HCBE Faculty Articles


How Does Moral Intensity Impact the Moral Judgments and Whistleblowing Intentions of Professional Accountants?

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Research on Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Accounting





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Moral intensity is the degree of feeling we have about the consequences of moral choices, similar, for example, to those perceived for crimes, from petty larceny to murder. Moral intensity is thought to increase moral sensitivity and judgment. Because the accounting professions require members to respond to accounting fraud with more sensitivity and intensity, we examine this response in 220 professional accountants (mostly Certified Public Accountants) under a controlled experiment using two different cases. We examine the first three parts of the Rest (1986) model including ethical evaluation, judgment, and intention to act. We measure moral intensity in the accountant’s perception of overall harm and societal pressure. As in prior research, we find that the degree of moral intensity may be contextual. We find that the ethical evaluations may become affected by perceived overall harm, and whistleblowing intentions by perceived societal pressure. However, in both cases, the professional’s judgments are most affected by moral intensity. Consistent with prior research, whistleblowing intentions may involve many other mitigating variables, such as audit reporting or non-audit reporting limited by codes of conduct. These findings relate to the increasing attention paid by the SEC to finding accounting fraud.

This manuscript makes three important contributions to the existing literature. First, there are few studies in this area and Jones (1991) identifies that moral intensity is issue contingent; therefore, replication studies using different scenarios are needed. Second, Bailey, Scott, and Thoma (2010) have suggested that accounting ethics research has focused too narrowly on Component II of Rest’s Four-Component Model. None of the previous studies looked at all three steps in Rest’s Model; therefore, our manuscript provides an important contribution over the other previous studies. Third, our sample uses professionals and not students as surrogates for professionals.



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