Ethical Intensity

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One of the things that makes it tricky to set hard and fast ethical standards is that every ethical dilemma is different. Academics who study ethics have come up with Ethical (or Moral) Intensity as a way to describe the various dimensions along which dilemmas can differ; each one will affect “how ethical someone will be.”

The dimensions are:

  1. Magnitude of consequences – the size of the harm or benefits accruing to individuals affected by a decision or behavior. The bigger the consequences, the more ethically intense the dilemma is.
  2. Probability of effect – the chances that if a decision is implemented it will lead to the harm or benefit predicted. A consequence with a low probability of happening is less intense.
  3. Social consensus – aka peer pressure about a course of action. Doing something that is generally approved of in your culture is less intense than if it is not generally approved of. Company culture has a lot to do with the intensity of ethical dilemmas that arise in the workplace.
  4. Temporal immediacy – whether the consequences will occur immediately or in the future. We discount future events as somehow less real, decreasing the intensity.
  5. Proximity – the closeness of the decision maker to the victims or beneficiaries of the decision. A decision that will affect our family is more intense than one that will affect strangers.
  6. Concentration of effect  – how many people will be affected by a decision. A choice that could benefit many people is more intense than one that has fewer beneficiaries.


This doesn’t tell you how to resolve an ethical dilemma, but it does indicate which ones will be more difficult to resolve. If you are faced with a choice between, say, theft of something that your company culture doesn’t really frown on, even if you believe it is wrong, and it can have a large, immediate impact on your children, it is going to be harder to act on your beliefs than if your company culture frowns on it, if the benefit was less, or if it would benefit your kids’ classmates instead of your kids.

According to this model, the only way businesses have to tip the scales on ethics dilemmas is to work on their culture and make sure that there is more than lip service to a strong sense of ethics. It has to flow through evaluations and promotions, so that the problem solver who cuts a few corners doesn’t get more benefit than the employee who doesn’t solve as many problems but does so ethically. It has to be truly part of the culture, from the top down, not a piece of paper with pretty words.


Thanks to Virginia Bratton for a great presentation!