First published in 2008 in Melbourne, Australia by Common Ground Publishing Pty Ltd


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ISSN: 1833-1882

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Contrasting the Moral Reasoning Abilities of Private Sector and Federal Government Sector CPAs: An Empirical Investigation

  1. Anthony Crossman, Nova Southeastern University, Maryland, UNITED STATES

Tom Griffin, Nova Southeastern University, Fl, UNITED STATES

Qidong Cao, Winthrop University, South Carolina, UNITED STATES

Abstract: The purpose of this study is to determine if any differences exist in the moral reasoning abilities of certified public accountants (CPAs) who work in the private sector as compared to CPAs who work in the federal government sector. The interests in the ethics of CPAs in particular and accountants in general have catapulted in recent years due to high profile financial corruptions involving many top U.S. companies. This study explores the levels of moral reasoning abilities of federal government sector CPAs and private sector CPAs to determine if there is any difference in the cognitive moral development between the subjects. Literature review was unable to find earlier studies that compared similar situated groups of CPAs. This study examines the extent to which institutional context influences moral reasoning. Kohlberg’s (1969) moral development theory serves as the foundation for the study and Rest’s (1979) Defining Issues Test-2 instrument measures the level of moral reasoning abilities of the participating groups. Results indicate that private sector CPAs have a lower Pscore than government sector CPAs but are not statistically significant.

Keywords: Moral Reasoning, Ethics, Accounting Ethics, Moral Development, Private and Government CPA’s Moral





HISRESEARCHEXPLORESdifferences inthemoralreasoningabilitybetweenprivate sector CPAs and government sector CPAs.

Both groups are first-line defense against financial fraud within their respective arenas. Users of financial reports, produced by public and private sector CPAs, expect these accounting professionals to renderunbiasedopinionsand to govern themselves consistent with the moral and ethical codes set forth by governing bodies. Concerningthe matterof ethics, the Association of Government Accountants offers the following:

The Association of Government Accountants believes that its members first and foremost serve the public interest in accordance with the highest ethical principles. This Code of Ethics is both a standard of behavior to aspire to and a guide for making ethical decisions. The code contains specific language regarding conduct that sets the minimum expected levels of behavior. Violators are subject to disciplinary action. However, the code is not simply a set of rules. It also creates an expectation that the Association’s members…will do the right thing in any given situation. Ethics ultimately is a matter of personal responsibility.”

In general, CPAs must comply with ethical codes of conduct set forth by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Section 52, Article 1 of the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct provides the following guidance:

“As professionals, certified public accountants perform an essential role in society. Consistent with that role, members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have responsibilities to all those who use their professional services.Members also have a continuing responsibility to cooperate with each other to improve the art of accounting, maintain the public’s confidence, and carry out the profession’s special responsibilities for self-governance. The collective efforts of all members are required to maintain and enhance the traditions of the profession.”

In recent years, observers have seen some regulatory convergence of public and private sector accountants. Prior to the recent accounting scandals, there were no sweeping government regulations governing private sector CPAs. The recent high-profile accounting scandals involving Enron, WorldCom, and other large U.S. companies gave birth to the SarbanesOxley Act of 2002. The Sarbanes-Oxley legislation subjects private CPAs to a slew of government regulations. Historically, government sector CPAs perform their duties in compliance with federal mandates.

A major difference between government sector CPAs and private sector CPAs is that government sector CPAs work in a nonprofit environment, while private sector CPAs, by and large, work in a profit centered arena. Due to this dynamic, the research posits that government sector CPAs are less inclined to manipulate and compromise the validity and accuracy of accounting data for financial gains. Hence, the belief that government sector accountants will have higher DIT-2 P-scores than their private sector counterparts, who could stand to reap financial gains from manipulating accounting data. The manipulation of accounting data by private sector CPAs could mean bigger bonuses and contract extensions for consulting work for their employers. Eynon, et al. (1997) states that the solution for making codes of ethics workable is contingent on squaring differences between the propensity by some professionals to gravitate towards the lure of economic gains and the nobility of upholding the professional code of ethics for the common good.


The purpose of this research is to determine if any difference exists in the cognitive moral development of federal government sector CPAs as compared to the cognitive moral development of private sector CPAs. Management’s efforts to improve the ethical quality of business decisions have increased in recent years. Many companies are now offering ethics education intervention to improve ethical values and change ethical behavior (Izzo, 2000). The viability of a business as a going-concern is largely contingent on the ethical standards on which it conducts business activities. Accountants are the financial custodians of businesses, and must ensure the restoration of public confidence in the profession of accountancy. The business community is increasingly insisting that accountants adhere to strict moral and ethical standards. The profession of accountancy is recovering from a spate of accounting scandals. Many researches study the levels of cognitive moral development of accountants (Abdolmohammadi & Baker, 2006; Lovell, 2002; Thorne, 2000; Eynon, et al., 1997). A literature search was unable to uncover studies contrasting the cognitive moral development of private sector CPAs and government sector CPAs, specifically. However, there is copious literature focusing on the ethics of both government and private sectors CPAs. The ethics of accounting professionals have come under scrutiny in recent years on the heels of several high profile accounting scandals, and continues to be a source of debate.

The AICPA Code of Ethics and the laws of governing local jurisdiction provide guidance for these subjects. CPAs who work in the federal government sector operate in a nonprofit environment, and are not under the burden of having to appease clients with positive audit reports out of fear that their employer may lose lucrative contracts. CPAs in the private sector often find themselves in compromising situations due to financial considerations. The lure of personal financial gain is clearly not unique to the private sector CPAs, as government sector CPAs could also fall victim to the appeal of personal economic gain by willfully ignoring accounting and financial improprieties. A boss or a client may ask the CPA on the job to condone obvious irregularities. The professional environment for the private se

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