who were more developed from a moral cognitive standpoint and therefore were more vigilant of how their actions were perceived as ethical or not. This latter group had a significantly higher DIT P score that corresponded with the higher level of self-vigilance they practiced.

Not surprisingly, an auditors’ perception of competence and integrity on the part of management was significantly related to the ongoing professional development of auditors. Consistent with previous research both by Ponemon and other cited researchers, those auditors with higher DIT P scores showed that the combination of integrity perceptions and competence of their organizations most influenced their moral development. These specific auditors equated high compliance on the part of organization with low integrity as being a sure sign of higher audit risk. Those organizations that exhibited overly high compliance and lower integrity became the focus of greater concentration on the part of auditors. In assessing the research Ponemon (1993) stated that “…by virtue of their capacity, certain auditors may be unable to frame reliable judgments regarding the ethical characteristics of client management” (p.21). This is based on the framing of what constitutes a profile of an ethical organization based on their accumulated perceptions.

Another aspect of the level of DIT P score achieved correlating to both political ideology and its interrelationship to the level of accountability for the environment is presented by researchers Kite and Radtke (1997). Their contention is that students’ moral development (as measured by their DIT P score) would, when compared to their political ideology (conservative or liberal), could predict their attitudes regarding environmental attitudes and the many issues on that topic. The researchers further hypothesized that the level of the DIT P score would be predictive of the effectiveness of environmental education over time. This is a particularly interesting study as it can easily be swayed by the bias of one political ideology or the other.

Kite and Radtke (1997) defined their respondent base as 31 cost accounting students whose median age was below 26 years of age. The students completed an environmental and demographic questionnaire at the beginning of the semester as part of the pre-test methodology chosen to complete the test. Next, Kite and Radtke (1997) had the students participate in a six-week environmental learning module or treatment that included sessions on why environmental concerns including global warming were a global, not just governmental, concern. In keeping with the methodology, the researchers tested the students at the end of the semester. They were given a test on the environmental subjects covered during the training in addition to a DIT P questionnaire as well.

The findings suggest that those with higher levels of moral cognitive development had significantly greater concern for the environment and a sense of responsibility for contributing to both conservation in addition to solving its major problems. Those accounting students who had a greater concern for the environment exhibited significantly higher DIT P scores as a result. The role of political ideology did not have a significant effect however on the level of DIT P score attained by students in the study, nor did it serve as a predictor to the level of environmental education effectiveness as well.

An essential part of any accounting and auditing education is the ability to create a learning environment that foster critical thought. The influence of critical thinking (CT) on moral development specifically in college programs was the focus of research completed by Bernardi, Downey, Massey, and Thorne (2002). In constructing their research, the team isolated their methodology on three separate universities by using a CT index that would assess the quantitative level of CT present in each school’s accounting faculty. To also capture the preponderance of CT as part of each schools’ culture, the research team specifically looking at the mentions of CT in each of the institutions’ mission statements as well.

The research design defined a sample size of 150 students who served as respondents for the survey. A prerequisite for being in the respondent base or sampling frame was that each student had to have completed intermediate accounting courses. The majority of the respondents were seniors, as the mean age of the sample was 21.5 years. The research team gave the respondents an abbreviated DIT questionnaire to measure generic or overall moral development. This was followed by a survey based on the AMRT (Accountants’ Moral Reasoning Test) to determine accounting moral development created by Thorne (2000) to also measure the level of ethical cognitive development.

Based on the abbreviated DIT score across the entire sample being 36.8, Bernardi, Downey, Massey, and Thorne (2002) ascertained that there was only moderate association between DIT P scores and the ability of institutions to foster CT in their students. The results of the AMRT analysis were consistent with the DIT P finding, specifically showing that the greater the level of CT, the greater the level of moral development. Ironically however the study did not show that the greater the level of ethics training, the higher the DIT P score. Instead, the results suggest that moral cognitive development is foster more by CT than merely putting students into classes to teach them ethics.

Supporting previously mentioned study in this dissertation, the study by Bernardi, Downey, Massey, and Thorne (2002) also shows that gender was significantly correlated to moral development; with male students have significantly lower DIT P scores than female students. Consistent with the finding that cognitive moral development cannot be taught, this specific study showed that grade point average and academic achievement had no significant influence on the level of DIT P score either. According to Bernardi, et al.,( 2002), this is the case; that there is no significant statistical correlation between DIT P test results and grade point average.

Another study tangentially supports the role of CT in creating higher levels of moral development than attempting to indoctrinate students so they become more advanced in terms of their moral development. Massey (2002) looks at this specific dilemma through the use of three specific aspects moral development. The three factors include moral reasoning (MR), moral Judgment (MJ), and moral behavior (MB). Massey (2002) defined a research methodology that centered on a sample size of 43 audit students and 28 experienced auditors. Both groups where given a short version of the DIT P and its audit equivalent research instrument, the (ADIT).

The purpose of the research as to specifically center on generic and audit-specific MR and MJ values and create an ethics index based on the combination of values as measured by the DIT and ADIT. Moral Behavior (MB) is an interpolated variable in the study, calculated by comparing the self-reported time for the completion of the DIT and ADIT to an actual measure of time recorded without the respondents’ knowledge. The tests showed that there was a significant difference between the mean ADIT P score of 27.6 and the DIT P score of 33.3. A key insight delivered by this study was that moral development tends to be more rules-based than context-based. In addition, MJ was reported as significantly higher for the audit-specific versus the generic context as was the case with MB.

Thorne et.al(2003) studied the similarities and differences between Canadian and U.S. CPAs from a cultural, work, rule orientation, self-regulation, and approach to the definition of security laws and enforcement, in addition to the perceptions of compliance. The researchers in this study defined the sampling frame as CPAs in each nation, randomly selecting 182 CPAs from Canada and 191 from the U.S. The sampling frame was further defined as auditors with significant levels of experience. As a result, the study generated a random sample whose mean age was 43.6 years and the years worked were 18.6.

Thorne and Massey (2002) used Thorne’s (2000) audit specific test of both the prescriptive (should) and deliberative (would) forms to measure moral reasoning and wrote a short version of the DIT to measure moral development. The results showed that the CPAs from each nation did not different significantly on moral reasoning, they did however find that the entire sample, when analyzed using ANCOVA analysis showed a significant association between prescriptive (should) reasoning and gender. The researchers also found a significant association between deliberate (would) reasoning and years worked DIT P scores, and country (Thorne, et al., 2003).

Having found this specific point the authors drew the conclusion that “…institutional factors are more likely to influence auditors’ deliberative reasoning than their prescriptive reasoning”(Thorne, Massey, & Magnan, 2003) (p. 315). Thorne and Massey (2002) also report that the mean DIT P score results for the entire sample of 38.3 with the CPAs in the U.S. at 38.0 and 38.6 for the CPAs in Canada. Consistent with previous studies cited, there was a significant negative relationship between tenure and DIT P score. Finally, the ANCOVA analysis proved the statistical significance of associations between DIT P scores and the years worked and political orientation (Thorne, et al., 2003).

In summary, it’s clear from the research cited that it is not possible to indoctrinate accounting students to achieve higher DIT P scores, or further, create higher levels of moral cognitive development in them. Rather, it is the development of critical thinking skills (CT) in conjunction with a high level of transparency and accountability being fostered and grown through educational strategies that center on a wide vantage point of perspectives over merely drilling down into one core curriculum. The studies indicating accounting being taught as part of a broader liberal arts-based curriculum being more effective in fostering moral cognitive development is clear.

The implications of fostering critical thought with a more strategic perspective has implications on how students who progress through their careers to auditors view “whistle blowing” (Ponemon, 1991), in addition to their perception of ethical “red flags” in their environments. Kite & Radtke (1997) show evidence in their research of how accounting students who have the ability to think critically regarding the environment have consistently higher levels of moral development compared to peers, further supporting the research of (Bernardi, et al., 2002) showing higher DIT P scores for those students with more advanced critical thinking skills.

Ethical Awareness and Ethical Intention

Ponemon (1992, 1995) continues to be one of the leading theoreticians in the area of linking moral development with financial professionals’ moral reasoning and ethical behavior. As is consistent with other studies, Ponemon (1992) states that accounting and financial professionals with higher levels of moral reasoning are less influenced by outside factors and a more likely to behave in an ethical manner. Ajzen (2002) states that accounting and financial professionals exhibit the progression of awareness leading to behavior, and specifically that an individual who can discern and identify a potentially unethical situation or circumstance are more likely to behave ethically.

The research of Logsdon, Thompson, & Reid (1994) however disputes this finding, showing that the relationship between moral reasoning and ethical valuations has no correlation. These researchers specifically focused on a study of attitudes of unauthorized copying of microcomputer software compared to moral reasoning of the respondents. While this study shows that an individual’s attitude is not directly related to laws of society, yet their perceptions of laws that involve intangible assets where no apparent harm is done to another person, as is the case with software piracy.

While there is an abundance of research that seeks to link moral development theory to individual’s self-definition of morality, application of those moral judgment constructs to an ethical judgment of business decisions has yet to deliver conclusive interlinking of a person’s ethical or unethical perception of activity and their reaction to it (Cohen & Pant, 1998; Cruz, Shafer, & Strawser, 2000; Reidenbach & Robin, 1988). Rather, research ahs shown that moral development is much more situation-specific versus being driven by absolutes.

For example, Cohen et al. (1998) found that accounting majors view questionable actions as less ethical than students from other majors, and therefore are less likely to engage in unethical behavior. A reasonable conclusion that Cohen makes from his analysis is that accounting students exhibit a higher level of ethical behavior when evaluating situations and decisions in a business environment compared to their student counterparts (Cohen et al., 1998). This finding is consistent with research cited showing the statistical reliability of the DIT P score in evaluating the moral development of accounting students.

The next stage of research that this literature review investigated is the relationship between DIT P scores and the correlation of these values with the MES (Multidimensional Ethical Scale) (Reidenbach & Robin, 1988; Cohen et al., 1998). As of this writing however there are no significant studies that measure the correlational aspects of these two indices and their predictability of moral development.

Accounting Ethics Research Using the Multidimensional Ethics Scale

The use of the MES as a predictor of moral development and ethical decision making has to date has been addressed by a minority of researchers. Studying how and why accountants make certain ethical judgments was first addressed by Flory et al. (1992). This study provided empirical evidence that Contractualism. Moral Equity, Relativism dimensions are the core dimensions accountants relied on in making ethical judgments. . Further supporting their research, each of the dimensions exhibited high content validity of the three-dimensional measure was high (R2 ranged from 0.59 to 0.76), high reliability (coefficient alpha ranged from 0.75 to 0.94, with an average of 0.86), and significant predictive validity (0.45 to 0.76). The MES accounted for more “explained variance than univariate measures by 7 to 12 percentage points” (Flory et al., 1992, p. 296) on each of the four dimensions as well. As a result, the use of MES for future research on ethical judgments in accounting was proven to a statistically significant level.

In addressing the variation in MES scores between marketing and accounting, Cohen et al. (1993) validated and added to the extensive research completed by Reidenbach & Robin’s (1998; 1990) studies specifically of marketing professionals. Respondents for the study were accounting students both from local and international locations, in addition to accounting professors and instructors in the U.S. Based on the analysis of results, the MES was found to be a valid and reliable measurement tool specifically in the field of accounting. In a subsequent study (Cohen et al 1996) defined a study of big-six firms in Canada, defining the sampling frame as accountants, with a sample size of 127 accounts randomly chosen through the accounting firms.

The intent of the research was to measure the applicability and pervasiveness of the MES within the context of moral development as evidenced by ethical decision making. The factor structure of three dimensions (Flory et al. 1992) provided significant insights into the study showing that the three dimensions had significant predictability potential in analyzing differences between those samples with moral development versus demographics, psychographic, and attitudinal variables in studies. A generalization that was made based on the research as that Canadian accountants were generally more attuned to and relied on the Moral Equity and Relativist dimensions (Cohen et al 1996). In absolute terms however this group relied more on Contractualism and Moral Equity however.

Studying the impact of gender and discipline on responses to ethical business dilemma, Cohen et al. (1998) created for a second study a questionnaire comprising eight ethical business vignettes and demographic information. This questionnaire was distributed to undergraduate accounting majors. Addition respondents included students in business disciplines and liberal arts at four universities in the Northeastern United States. Combined the sample size was 761 respondents. Cohen relied on a seven point Likert-type scale to measure students’ ethical judgment through multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) techniques. A total of 645 valid responses were received, which were analyzed using MANCOVA, specifically isolating on respondents’ gender and major relating to their responses on the questionnaires.

Cohen (1998) reports that gender and discipline, through analysis using ANCOVA statistical techniques, were significant on two of the seven vignettes in the study. Females however reported questionable behavior as less ethical than males across all vignettes. This finding led Cohen to state in his findings that women have a “stronger sense of duty (deontological) and a greater emphasis on justice than do men” (Cohen et al., 1998, p. 264). Of the two cases seen as questionable ethically, accounting majors viewed the activities as significantly more unethical and were least likely to perform these actions. Further, Cohen (1998) reports that accounting majors have a strong sense of and use of relativism and egoist constructs in moral development and cognitive ethical development.

Using MES to evaluate the ethical judgment of tax professions has also been completed (Cruz et al. 2000). Cruz developed a research design that relied on a sample size of 67 tax professionals who were given three tax related cases to evaluate. Their responses were measured using the five dimensions of the MES, justice, deontology, relativism, utilitarianism and egoism. The results showed that tax professionals rely most on moral equity and contractualism dimensions first in making ethical judgments.

Conversely when peer The study also shows that relativism and utilitarianism had a large impact on peer behavior in tax preparers’ moral judgments as well. Findings published state this may attributed to asocial desirability response bias of wanting to be seen as friendly over being seen as hard-line in ethical judgments (Cruz et al. 2000). Utilitarianism as a factor in the definition of ethics on the part of accountants is defined in a study by Cohen (1996) including the use of cost-benefit analysis of utilitarian logic and thought relating to how accounting professionals make ethical decisions.


Lower scores of moral reasoning within accountant groups as careers progress is troubling and requires additional research to understand why this dynamic occurs. From the highest levels of DIT P scores for supervisors to the lowest for partners, the degeneration of cognitive ethics is a paradox in this field. The intention of this literature review is to both discuss the current state of research in this area in addition to the dynamics of how moral development takes shape. As Ajzen (1988) has stated, the individual’s level of moral reasoning with ethical awareness and ethical intention in business situations has a major influence on their ability to make sound ethical judgments. A reasonable conclusion from the body of research is that the higher the moral reasoning the more likely accountants and financial professionals will behave with a high level of ethics.

Another key finding is that the reliability and validity of the DIT P score as a measure of moral development has been tested through over 500 published research articles as a measurement of level of moral reasoning. Studies have showed that accounting students increased their moral development during college (Ponemon and Glazer 1990), yet decrease as individuals’ age (Elm & Nichols, 1993). Contrary to this finding is the research completed by Jeffrey (1993) which illustrates how accounting students in lower and senior divisions had higher P scores compared to liberal arts and business school peers.

This literature review underscores how much more morality is than mere cognitive decision-making, and that is imperative to measure how people act versus how they discuss their behavior (Ponemon (1992). As reported by Ponemon (1995) there is a significant correlation between level of moral reasoning and correlation between auditors underreporting of time. The study also shows that litigation support specialists with higher moral reasoning scores (DIT P) are significantly less likely to be influenced by attorneys. Contrary to this finding however is the work completed by Rest (1986). His research shows a link that is only moderate between studies completed by Armstrong (1987), Ponemon and Glazer (1990) and Jeffrey (1993).

There is much research to be done to link cognitive development of ethics and broader moral development to the aspects of how financial professional make decisions and choose to act. Based on these gaps in research there is significant room for additional study and empirical validation. The use of the MES as a measurement instrument of how financial professionals define their ethical decision making style shows significant differences both between professional disciplines and gender (Cohen et al., 1998).

Findings from MES research need further validation through the measurement of the effects of DIT and MES on each other (Cohen et al., 1998; Reidenbach and Robin, 1988). Therefore, Rest (1979). Cohen et al. (1996) has suggested that the combining of DIT and MES can provide entirely new insights into how accountants and financial professionals define ethical decisions, develop cognitively from an ethical and moral standpoint, and create greater levels of transparency and trust in their professions as a result. The intent of this literature review is to provide information about CPA’s ethical decision making styles, and the following chapter discusses the research methods that will be involved in this study.

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