Moral Utility Theory provides an integrative framework for understanding the motivational basis of ethical decision making by modeling it as a process of subjective expected utility (SEU) maximization. The SEUs of ethical and unethical behavioral options are proposed to be assessed intuitively during goal pursuit, with unethical conduct emerging when the expected benefits of moral transgressions outweigh the expected costs. A key insight of the model is that any factors that increase the value of a goal — including incentives, framings, and mindsets — can motivate misbehavior by increasing the SEU of unethical conduct. Although Moral Utility Theory emphasizes the automatic and habitual nature of most SEU appraisals, it also describes a mechanism for initiating the deliberative moral reasoning process: the experience of moral uncertainty. Moral uncertainty is proposed to occur when the SEUs of ethical and unethical behaviors are similar in magnitude, thereby activating the behavioral inhibition system and motivating the allocation of attentional resources toward the decision process. This framework bridges the gap between affective and cognitive perspectives on ethical decision making by identifying automatic evaluations as a central driver of moral decisions while also specifying when and how moral reasoning processes are initiated. By combining dual-process models of morality with well-validated principles from the science of motivation, Moral Utility Theory provides theoretical parsimony and formal modeling potential to the study of ethical decision making. The framework also suggests practical strategies — from employee selection and training to goal setting and compensation systems — for encouraging ethical behavior in organizations.

J.B. Hirsh, J.G. Lu, and Adam Galinsky
Journal Article
Publication Date
Research in Organizational Behavior

Full Citation

Hirsh, J.B., J.G. Lu, and Adam Galinsky
. “Moral Utility Theory: Understanding the Motivation to Behave (Un)Ethically.”
Research in Organizational Behavior
, (January 01, 2018):