CNNMoney.com has run an interesting commentary by Jeanne Sahadi on the root causes of unethical behavior. Though thoughtfully written, there is an awkward omission.
She quotes Thomas Donaldson and Aine Donovan from Dartmouth as saying that the root causes of ethics problems are obsession and short-term thinking. Though perhaps nit-picking on my part, I would argue that these represent only part of the equation. After all, obsession can be just as predictive of a fierce commitment to ethical behavior. Neither of these two qualities propel unethical behavior nearly as persistently without the addition of a staunchly self-serving attitude.
My experience is that, once you remove the truly criminal-minded folks from the equation, most ethics violators explain their behavior in terms as likely to be positive as negative. (i.e. “I just want to get ahead in life.”, “I just wanted to be a good colleague/coworker/partner.”, etc.) Nothing wrong with the motivations – it’s their self-serving approach to the world that ends up making the greatest difference between whether they engage in ethical behavior or cross the line.