The Moral Point of View
Ethics is About What You Do When No One is Looking

How Do We Make Ethical Decisions? An Essay

Rest’s Model of Ethical Behavior

How do we make ethical decisions? James Rest[1], a well-known cognitive-developmental researcher, developed a model of ethical behavior that is based on the presumption that there are four steps in moral development that lead to ethical action. Rest asserted that ethical actions are not the outcome of a single, unitary decision process, but result from a combination of cognitive structures and psychological processes. The four-component model describes the cognitive processes that individuals use in ethical decision making; that is, it depicts how an individual first identifies an ethical dilemma and then continues by applying moral judgment, engage moral motivation, and act ethically to carry out moral intent with moral action. Each component of the model must be present before the moral action will be undertaken.

Rest built his four-component model by working backward. He started with the end product -- to take ethical action -- and then determined the steps that produce such behavior. He concluded that ethical action is the result of four psychological processes: (1) moral sensitivity (recognition), (2) moral judgment (reasoning), (3) moral focus (motivation), and (4) moral character (action).

Moral Sensitivity

The first step in moral behavior requires that the individual interpret the situation as moral. The simplest way is to apply The Golden Rule. In other words, whenever your actions affect others moral issues exist. Absent the ability to recognize that one’s actions affect the welfare of others, it would be virtually impossible to make the most ethical decision when faced with a moral dilemma. A useful perspective is to identify the stakeholders – internal and external parties – and how they could be affected by your action. 

Moral Judgment
Ethics collage

An individual’s ethical cognition of what “ideally” ought to be done to resolve an ethical dilemma is called prescriptive reasoning. The outcome of ethical reasoning is the ability to make an ethical judgment of the ideal solution to an ethical dilemma. Once a person is aware of possible lines of action and how people would be affected by the alternatives, a process aided by the philosophical reasoning methods, a judgment must be made about which course of action is more morally justifiable (which alternative provides the best outcomes/respects the rights of others/gives each person what they deserve). 

Moral Focus

After concluding what course of action is best, decision makers must be focused on taking the moral action and following through with ethical behavior. Absent ethical intent or the motivation to take the next step, ethical decision-making is not likely to occur. It’s one thing to know what moral reasoning methods direct a person to do, it’s quite another to do it. An individual’s ethical motivation influences his/her intention to comply or not comply with ethical judgment in the resolution of an ethical dilemma.

Moral Action

Individuals do not always behave in accordance with their ethical intention. An individual’s intention to act ethically and his/her ethical actions may not be aligned because of pressures or biases that influence decision making. Individuals with strong ethical character will be more likely to carry out their ethical intentions with ethical action than individuals with a weak ethical character because they are better able to withstand pressures from those within an organization. For example, imagine considering blowing the whistle on your superior who stole money from the organization. The internal pressure is likely to create significant conflict between what you know the right thing to do is and actually doing it.

Cognitive Dissonance

One limitation of the philosophical reasoning methods is how we think we should behave is different from how we decide to behave. This creates a problem of cognitive dissonance, a term first coined by Leon Festinger in 1956[2]. The inconsistency between our thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and our behavior creates the need to resolve contradictory or conflicting beliefs, values, and perceptions. We either adjust our beliefs to fit our behavior, which is not the desired outcome, or we change our behavior to fit our beliefs, the normal and preferred relationship. A strong set of ethical values provides the inner strength to act in accordance with our beliefs in the face of conflicting pressures. We need moral courage to inform higher-ups about our superior’s unethical action – at least we should try to right the wrong.

The four components of Rest’s model are processes that must take place for moral behavior to occur. Rest does not offer the framework as a linear decision-making model, suggesting instead that the components interact through a complicated sequence of “feed-back” and “feed-forward” loops. An individual who demonstrates adequacy in one component may not necessarily be adequate in another, and moral failure can occur when there is a deficiency in any one component. For example, an individual who knows the superior’s action was wrong (moral focus) may not have the requisite moral reasoning skills (judgment) to do what is necessary.[3]

Ethical decision making is the heart of being an ethical person. It doesn’t come intuitively for most people, which is why a model such as Rest’s is so important. It provides a roadway to get from identifying an ethical issue to taking ethical action. All readers serious about being an ethical person can benefit from studying his model.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 23, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his newsletter. Follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.


[1] James R. Rest. Moral Development: Advances in Research and Theory.

[2] Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Evanston, IL: Row & Peterson, 1957).

[3] Steven Dellaportas, Beverly Jackling, Philomena Leung, Barry J. Cooper, “Developing an Ethics Education Framework for Accounting,” Journal of Business Ethics Education, 8, no.1 (2011), pp. 63–82.