Moral intensity

Moral intensity is the degree of feeling that a person has about the consequences of a moral choice. When there is a high degree of moral intensity, this typically increases a person’s moral sensitivity and judgment, resulting in decisions not to engage in unethical behavior. The concept was best described by Professor Thomas Jones of the University of Washington, who devised the issue-contingent model. This model holds that there are several specific issues that influence how a person makes a moral judgment. These issues are:

  • Magnitude of the consequences. This is the sum of the harms imposed on the victims of the decision (or alternatively, the sum of the benefits of the recipients). Thus, a decision that causes the death of a person is more consequential than one that causes a minor injury. Most moral decisions do not reach a threshold above which there are such massive effects, so the magnitude of the consequences only applies to a small number of situations.

  • Social consensus. This is the degree of social agreement that an act is either good or evil. When there is a high degree of social consensus, there is little ambiguity about what should be done. Social consensus is frequently codified into laws, which make it quite clear what is and is not acceptable.

  • Probability of effect. This is a calculation that the act in question will actually take place, and that the act will either cause harm or create a benefit. Thus, the level of moral intensity increases in conjunction with the probability of an adverse event arising from a decision.

  • Temporal immediacy. This is the length of time between the present and the onset of the consequences of a moral decision. When the effect is in the near future, it is considered to have a higher degree of moral intensity, and so is more likely to prevent unethical behavior.

  • Proximity. This is the feeling of nearness, either socially, psychologically, culturally, or physically, that the person has for the victims (or beneficiaries) of the act in question. When there is a high degree of proximity, a person is much more likely to carefully evaluate the available choices. Thus, an effect that will be experienced by the person in the adjacent cubicle has a higher proximity effect than when the effect will be experienced by someone in a different country.

  • Concentration of effect. This is an inverse function of the number of people affected by an act of a given magnitude. Thus, the level of moral intensity is higher when an act has a significant effect on a single individual, as opposed to a modest effect on many people.

Related Courses

Behavioral Ethics
Ethical Frameworks in Accounting
Unethical Behavior