ECBE advances the study of the new field of behavioural ethics, which “refers to individual behaviour that is subject to or judged according to generally accepted moral norms of behavior” (Trevino, Weaver, & Reynolds, 2006; p 952). Because of its focus on the actual behaviour of the individual, the research conducted at ECBE largely draws from work in psychology and behavioral economics.
The last two decades has witnessed an onslaught of media reports on issues of fraud, corporate scandals, and other types of unethical behaviour. Indeed, the numerous scandals in organizations such as Enron and Worldcom, accompanied by the role that associated institutions such as Arthur Anderson played in these scandals, made all of us concerned about the emergence of ethical and moral behaviour in organizations. More recently, this concern has even become stronger due to the world-wide financial crisis in which it became explicitly clear that the irresponsible (and unethical) behaviour of managers and organizations inflicts pain on society and its members.
These high-profile scandals and crises have promoted a keen interest in the scientific field of business ethics; illustrated by the tripling over the last decade of articles addressing issues related to ethics and morality in the social sciences (see Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe, 2008). Historically, the field of business ethics has adopted a prescriptive approach in addressing issues related to morality and ethics in group, organizational and societal settings. Such an approach uses insights from important philosophical traditions to describe how moral and ethical people should behave. Under such an approach, the central focus has been on addressing, “questions about whether specific business practices are acceptable” (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2008).
However, here at the Erasmus Centre of Behavioural Ethics we argue that such a view is too narrow in scope. Rather than the source of unethical behaviour being a lack of information or misapplication of ethical principles, we start from the idea that many ethical failures can be explained by a lack of awareness that one is even facing an ethical problem.
This view helps to explain why, despite the pervasiveness of contemporary ethical failures and irresponsible actions, many managers still maintain the belief that they are ethical people (De Cremer & van Dijk, 2005, 2008). In line with this perspective, we advocate that in addition to a prescriptive approach in which a moral principle is communicated and evaluated, we also need a behavioural approach which examines how individuals make actual decisions and engage in real actions when being faced with ethical dilemmas (i.e. a descriptive approach).