Moral Orientation: Its Relation to Product Involvement and Consumption

Hyokjin Kwak, University of Georgia
George M. Zinkhan, University of Georgia
Warren A. French, University of Georgia
ABSTRACT - Moral orientation is investigated with respect to its relation to consumers’ purchases of and involvement with products of questionable social value. At the same time, impulsive and compulsive buying tendencies as well as the trait of materialism are tested for their possible relations to moral orientation. Following a pretest, four product categories (i.e., tobacco, drugs, alcohol, pornography) are identified as being socially harmful. In the main study, we find that consumers who follow a pattern of rule-driven moral reasoning are less likely to consume socially harmful products.
[ to cite ]:
Hyokjin Kwak, George M. Zinkhan, and Warren A. French (2001) ,"Moral Orientation: Its Relation to Product Involvement and Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 431-436.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 431-436


Hyokjin Kwak, University of Georgia

George M. Zinkhan, University of Georgia

Warren A. French, University of Georgia


Moral orientation is investigated with respect to its relation to consumers’ purchases of and involvement with products of questionable social value. At the same time, impulsive and compulsive buying tendencies as well as the trait of materialism are tested for their possible relations to moral orientation. Following a pretest, four product categories (i.e., tobacco, drugs, alcohol, pornography) are identified as being socially harmful. In the main study, we find that consumers who follow a pattern of rule-driven moral reasoning are less likely to consume socially harmful products.


Product consumption is a normal part of most people’s lives. For some people, purchasing becomes a life unto itself and addictive. Compulsive buying, impulsive buying, and to some extent, a materialistic drive, are such examples. Thus, consumer researchers attentive to these behaviors have refined related concepts, explained the origins and causes of these addictive behaviors and assessed their personal and social effects (Belk 1985; Faber 1992; Faber and O’Guinn 1989; Hanley and Wilhelm 1992)

One topic that has received scant attention in this area is the moral reasoning process associated with the buying process. Compulsive buyers realize that their behavior can cause interpersonal problems, social problems anddomestic tensions; yet, since they cannot control their urge to buy, these individuals attempt to conceal the evidence of their abnormal behavior in order to avoid conflict with social expectations (or rules) (Faber and O’Guinn 1992). One major theme of the present study is to shed light on behavior-driven consumers’ (i.e., compulsive buyers) ethical standards. Just how vulnerable are compulsive buyers to marketing efforts if their buying is negatively associated with a certain decision-making process (e.g., rule-oriented moral reasoning)?

Also worth investigation is consumers’ ethical consideration of socially undesirable products. For example, we supposedly react positively toward socially "good" products and services (e.g., charitable giving and recycled products) and negatively toward socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, pornographies). For some consumers, such socially stigmatized products and services are viewed as just part of a shopping list that they purchase from. We do not know much about this specific domain of products or the moral orientation of the people who purchase them.

The major purpose of the paper is two-fold: a) to investigate the relationship between two types of moral orientation (i.e., act vs. rule) and the involvement and consumption of socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcoholic beverages) and b) to explore the role of impulsive buying tendencies, compulsive buying tendencies, and materialism. In the following section, we discuss some psychological and philosophical aspects associated with moral orientation.


For the last two decades attempts to link consumer behavior with morality may have been influenced as much by the availability of measurement instruments as by the articulation of theory. The prevailing instrument of moral choice has been the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which is grounded in moral development theory. This theory, first gaining notoriety with Piaget (Piaget 1950; Piaget 1952; Piaget 1965) and later popularized by Kohlberg (1969), entails the use of a lengthy interview process to obtain projectable results.

Searching for efficiency in moral measurement, Rest (1979) synthesized major findings within Kohlberg’s database into an objective test called the DIT. The instrument has been widely used, although it, like Kohlberg’s interview results, shows only modest predictive validity. The DIT’s roots, though, come from developmental psychology with its strong body of theoretical as well as empirical research.

The cognitive moral development approach of Piaget, Kohlberg and Rest appears to be grounded primarily on the concept of justice. Newer approaches to ethical decisions, under the label of sociomoral development (Kurtines and Gewirtz 1987), incorporate the notion of an ethics of care as postulated by Gilligan (1982) along with justice. To establish the link between moral developmental psychology and the traditional moral classification schemes employed in the philosophical study of ethics Colby et al. (1980) matched both the modal and value elements uncovered in moral development interviews to the taxonomy used in philosophy. This paper reports on an effort to revert back to the traditional philosophical orientation to investigate possibe links between ethical orientation and consumer behavior.

The primary distinction among philosophical theories of morality relates to the two components constituting the traditional definition of ethics. Under that definition, those components are "moral principles" directed at enhancing "societal well-being." Those who stress principles are labeled deontologists. The origin of that term comes from the Greek word, "deontos," meaning obligation. Those who stress societal well-being pay attention to the rationale behind an act, and are labeled teleologists. The derivation of that term comes from the word "telos," translated as purpose.

The secondary distinction among moral theories is one that concentrates on acts versus rules. According to Frankena, this is a meaningful distinction since he identifies both act deontologists and act teleologists as well as rule deontologists and rule teleologists. It is this secondary distinction that will be treated as a potential explanatory variable in the research reported here. Here, we first discuss these two moral reasoning patterns (i.e., act vs. rule) and, then, apply them to consumption phenomena. Finally, several research questions are provided.

Act Orientation vs. Rule Orientation

Act-Oriented Moral Reasoning. Act theories maintain that moral judgments are particularistic rather than generalizable. Those influenced by an act orientation in market behavior intuitively seem prone to adopt a teleological orientation in their decisions. This emphasis on the intended consequences of their decisions would be reflected in their weighing of alternatives. Frankena’s description of this orientation (1973, p. 35) is depicted by the decision criterion of an act utilitarian in the question: "What effect will my doing this act in this situation have on the general balance of good over evil?"

Frankena, though, claims that is difficult to do without rules, for no other reason than our lack of time to judge each situation anew. An act-deontologist, as contrasted to an act-teleologist, might answer that past experiences are not totally discounted in the moral decision making process but provide loose "rules of thumb" when evaluating responsibilities in new situations. But, those loose rules are no more than secondary considerations in the decision making process. It is one’s personal experiential and, perhaps, intuitive sense of right or wrong that influences one’s moral decision in any given situation. Among the philosophers who advocated an act or particularistic approach to moral decisions are Carritt (1928) a deontologist, Bentham (1962) a utilitarian, and Fletcher (1966) who founded the school labeled "situation ethics."

Those who make moral decisions based on the intended results of their acts fall under Trompenaars’ (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 1998) classification of particularists. Particularists pay less attention to what they consider to be abstract social codes and more attention to the circumstances surrounding an act. The continuity of relationships and the effects of one’s decision on others eight heavily in a particularist’s judgments of right and wrong. For particularists, linear logic takes a secondary position to the humanitarian effects of one’s actions. Changes in context dramatically affect particularists’ perceived obligations. Treating each case based on its merits attains fairness for them. The trustworthy person in the particularist view is one who honors changing mutualities.

Rule-Oriented Moral Reasoning. While an act orientation to morality is widely recognized in the ethics literature, most ethical work appears to center on rules related to moral goals or activities. Those rules, often internalized and not necessarily vocalized, exist to both guide and limit behavior. The etemological root of the word morality is the Latin word for custom. Customs are culturally defined. Rules are created to give a semblance of order to the community. They serve to promote and maximize the commonweal within the proximate community.

Berkeley (1965) justified a rule approach to morality by pointing out the problems with making act specific decisions. Rules preclude mistakes made in an act by act approach C mistakes caused by ignorance, emotion and lack of time spent in deliberation. On the positive side, rules are said to embody communal standards of right and wrong. Philosophers who advocated a rule or universalistic approach to moral decisions are deontologists such as Kant (1963), utilitarians like Mill (1951) and those who bridge both deontology and teleology like Ross (Ross 1930).

Trompenaars (1998) claims that a rule-based orientation is equivalent to a universalist orientation; "The universalist approach is roughly: What is good and right can be defined and always applies" (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner 1998, p 8). In purchase situations, according to universalists, it is not relationships but rules that provide the focal point for some people’s behavior. This approach to decision making tends to be rational, if somewhat impersonal. Rules provide one commonality that bridges the deontological - teleological chasm since both rule deontologists and rule utilitarians would fall under the universalism classification. That commonality, simplistically put, is that the purchases of universalists or rule driven consumers are made with due deliberation. Consistency is their watchword to the point that marketplace relationships could possible be viewed as informal contracts entailing reciprocal responsibilities.

Application to Consumer Behavior

O’Guinn and Faber (1989) defined compulsive buying as "chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes a primary response to negative events or feeling. The activity, while perhaps providing short-term rewards, becomes very difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences" (p. 155). With easier access to malls, a sea of products available, and little or no social stigma attached to constant shopping (which formerly had been considered as an indication of moral or spiritual decay, e.g., Hirschman [1992]), compulsive shoppers encounter temptations daily.

Currently, compulsions are considered repetitive behaviors and irresistible desires which occur in response to obsessions, and which are generated against one’s will (Yaryura-Tobias and Neziroglu 1997). The notion of the existence of "will" in compulsive buying is important to understand compulsive buying behavior. Consumers who have compulsive buying tendencies might engage in uncontrollable purchases with a self-cognition that they can rationalize. Compulsive buying also can be socially unacceptable or punishable since the behavior often generates financialand interpersonal difficulties (Faber and O’Guinn 1992; Krueger 1988). If this is the case, consumers might have some degree of cognitive ability to identify such societal sanctions or disapprobation.

From a cognitive view of attitudinal and behavioral change, Fishbein’s theory of reasoned action (Ajzen and Fishbein 1977) can be viewed as an alternative approach to look at consumers’ moral reasoning behind their additive purchase patterns. The theory focuses on the role of consumers’ subjective norms in predicting consumers’ buying intention followed by their actual buying behavior. For Fishbein, the concept of subjective norms is defined along two dimensions: a) the accumulation of beliefs and b) the individual’s desires and motivations to comply with social beliefs. These dimensions seem to apply to compulsive buyers as well. As mentioned above, compulsive and impulsive buyers may think that their excessive and repetitive buying behavior will be condemned by a social referent. Thus, compulsive and impulsive buying behavior have been typically associated with post-purchase feelings of shame and guilt, financial and interpersonal problems, and to an increased susceptibility to social influence (d’Astous, Maltais, and Roberge 1990; Rook 1985).

However, the degree of cognitive moral reasoning or willingness to accept social norms behind these two types of buying behaviors might be lower than in a "normal" consumer group. For example, using cross-cultural data from the US and Korea, Kwak (2000) investigates the role of social norms on compulsive and impulsive buying. The author concludes that subjective norms do not play an important role in either of the cases. Thus, the compulsive and impulsive consumers’ low cognitive moral reasoning for social acceptance may play a consequential role in their purchase behavior.

The issue of materialism is pervasive as the role of marketing’s social responsibility grows in significance. Thus, academic research studying the impact of materialism has become of greater interest to those in marketing and consumer research (Belk 1985; Richins and Dawson 1992). The main issue underpinning materialism lies in its societal significance. A materialistic view may increase a society’s economic wealth and material acquisitions. However, materialism may also have negative effect on the quality of life. For example, materialism has been significantly related to family disruption (Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Denton 1997).

Materialism involves the importance attached to worldly possessions (Belk 1985; Richins and Dawson 1992). For a materialist, possessions are central to life in that s/he feels that increased consumption enhance satisfaction with quality of life. However, materialism may become problematic when the physical goal of consumption overwhelms all other goals of self and interactive development (Belk 1985). Researchers have raised questions about ethical issues related to consumers’ materialistic value. For example, Belk (1985) relates greater materialism to an inevitable loss of a sense of community, which might in turn make people less sensitive to those behaviors that might negatively affect others.

Muncy and Eastman (1998) argue that materialistic consumers are more likely to have lower ethical standards than are the counterpart group. That is, consumers who are more materialistic show less concern for ethical issues. Compulsive and impulsive buying behaviors are the byproduct derived from a materialistic society (Faber and O’Guinn 1992; Rindfleisch, Burroughs, and Denton 1997 Rook and Fisher 1995).

Consumers who demonstrate compulsive and impulsive buying tendencies may be more likely to engage in other addictive consumption behaviors at the same time. For instance, compulsive buyers are frequently caught up in an irresistible pursuit of buying things in order to release them from an internally unstable status, to alleviate their discomfort and feelings of self-loathing. They may also turn to binge eating, illegal drugs, or alcoholic products. However, the short-term gratifications derived from compulsive buying never satisfy the internal emptiness; therefore, compulsive buyers increasingly search for more powerful reinforcers. These carryover effects are frequently noted; for instance, most alcoholics smoke, and heroin users are also likely to use a wide variety of drugs including alcohol (Winger, Hofmann, and Woods 1992). Given these behaviors and the above discussion about consumers’ two different moral reasoning patterns C act orientation vs. rule orientation, we generate the following four research questions:




R1: Consumer involvement with socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcoholic beverages) will be positively associated with consumers’ act-oriented moral reasoning, but will be negatively linked to consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning.

R2: Consumers’ frequent consumption of socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcoholic beverages) will be positively associated with consumers’ act-oriented moral reasoning, but will be negatively linked to consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning.

R3: Consumers’ behavior-driven personalities (i.e., impulsive buying tendencies, compulsive buying tendencies, materialism) will be positively associated with consumers’ act-oriented moral reasoning, but will be negatively linked to consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning.

R4: Behavior-driven personalities (i.e., impulsive buying tendencies, compulsive buying tendencies, materialism) will be related to positive involvement with socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcoholic beverages) and will be positively associated with frequent consumption for socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcoholic beverages).


Pilot Study

Before investigating our main research themes, a pilot study was conducted to identify and verify some possible products that are perceived to be socially harmful. A questionnaire was administered to undergraduate business students at a large state university. Respondents were asked to list products or services that they perceive to be socially bad and good.

There were 78 responses for the pilot study C male (55%) and female (45%). Major products and services identified as socially good and bad are presented in Figure 2. It is interesting to note that some products are considered neutral (e.g., shampoo, leather, coffee, soft drink). For our main study, we selected four products that are socially undesirable: a) tobacco, b) drugs, c) alcoholic beverage, and c) pornographic material. These products were identified by more than 50 respondents as socially bad products. A graphical presentation of consumers’ perceived socially good and bad products/services is shown in Figure 1.


Having identified socially harmful products, a second survey was conducted to explore our main research questions. This survey included some scales to measure consumers’ attitudes, behaviors, personality traits (e.g., impulsive buying tendencies), and moral reasoning orientation (i.e., rule orientation and act orientation) Measures are geared to the four specific products (i.e., tobacco, illegal drugs, alcohol, and pornographic material). Respondents were undergraduate business students who were given a credit for participating in the survey. After eliminating some responses because of missing information, there were 76 responses available for the main analysis. The sample consists of 36 males (47%) and 40 females (53%). More than 97% of respondents come from the 20 to 24-year-old age group.


Attitudinal and Behavioral Measures. In order to measure consumers’ degree of involvement with the socially harmful products, Zaichkowsky’s revised Personal Involvement Inventory (Zaichkowsky 1985; Zaichkowsky 1994) was employed. The scale consists of 10 semantic differential items with 7 points (e.g., unimportant/important, worthless/valuable) to assess consumers’ perceived relevance of the object based on inherent needs, values, and interests. One example question reads: "To me pornographic material is." Acceptable reliability estimates are obtained for the four products: .97 for tobacco, .96 for drug, .96 for alcohol, and .96 for pornographic. Higher scores of the scale represent higher involvement with the products.

Consumers behavior regarding the four products was measured using a single item. For example, "Approximately, how often did you purchase an alcoholic beverage in the last one month?" As anticipated, a only small portion of respondents report that they purchase pornographic materials (4%), whereas a considerable number of respondents purchased tobacco (41%), illegal drugs (17%), and alcohol beverages (85%).

Personality Traits. Faber and O’Guinn’s (1992) seven-item Diagnostic Screener for Compulsive Buying (CB) which is a Likert-type scale with 5 points (strongly disagree/strongly agree and never/very often) was adopted to measure consumers’ compulsive buying tendency. This scale shows appropriate reliability (Cronbach’s alpha of .80). Consumers’ impulsive buying tendency (IB) is measured via Rook and Fisher’s (1995) 9-item scale. This Likert-type scale is anchored by 5-point intervals with two bipolar words (strongly disagree/strongly agree). An acceptable reliability estimate is obtained (Cronbach’s alpha of .93). Higher values in the two scales indicate higher levels of compulsive buying tendencies and buying impulsiveness.

Finally, consumers’ materialism (MT) is measured using Richins and Dawson’s (1992) material value scale. The measure employs a five-point Likert-type scale with eighteen items. The scale has three dimensions: possession centrality, possession as the pursuit of happiness, and possession-defined success. The reliability of the scale is appropriate with Cronbach’s alpha of .84. Higher scores for the scale represent a higher emphasis on materialism.

Moral Orientation. We adopted Boyce and Jensen’s (1978) Moral Content Test (MCT) to measure consumers’ moral orientation. Although MCT is based on Kohlberg’s theory and Rest’s methodology, it is not considered a measure of moral development. The MCT is an objective recognition test that is concerned with how individuals choose different statements representing different moral orientations.

There are five stories and ten statements about each story that require respondents’ moral judgment skills. In order to complete the test, respondents rate the importance of each statement relevant to a decision on a five point Likert-type scale and rank the four statements that they believe are most important. Evaluation of an individual MCT results in a number of scores, including "Rule Orientation" and "Act Orientation." Rule Orientation is calculated based on the percentage score for the following collapsed categories: hedonistic rule utilitarianism, non-hedonistic rule utilitarianism, and rule deontology. Consumers’ act orientation (in their moral reasoning) is measured by using the percentage score of the three categories: hedonistic act utilitarianism, non-hedonistic act utilitarianism, and act deontology. A high score on a either of these two scales represents higher emphasis on either rule orientation or act orientation.

Looking at the relationship between them assesses validity of the two measures. As expected, we find a strong negative correlation between the two constructs (r=-.824, p<.01). It is interesting to note that 66 percent of our respondents score more than 50 out of 100 in the act-orientation scale, indicating highly act oriented, whereas only 21 percent of them have scores of 50 out of 100 in rule-orientation moral reasoning, representing highly rule oriented.


Moral Reasoning and Socially Undesirable Products (R1 and R2)

A series of correlation analyses were conducted to examine the effects of consumers’ moral reasoning and attitudinal and behavioral issues dealing with socially "bad" products. As expected, the results suggest that higher involvement with some socially harmful products (i.e., drugs, alcoholic beverages, pornography) are negatively related consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning (RO): rdrug+RO=-.240, p<.01; ralcohol+RO=-.223, p<.01; rpornographic+RO=-.240, p<.05. We also find that higher involvement with drugs is positively associated with their act-oriented moral reasoning (AO): rdrug+AO=.206, p<.01.

We find some evidence that purchasing of, in addition to involvement with, some of socially harmful products is related to moral orientation. That is, the results suggests that buying drugs is not only negatively associated with consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning (r=-.230, p<.01), but also positively linked to consumers’ act-oriented way of moral reasoning (r=.243, p<.01). Therefore, some portion of R1 and R2 are supported. Summarized correlation analysis is shown in Table 1.

Moral Reasoning and Personality Traits (R3 and R4)

We anticipated that behavior-driven personality traits such as consumers’ buying impulsiveness, compulsive buying tendencies, and materialistic consumption are associated with a certain type of moral reasoning. Here, we find that consumers’ rule-oriented moral reasoning is negatively linked to their impulse to buy (r=-.186, p<.05) and materialism (r=-.304, p<.01). We don’t find any relationships between consumers’ act-oriented moral reasoning and their consumption-related personality variables.

In addition to exploring the relationship between consumers’ moral reasoning and personality traits, the results also show that higher involvement with socially harmful products is associated with the personality variables. That is, personal involvement with drugs is positively related with buying impulsiveness (r=215, p<.05), compulsive buying tendencies (r=.236, p<.01), and materialism (r=.263, p<.01). Higher involvement is also positively linked to compulsive buying tendencies (r=.199, p<.05). Regarding behavioral components, frequent buying of tobacco and alcoholic beverage is positively associated with impulsiv buying (rIB+Tobacco=.313, p<.01; rIB+Alcohol=.332, p<.01) and compulsive buying tendencies (rCB+Tobacco=.290, p<.01; rCB+Alcohol=.249, p<.01). Interestingly, materialism is positively related with purchasing pornographic materials (r=.213, p<.05). Thus, Research Questions 3 and 4 are partially supported. Again, all the results are presented in Table 1.




Consumer moral orientation is associated with consumers’ motivation to consume socially harmful products. Via our two exploratory studies, we find some important issues surrounding consumers’ style of moral reasoning C act orientation and rule orientation. We find that tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and pornography are perceived as socially "bad" products. Next, we investigated the associations between consumers’ product involvement, behavioral components, and personality traits and their attached moral reasoning patterns.

As anticipated, those who show rule-driven moral reasoning are less likely to be involved with socially harmful products (i.e., drugs, alcohol beverages, pornographic materials). Such a negative feeling toward socially harmful products seems to dampen consumers’ consumption of such products. For instance, our respondents with rule orientation are found to be less likely to engage in buying drugs. As expected, we find a positive relationship between consumers’ act orientation and their involvement with socially undesirable products. For instance, act-oriented moral reasoning is found to be positively associated with consumers’ involvement with drugs. As is traditional in consumer behavior literature, this favorable attitude toward drug products serves to enhance purchase behavior. In other words, the results suggest that purchasing drugs is positively related with consumers’ act-driven moral reasoning.

In general, impulsive buying and compulsive buying are unplanned behaviors. These buying patterns often carry emotional and psychological decision making that might provide consumers with a temporary power to avoid some possible social inhibitions. For instance, established social norms might discourage consumers from having favorable attitudes toward alcoholic beverages or tobacco products and even purchasing them due to their harmful effects on public health and public at large. However, as we find that those who have impulsive buying tendencies are likely to have negative rule-oriented moral reasoning, this is not the case for some consumers. Those who have impulsive and compulsive buying tendencies (and materialistic propensities) are likely to be consumers of some socially harmful products (i.e., tobacco. Illegal drugs, alcoholic beverages).

According to the study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, it is estimated that illicit drug-use treatment cost $7.6 billion and alcohol abuse treatment cost $5 billion in 1996 (Peterson, Balasubramanian, and Bronnenberg 1997). Use of socially harmful products (e.g., drugs, alcohol) can produce negative outcomes for the public at large. Thus, it is important to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the abuse of such products.

A Freudian approach argues that the moral constraints of the super ego control a compulsive and impulsive personality. Public policy makers, thus, may want to facilitate educational functions in marketing activities from a long-term perspective. For instance, requirement of tell-tale tags in socially harmful products can be a useful start to reduce act-driven consumers’ consumptio on these product categories.

Compulsive and impulsive consumers, however, may not be prone to read descriptions/warnings, especially at the point of purchase. Other sensory stimuli may be needed to discourage purchases. It will take an imaginative mind to create aural and visual stimuli to impede what tend to be the emotion-based purchases of act-oriented decision makers.

Limitations of the present study arise from the characteristics of our sample (e.g., small number of respondents, use of students even though they are at an age which lends to susceptibility to persuasion). Future studies may want to use a larger sample from a general consumer group to look at the broad effects of moral standards. Here, we provide an initial step for understanding consumer motivations related to the consumption of socially harmful products.


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