October 26, 2017

Why Professional Ethics Training Should Include Behavioral Ethics


Why Professional Ethics Training Should Include Behavioral Ethics

Over the last 20 months, I have been released from Federal Prison; been reunited with my children, family, and friends; meditated and soul-searched to seek out my mission after my life-changing legal experience; and now speak and consult nationally to hopefully inspire and help others.  I have spent countless hours digging deep and doing research to understand how I allowed myself, a good person, to make some very bad decisions leading to serious consequences.  My path has led me to behavioral ethics.  I now understand more.  But, I believe that it is imperative that ethics training for corporations, organizations, law firms, and governmental entities incorporates behavioral ethics to ensure long-term sustainability, continuity, and commitment to ethics within the professional and personal space.

I have examined my actions during 2007-2009.  Here is what I can remember.  My self-concept included believing that I am good. I stopped examining each decision to determine if it was good or bad. I discovered a misguided notion, which was “If I am good, and I am doing it, then it must be good.” I was so wrapped up in getting ahead that I lost sight of considering right versus wrong…because I was so intensely focused on where I wanted to be.   I look at that now, and say “What was I thinking?” And that’s the point. I was not.

American psychologist James Rest specialized in moral psychology and development.  He contemplated the Four Component Model of Moral Development.  Rest was often criticized, but his model was investigated, strengthened, and validated over time.  My research indicates that if a person wishes to act ethically, she must have Moral Awareness, Moral Judgment, Moral Commitment, and Moral Action.  See “Being Your Best Self” Ethics Unwrapped, McCombs School of Business. I propose that ethics training should include these four behavioral ethics principles:


4 Behavioral Ethics Principles:

1. Moral Awareness

Moral Awareness is the ability to realize and understand the ethical aspects of a decision that must be made. Moral awareness is the first stage of acting ethically. In my life, I did not recognize the ethical dimensions of the issue I faced, and so I acted unethically. I was so focused on achieving my goals that the ethical dimensions of my issue disappeared from view.  It was my duty to keep ethics in the forefront of my mind when I was reviewing my decisions.  In addition to doing an ethical reality check, I also should have listened to my gut, to “my inner voice.”  Our individual intuition tends to subconsciously force us to ponder the ethical issues at hand.  But, we have to have Moral Awareness.

2. Moral Judgement

Moral Judgment is the ability to make a decision when facing an ethical question and be able to defend it.   There are several approaches found in the research within which individuals make ethical choices: rules-based approach, consequentialist approach, and values-based approach.  The rules based approach focuses on the act and whether it fulfills a rule, obligation or duty, similar to what is found in may legal statutes or religious books.  It is concerned with the question: “What is Right?”  A corporation can hire a lawyer, for example, to prepare a legal opinion as to the legality of a business transaction. The lawyer may decide to employ the rules-based approach in determining whether the transaction would be acceptable, legal, and to a certain extent, ethical.  However, this approach does not take into consideration other approaches that might render the specific business transaction unethical.

The consequentialist approach is focused on the results of the action.  When an individual is concerned with measuring the amount of goodness (or badness) arising from behavior then the focus is on the question: “What is Good?”  The existential approach is found when all the focus is on the individual.  With this last approach, the individual making the decision and determining whether it is ethical is looking solely within.  The person is committed to being consistent, genuine, having integrity, and being true to his/her values as each unique circumstance presents itself.  The focus is on the question “What is Authentic?” As I assess my own bad decisions, I have learned that it is imperative to consider more than one ethical method to serve as the moral yardstick against which we measure our behavior and pass Moral Judgment.

3. Moral Commitment

Moral Commitment is the desire to act ethically when facing a decision.  It is having the intent to “do the right thing.”  Having the awareness of an ethical dilemma and determining that one will use more than one ethical method, can only be effective if the individual wants to make the right choice and to be ethical.  She must overcome the rationalization to not be ethical “this time.”  I failed to do this.  I believe I was not morally aware, thus did not even find myself engaging in the moral judgment phase.  But the rationalizations were definitely present.   Each person rationalizes and witnesses people use them everyday.  It is our duty to pay attention to our friends, family, and colleagues and call them out when they try to use a rationalization to give themselves an excuse to fail to do the right thing. But we must also look inward and be honest with ourselves and our own rationalizations.

4. Moral Action

Moral Action means that an individual follows through on her intent and transforms the decision into reality.  Taking moral action means that an individual takes responsibility and owns her actions and has the ethical courage to do so.  But, sometimes people are aware of ethical issues and understand what is the right choice to make, truly want to act ethically, but still can not make the ethical decision and end up doing something wrong.   Some people feel trapped.  Maybe it’s a job or a client.  It could be a spouse or friend.  There are many reasons for a person making an ethical decision to fail in the moral action phase.

I am convinced that my journey would have been different if I had been taught these behavioral ethics principles in ethics training.  With the exception of some early courses that I was required to take as a young lawyer, I can attest that I never had any type of ethics training.  If we are going to create change within our corporate cultures and instill a tradition of ethical vigilance, it starts with leadership and passion to teach what is necessary, including behavioral ethics concepts in ethics training.



Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to share the need for ethical vigilance and to inspire you to make good ethical choices in all areas of your life. Rashmi is an ethics speaker and consultant fighting to create a culture of conversation and bring ethical issues in business to light, to promote integrity, to enhance commitment to fiduciary duty, to build ethical leadership, and to shift the paradigm of ethics standards through ethics training.

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