Can Mindfulness Enhance our Ethical Decision-making?

by Web Manager published Feb 07, 2017 01:35 PM, last modified Oct 19, 2020 03:33 PM
by Russell Fitzpatrick


Much has been written of late regarding the benefits of mindfulness practice (e.g., meditation, etc.).  Within the last few years for example, articles in the popular press (see Widdicombe (2015) in The New Yorker) and in technical journals (The American Psychological Association’s journal, American Psychologist, devoted the entire October 2015 issue to mindfulness) demonstrate that the world is looking at the potential benefits of mindfulness, some with a particular focus on mindfulness in the workplace. (There is even a meditation smart-phone app,  While mindfulness may be a relatively new buzzword on the scene in the professional setting, ethics is all but integrated into our lives as second nature, with all businesses and institutions having ethics policies (see for example Pennsylvania State University’s Academic Integrity Policy, 2016).

If mindfulness is an effective solution to problems such as stress, addiction, anxiety, depression, etc., can we also use mindfulness to enhance our cognitive moral development?  The answer to the question may rest with “where” and “how” mindfulness works.  The “where” is easy to grasp by looking at the foundations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Satterfield, J.M. (2015) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, (Kabat-Zinn, 2013) for example.  Both techniques recognize a distinction between cognitions, or thoughts, and feelings and actions.  And both strive to alter our feelings (and subsequent actions) by recognizing and altering the thoughts. This is where mindfulness works. By quieting the conscious mind, the chatter of the mind, the unconscious mind can be tapped.  That of course brings up the “how” part of the question: how does our unconscious mind deliver the solutions to our problems?  Does it?  The “how” can be based in spirituality, innocence, “Just World Beliefs” (Ashkanasay, Windsor & Trevino, 2006), and even quantum entanglement!

If we believe that by quieting our mind through some mindfulness technique, our subconscious mind can understand our thoughts, and then alter those thoughts where appropriate, and if we also believe that our quiet mind can make the correct, ethical decision, then could we not use this practice to help in our ethical dilemmas?

Why not?   It is a handy technique that all managers can use when confronted with an ethical dilemma. Learn mediation, learn the stages of the Kohlberg’s Cognitive Moral Development scheme (Barger, 2000) and spend some time meditating on the dilemma. Perhaps the correct decision will present itself, or at least a cleaner view of the dilemma will appear – or perhaps not.   But after a process of cultivating such a “mindful” approach, day in, day out, we are sure to hasten our development through Kohlberg’s moral development levels and move from the pre-conventional level of moral decisions based on personal consequences, to higher conventional and post-conventional levels, with decisions based on societal or universal values. (Barger, 2000).

Often times in business we expect things to come naturally.  For example, we expect that a brilliant engineer will be a brilliant leader, without providing any leadership training.  Likewise, we expect a successful salesperson to perform ethically in all dealings, without providing the salesperson the tools to evaluate ethical dilemmas.   Some ethical dilemmas are clear to all, and some are clear to some and not to others, depending on a person’s level of moral development.  Mindfulness training offers an approach to enhance processing these difficult dilemmas.


Ashkanasy, N.M., Windsor, C.A., & Trevino, L.K. (2006). Bad Apples in Bad Barrels Revisited: Cognitive Moral Development, Just World Beliefs, Rewards, and Ethical Decision-Making. Business Ethics Quarterly, 16, 4, 449-473.

Barger, R.N. (2000). A Summary of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. Retrieved from

Headspace. Retrieved from

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living. New York. Bantam Books.

Kazak, A.E., ed. (2015, October). The Emergence of Mindfulness in Basic and Clinical Psychological Science, American Psychologist, Special Issue, 70, 7.

Pennsylvania State University, 2016. Academic Integrity. Retrieved from

Satterfield, J.M. (2015). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brian. The Great Courses. Retrieved from

Widdicombe, L. (2015, July 6 & 13). The Higher Life, A mindfulness guru for the tech set. The New Yorker. Retrieved from


Russell Fitzpatrick is an Executive Vice President at The VERTEX Companies, Inc., a global environmental and construction company.  He earned his MPS Psychology of Leadership degree in December 2016, and went on to a PhD program at Saybrook University.