Moral Decision Making Can Be Skewed by Intensity Factors

4 min readFeb 10, 2020


moral decision making

By Dr. Gary Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

Moral decision making involves a careful assessment of the circumstances of each unique situation and an awareness of our biases in perception. So it is important to understand a number of different metrics by which individuals measure the moral “intensity” of the impact of their actions to rationalize the most appropriate way forward.

The Six Moral Intensity Factors for Decision Making

One moral intensity factor is the consensus of opinion, the percentage of those involved who perceive a particular choice to be wrong. If there is significant disagreement on a particular point, the actor might not feel much pressure to make one choice over the other.

As a simple example, suppose that you are a politician and you’re deciding whether or not to support new climate change legislation. Despite wide consensus within the scientific community, there is still a fair amount of discord among the general public regarding climate change.

So the amount of weight you ascribe to these two different groups will determine how motivated you feel toward one choice or the other. But the disunity of society as a whole on this issue also changes the dynamics of such pressure.

A second intensity factor is the probability of harm associated with a particular choice. If harm is possible but not certain, and perhaps not even likely, we might rationalize making a choice based on a low probability of harm. But if we think harm is likely to occur, that could change our perspective altogether.

Using the climate change example, you as a decision maker must decide what you think the probability is that climate deniers are wrong, and that climate change could be a real threat. That probability will play a part in determining how likely you are to support the new legislation. If you estimate that the chances of climate change being real are significant, you might be compelled to act accordingly.

A third factor is the imminence of harm or how immediately any possible harm might be experienced. If harm is possible — or even probable — but the effects are a great length of time away, we are probably less likely to feel a sense of urgency to take action. This unfortunately often leads to the “frog in the boiling water” story of procrastination. It is a useful fiction for illustrating the consequences of ignoring problems that are not immediate crises.

Because even the most dire estimates project that the worst effects of climate change are years away, you might be tempted to defer any immediate action on this issue. But of course, there is real value in the virtue that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

A fourth factor is proximity to harm. The actor’s distance from the victims is a heartless but very real rationale for human moral reasoning. If we have no personal risk of harm, and if we have no meaningful relationship to anyone who does, we are less likely to be concerned about the harm, regardless of its probability or imminence.

You might accept that climate change is a genuine threat. But as long as you and those you care about live in areas that are unlikely to be dramatically affected by climate change, it still might not be of much concern to you. This of course would be a severe moral failing because it ignores the suffering of millions of others simply because they happen not to be connected to you.

A fifth factor is concentration of harm, or how focused the harmful effects of a particular choice will be on those affected. If the effect is spread over a large number of people, then even if the absolute value is large, the effect may only be a minor inconvenience for each person affected. This may help us to justify decisions that result in harm.

In our climate change scenario, despite millions of tons of carbon emissions every year, the effects of climate change will likely be only a few degrees change in average temperature, a rise in sea levels, and some more extreme weather worldwide. So you might be tempted to reason that the harm will be spread over the global population as a whole and no specific victims will be unfairly targeted.

However, that sea level rise will be devastating for residents of coastal cities around the world, particularly in developing nations. More extreme weather will mean natural disasters that claim hundreds or thousands of lives. So a wide distribution of harm doesn’t mean that the harm won’t be acute.

A sixth and final factor is greatness of harm. This element deals not with the concentration of harm on victims, but rather on the total number of persons affected. In the climate change example, every person on the planet would have to endure the effects of global warming at some level, some more severely than others. So this factor would perhaps be the most compelling motivation to support action that mitigates the effects of climate change.

Individuals Assess Moral Intensity Factors Differently

Every individual will assess the moral intensity of each unique situation in a slightly different way. Subjectivity is an inherent part of the human experience. But if we acknowledge and remain aware of the effects of these moral intensity factors on our judgment, we can work to counter our biases and make better informed moral decisions.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.




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