Moral intensity is a concept in the field of business ethics that refers to the extent of issue-related moral imperative in a situation. It’s the degree to which an issue demands the application of ethical principles.
The term was coined by business ethics scholar Thomas Jones in 1991. Jones identified six components that influence an individual’s perception of moral intensity:
- Magnitude of Consequences: The total harm or benefit that will be caused by the moral decision.
- Social Consensus: The extent to which other people agree that an action is good or bad.
- Probability of Effect: The likelihood that the action will actually cause the predicted harm or benefit.
- Temporal Immediacy: The time between the action and the onset of its effects.
- Proximity: The feeling of nearness (not necessarily in a physical sense) the decision-maker has to those affected by the decision (e.g., emotional, cultural, or psychological closeness).
- Concentration of Effect: The size of the average harm or benefit per person affected by the decision.
The higher the moral intensity, the more likely it is that the decision-maker will perceive the situation as having ethical relevance and thus, the more likely they are to use moral reasoning in their decision-making process. It is important to note that the perception of moral intensity can vary among individuals, influenced by personal values, cultural norms, and other factors.
Example of Moral Intensity
Let’s use the decision to launch a potentially faulty product as an example.
Imagine you’re the CEO of a car manufacturing company, and you’ve just discovered a safety issue with your newest model car, which is due to launch in a week. The issue is not guaranteed to cause harm, but if it does, the result could be fatal. Let’s examine the moral intensity of this situation:
- Magnitude of Consequences: The potential harm could be significant, including possible fatal accidents, reputational damage to your company, and potential lawsuits. Therefore, the magnitude of consequences is high.
- Social Consensus: There is a strong societal agreement that knowingly selling unsafe products, especially those that could risk lives, is morally wrong. Therefore, the social consensus is high.
- Probability of Effect: If you’re uncertain about the likelihood of the defect causing harm, this factor might be considered moderate.
- Temporal Immediacy: The harm could occur soon after the cars are on the road, so temporal immediacy is high.
- Proximity: You may not know the customers personally, but you know that the decision could directly impact their lives. Thus, the proximity can be considered moderate to high.
- Concentration of Effect: If the safety issue does lead to an accident, the harm could be concentrated on a small number of people (the driver and passengers), making this impact high.
This situation is therefore of high moral intensity, suggesting a strong need for ethical decision-making. As the CEO, you might decide to delay the product launch and fix the safety issue, despite the financial implications, because the moral imperative to ensure the safety of your customers is strong.