Moral intensity, ethical reasoning, and equitable relief judgments

Gary M. Fleischman, Sean Valentine, Don W. Finn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Ethical issues and moral reasoning are important in the tax policy context because shared moral values create good societies (Paul et al., 2006). This study of the equitable relief subset of the innocent spouse rules is a good example of Congressional and IRS policy that has been substantially reformed twice (and continues to be reassessed) to create tax law that effectively treats innocent spouses equitably (Fleischman & Shen, 1999). The purpose of this study was to evaluate the degree to which subjects' moral reasoning, using the first two steps of Rest's (1986) ethical reasoning model, is related to perceived moral intensity (Jones, 1991) in several tax-based equitable relief situations. Integrative social contracts theory provides the study's theoretical lens. Subjects evaluated a mailed-questionnaire containing two separate equitable relief scenarios about a spouse who was unaware of her husband's tax evasion - one scenario included verbal abuse and the other scenario contained no such abuse. The survey also contained a variety of ethics and attitudinal measures used to measure the study's focal variables. The results support the a priori hypotheses that moral intensity is positively related to recognition ofan ethical issue, judgment that the ethical scenario is unethical, and judgment to grant equitable relief. In addition, the scenario containing emotional abuse was associated with increased levels ofmoral intensity as compared to the scenario that did not contain abuse. The paper concludes with a discussion of both professional and public policy implications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)79-112
Number of pages34
JournalResearch on Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Accounting
StatePublished - 2010


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