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Take a Moment Activities

You should also do at least 6 Take a Moment activities on your own during the term, and submit them Last Day of Lectures in the same Word file with your Discussion Posts. Responses of 75-150 words are sufficient to show you’ve thought about and engaged with the questions.

Unit Two: Ethics: Foundations & Challenges
2.0 Introduction
In the introductory unit we looked at what philosophy is, how ethics and business ethics
raise philosophical questions, and why it is useful to learn about ethical theories in a
business ethics course. In this unit, we begin learning about the philosophical approach to
Learning Outcomes
After completing this unit you will be able to:
State how philosophical ethics differs from law, religious morality, and
appeals to intuition, and why it proceeds this way.
Explain and debate the pros and cons of cultural relativism, and to describe
Kohlberg’s theory of moral stages.
Reflect on the “why be moral” question and be able to formulate a personal
Explain and evaluate three possible responses to egoism as a moral incentive.
Beauchamp, Tom, and Norman Bowie (1997), A Ethical Theory and Business Practice,”
from Ethical Theory and Business , 5th ed, p.1-19.
Web Resources
Ethics (from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – optional ethical theory article, covers
much the same material as Beauchamp & Bowie)
Voltaire on Religious Tolerance and the Stock Exchange (see second last paragraph)
Glossary Terms
Cultural Relativism
Golden Rule
Moral Intuition
Heinz Dilemma
Objective Moral Law
Euthyphro Problem
Hierarchy of Human Needs
Ring of Gyges
Persons of Note
Lawrence Kohlberg
Abraham Maslow
Adam Smith
Unit Two: Ethics: Foundations & Challenges
2.1 What Philosophical Ethics is Not
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p. 1-6)
This course takes a philosophical approach to business ethics. Before we plunge into reading
about controversial issues and cases, we will consider several major ethical theories, and
the interesting yet perplexing question of the foundations of ethics. Philosophical ethics
takes a critical stance and asks how our moral opinions can be justified in terms of rational
arguments which are as convincing as possible. Let us distinguish it from a number of
competing approaches that have some currency in our society.
2.1.1 Ethics vs. Conventional Morality
By conventional morality, I mean what the majority of people in our society happen to
believe about morality, especially when there is a clear consensus on an issue. One could
take that as a starting point for business ethics, and say simply that corporations and those
working for them should conform to the prevailing moral codes of society.
What’s wrong with that? For one thing, it is a purely descriptive approach. Philosophical
ethics is more than a study of the conventions and prevailing mores of society. It
is critical and concerned with justifying ethical views through rational argument.
Beauchamp & Bowie (p.2) write: “Morality, we might say, consists of what persons ought to
do to in order to conform to society’s norms of behavior, whereas ethical theory concerns
the philosophical reasons for or against the morality stipulated by society. Usually the latter
effort centers on justification.”
One Caution: the above distinction between “morality” and “ethics” is stipulative in that it
defines the words with a precision that is not always reflected in ordinary language. Some
authors use morality and ethics as synonymous terms, and conceive of “moral philosophy”
in exactly the same terms as the above quote conceives of ethical theory. But if a distinction
is made, usually ethics is taken as the more philosophical and reflective approach to the
2.1.2 Ethics vs. Law
Knowing what the law requires is certainly relevant as a starting point to many questions of
business ethics. Some would argue that business’ moral obligation begins and ends with
obeying the law. However, this position is open to question.
First, what is legally allowed is not necessarily ethical. The law generally demands only a
moral minimum. The realm of good conduct and character goes beyond what is merely
required by law.
Conversely, what is ethically right is not necessarily legal. Laws may be immoral or
mistaken, and thus are subject to ethical criticism. This raises the question of whether, and
in what cases, it is ethically permissible to break the law. Suppose the law allows a poor
person to die because they lack the means to purchase a needed drug? Suppose the law is
unjust, discriminating against certain racial groups?
This brings to mind figures such as Indian nationalist Gandhi (1869-1948) and AfricanAmerican civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929-1968), both of whom practiced nonviolent civil disobedience against laws and regimes they considered unjust. They blatantly
disobeyed laws as a protest and willingly allowed themselves to be arrested. The closest
equivalent in business would be the whistleblower, the person who goes against corporate
culture and corporate rules to expose some abuse. Such people risk firing, or other
disciplinary action, in order to speak the truth and uphold what they think is right. We will
have more to say about whistleblowing in Unit 6.
However, such cases are the exception. It is generally prudent for business to obey the law.
Especially if the law one objects to only impinges on profit. If a company breaks a law in
such a case, the action is likely to be seen as self-interested and based on greed, even if the
law is of questionable merit.
2.1.3 Objective Moral Law or Natural Law Concepts of Ethics
Some have equated morality with obedience to an Objective Moral Law that transcends
merely man-made law. This metaphor owes a lot to the Judeo-Christian concept of God as a
Lawgiver (who handed down the 10 Commandments), and to some people’s desire to see
morality as objective in the same sense as physical laws.
However, it is hard to make sense of the idea of a “moral law” without a Lawgiver who
creates and enforces it. There are also weaknesses in the analogy between moral and
physical “natural laws.” The law of gravity enforces itself and can’t be broken by humans. It
simply describes a universal regularity of nature. Moral laws, on the other hand, can be
broken and thus require human authorities to enforce them.
One exception is certain basic rules of prudence. For example, the rule against playing with
matches and gasoline “enforces itself” in a sense when your house burns down. A company
that repeatedly and obviously screws over its customers will eventually reap what it sows in
a similar way, but there is no certainty that fraud will always be punished (if the
perpetrators are clever), or that the punishment will fit the crime.
(TM-3) Take a Moment
Can you think of any alternatives to moral law metaphor for ethics?
Record some ideas in your study notes.
Click here for a response.
2.1.4 Ethics vs. Religious Morality
Once upon a time in Canada people received most of their moral instruction from religion.
Almost everyone went to church and the Bible had a place in the public schools. Religion still
has a powerful voice in ethical matters. However, in philosophical ethics it is best not to rely
on appeals to religious or scriptural authority in making one’s arguments. Philosophy is
about giving reasons that should have a claim on all rational beings, whether they have a
different faith or no faith at all.
This goes especially when we are proposing some rule or law that would be imposed on
believers and non-believers alike. The principle of Separation of Church and State was
enshrined in the American Constitution over two centuries ago and has come to have broad
support in Canadian as well as American society, especially in recent decades. In the narrow
sense, this means we have no established church and that religion is a private matter. But
more broadly interpreted, it implies that codes of religious morality should not be imposed
by the state unless they have some basis in rational, empirical, non-sectarian argument.
Appeals to religious morality in a pluralist society like
ours generally come up against the problem of
disagreement and diversity. There are increasing
numbers of atheists and non-religious people. As Canada
has become increasingly multicultural, there are more
and more believers in religions other than Christianity.
The fact that religions and even particular branches of
the same religion disagree, combined with the fact that
there is no way of validating their authority-claims,
render them a problematic basis for public morality. For
example, the Bible is vague on many moral matters, and
interpreters can choose to emphasis passages where
traditional laws are laid down, or those that call for
open-ended love.
One can also question whether bringing God’s authority into ethical debates is ultimately
helpful or necessary, even for believers. Centuries ago, Plato (428-347 BCE) posed what is
known as the Euthyphro Problem (so called because it arises in a dialogue called
the Euphyphro):
Option A: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is
loved by the gods?” In other words: “Is the good (ethics) commanded by God because it is
Option B: “Or is it good (ethical) because it is commanded by God?”
(TM-4) Take a Moment
What do you think? Which alternative would you pick?
Reflect on these questions and record your thoughts in your study notes.
Click here for a response.
I do not want to be unduly negative about the place of religion in ethics. So before we
conclude this section, let me point out:
1. The Golden Rule, or something like it, appears in a number of ethical theories
as well as the texts of most world religions. My warnings about bringing
religion into philosophical ethics should not be taken as applying to it.
2. Since most religions were established centuries ago, they don’t have a lot to
say about specific business ethics issues like a manager’s obligation to the
stockholders vs. the employees, let alone more arcane issues of accounting
ethics and insider trading. Hence in business ethics, there is not the
intractable conflict between religious and secular ethics that one sometimes
finds in medical or sexual ethics.
3. In assignments, it is best to be intellectually honest and mention religion
when it influences your analysis of a case or issue. Just make sure you
buttress your position with additional arguments. Keep in mind that in the
workplace, it is unlikely that appeal to religious morality will carry much
weight with non-religious colleagues.
4. 2.1.5 Ethical Theory vs. Intuition and Conscience
5. Intuition in morality is the sense of “just knowing” that something is right or
wrong, by means of a strong feeling or hunch.
6. Intuition is problematic when it is based on a pre-reflective moral response this is, when people are simply disgusted by some act and feel it to be wrong
prior to thinking deeply about the issue.
7. We often respond to unconventional sexual practices or the latest advances in
biotechnology that way. How do you feel about gays having anal sex? It is
easy to slip from the reaction that it would be icky for me, to the idea that it
is inherently icky, and conclude that there is something morally wrong with
the people who enjoy such practices. But then I find the idea of eating liver
icky too, and can’t stand the smell or taste of it. But my parents both very
much enjoyed eating liver, and there was nothing icky about them.
8. How do you feel about men wearing women’s clothes? Or women taking a
combat role in the military? Or a 25 year old man marrying a 60 year old
9. Our intuitions may also be just an unthinking expression of conventions we
were taught. For those who grew up before 1970 (before the sexual
revolution, modern feminism, and the gay rights movement changed
mainstream thinking on these issues) it was easy to unreflectively absorb the
idea that there was something wrong about homosexuality and that men and
women should have clearly defined gender roles.
10. Our intuitions may also diverge. In such cases mere appeals to intuition leave
no way of advancing the debate.
11. Conscience is often described as a voice inside one’s head which tells one to
do or not do something. It is subject to the same limitations as intuition when
it is pre-reflective or expresses unexamined prejudice.
12. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote: “The content
of conscience is everything that was during the years of our childhood
regularly demanded of us … it is therefore not the voice of God in the heart of
man but the voice of some men in man” (The Wanderer and his Shadow,
1880, Section #52).
13. Consider the title character in Mark Twain’s (1835-1910) novel Huckleberry
Finn. Huck Finn, a white boy growing up in a slave state in early 19th century
America, felt guilty about helping his friend Jim, a black slave, escape down
the Mississippi River. In one scene he is depicted as bothered by conscience,
for he is responsible for someone losing property that they paid good money
for. To the modern reader, it’s clear that Huck’s own inclinations, which he is
troubled by conscience about, are ethically sounder than the morality he had
been taught and had internalized about slavery.
14. Conclusion
15. Both intuition and conscience are an indispensable sources of guidance, but
they must be educated through ethical theory and experience. In its best
sense, intuition is an awareness or wisdom that grows over time, fed by all
that a decision maker has thought about, empathized with, and experienced.
Note that Archie Carroll (“Principles of Business Ethics” article in the course
package) finds the “Intuition Ethic” to be one of the more popular modes of
ethical decision-making among managers.
2.2 Cultural Relativism
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.8-11)
In the last section, we saw how philosophical ethics insists that everything from religious
claims, to existing laws, to unreflective moral intuitions must be open to critical challenge.
Now we will discuss Cultural Relativism, a theory which is sometimes invoked to prevent
people from criticizing the practices of particular cultures.
Cultural Relativism: The main idea of Cultural Relativism is that there are different moral
codes in each society, but no source to appeal to which can provide a universal referent on
right and wrong. The differing views are all we have. Every society has its own moral code,
and none are in any position to claim superiority. All codes are equal, and all are equally
limited. Thus, no moral code can take precedence in a case of disagreement, because there
is no way to determine which is right or wrong.
Why some people accept Cultural Relativism:
because they think that there is no universal objective morality, and that
human nature is socially constructed.
because they think that the values of different cultures are incommunsurable
(i.e. there is no common standard to assess them).
because they want to avoid cultural imperialism and chauvinism. Note this
implicitly acknowledges a universal value, namely tolerance.
2.2.1 Five Problems with Cultural Relativism
1. Cultures are enormously difficult to define.
(TM-5) Take a Moment
What is a culture as distinct from a sub-culture? What culture do you belong to?
Record your thoughts in your study notes.
Click here for a response.
2. Cultural relativism excuses evil regimes.
In the name of tolerance it often justifies intolerance. It’s a barrier to ethical
progress when it insists that we cannot evaluate the actions and practices of people
in other cultures.
Example: Does cultural relativism permit us to judge Nazi Germany?
Do we say what the Nazis did was wrong simply because they were guilty of cultural
imperialism against the Jews and other nationalities? Were the Allies guilty of cultural
imperialism versus Nazi Germany during and after Word War II? Or did the Nazis
somehow break with European moral traditions and thus deserve punishment for
violating European cultural norms?
3. There are underlying ethical commonalities.
Humans share certain things in common, and there are similarities in the
fundamental ethics of all cultures. Many apparent moral differences express
underlying commonality. In practice, we clearly think that some aspects of some
societies are better than those of other societies.
. In North America we drive on the right side of road, in Britain they
drive on the left. Underlying this difference is the common need for
traffic to pick a side and stick with it for the sake of order and safety.
a. In some cultures people feel strongly that burying the dead is the
proper funeral rite, while others are equally committed to cremation.
Underlying this difference is a common desire to honour or show
respect for deceased ancestors through certain funeral practices.
b. In some cultures people haggle over the price of everything that is
sold, while others have a fixed price system. Is one system morally
superior, or is a fixed price system simply more efficient in a world of
standardized chains where items are sold by low-level clerks, rather
than a one-day market where the owner of the goods hawks his
perishable wares.
c. Different ethical priorities may be appropriate to societies at different
levels of development. For example, most of us disapprove of
infanticide. We live in an affluent society, with access to birth control
and abortion, and a ready supply of adoptive parents. However, in a
tribal society where people are barely able to subsist, the practice may
be accepted as a way of controlling reproduction or eliminating those
whose deformities would otherwise render them a permanent burden
on the resources of the tribe. Such infanticide may horrify some of us,
who will condemn it as a basic violation of the right to life. But given
the circumstances, one can understand why the tribe acts as it does.
4. Relativism is philosophically inconsistent.
It says don’t judge others, but says this in a universal way. But how can the
wrongness of cultural imperialism be the only universal? And how can we
judge those whose culture encourages them it impose their views on other
My advice: If you really want to justify values like cultural tolerance and
pluralism, you need a better theory, a way of reconciling respect for diversity
with universal values and human rights.
5. Cultural relativism tends to collapse into individual relativism or nihilism.
It runs into trouble when it tries to arbitrate disputes within a culture and show why
its mores should have authority over individual dissidents.
To defend cultural relativism as a normative theory (as opposed to a description of
cultural variation), one must win two debates, fending off both universalism and
individualism. On one hand, advocates of cultural relativism must show that all codes
of ethics are culture-bound, that there is no common standard by which one can
arbitrate between cultures. At the same time, they must show why the values of a
particular culture (or the majority in a society) should have jurisdiction over
individual dissidents. It’s virtually impossible to do both those things at once.
Relevance of cultural relativism to business ethics?
Cultural relativism will be revisited when we address many of the issues that arise in
International Business. If the local practice is to pay bribes is it okay for Western
companies doing business there to follow suit? If the local culture is sexist, should
you cater to his prejudice at the cost of treating your own female employees
stationed there in an unequal manner?
2.2.2 A Response from Moral Psychology
Another response to relativism comes from the work of Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) in
moral psychology. Kohlberg was Jewish and developed his theories in the years following
the Holocaust. He was appalled at the implication of relativism that there is no objective
basis for morally condemning the Nazis. In psychology he was influenced by the
developmental theories of Jean Piaget, who proposed that children pass through certain
states of cognitive development in a certain sequence. Kohlberg argued that there are
certain stages of Moral Development that are common to all people.
Kohlberg’s Six Stages of Moral Reasoning
1. Morality of obedience. Do what you’re told.
2. Morality of instrumental egoism and exchange. Let’s make a deal.
3. Morality of interpersonal concordance. Be considerate, nice, and kind: you’ll
make friends.
4. Morality of law and duty to the social order. Everyone in society is obligated
to and protected by the law.
5. Morality of consensus building procedures. You are obligated to the
arrangements that are agreed to by due process.
6. The morality of nonarbitrary social cooperation. Morality is defined by how
rational and impartial people would ideally organize cooperation.
The first two stages are Pre-Conventional, the middle two are Conventional, and the final
two are Post-Conventional. In Kohlberg’s studies of moral development, most people scored
as Conventional (or lower), with only a small percentage at the Post-Conventional level.
For the sake of comparison, here is a similar model from a author influenced by Kohlberg’s
moral development research. Notice that her characterization of stages 2-4 is similar to
Kohlberg, although stated in layman’s terms, while her concept of stages 5-6 is distinctive.
The Layperson’s All-Purpose Moral Stage-Development Scheme
(from Carol Bly, Changing the Bully Who Rules the World, p.166-167)
1. One is at a pre-moral utterly selfish stage.
2. One is still selfish, but at least one sees that there are others out there, and
one decides they have a right to be selfish, too.
3. Whatever seems to win strokes from the crowd is the highest good.
4. Whatever authority says is right, is right.
5. One has developed one’s own code of rights and wrongs, which one applies
universally – such as honesty, hospitality, murder: one suspects that
everyone in every culture should be honest and hospitable and eschew killing
people. (Stage 5 people may be cultural relativists as far as styles of honesty
and hospitality are concerned, but the underlying principles apply to all.)
6. One has to disobey one’s own code of rights and wrongs in order to make the
best judgement in a given predicament. For example, one would lie to the
Gestapo in order to save innocent lives.
Bly explains: “The reader will notice straight off that the first two levels aren’t moral at all.
The person is still only practical (prudent), thinking of what works as opposed to what is
conscientious. The second two levels are conventional: the person is taking his or her cue
from others in the social or national group. Only the final two stages have any aspect of
what people nowadays call “taking responsibility for oneself.”
How did Kohlberg decide what stage someone was at? He would give them stories or cases,
like Heinz’s Dilemma below, and then assess what sort of moral reasoning the subject
used to arrive at an answer.
2.2.3 Heinz’s Dilemma
Read through the Heinz Dilemma, ask yourself the five question following this case, and
then answer the questions in the opinion poll.
“Many years ago in the United States, a woman was near death from a special kind of
cancer. There was one drug that doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium
that a druggist had recently discovered. The medicine was expensive to manufacture, and
the druggist was changing ten times what it cost him to make it. He paid $200 for the
radium and charged $2000 for a dose of the drug.
The sick women’s husband, Heinz, could not afford that amount and went to everyone he
knew to borrow the money. But he could raise only $1000, half what the drug cost. Heinz
told the druggist that his wife was dying. He asked the druggist if he could buy the medicine
at a reduced price or pay him the full amount later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered
the drug, it cost me a good deal of time and effort, so I’m going to make money from it.”
Heinz became desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. He
was caught.”
Should Heinz have stolen the drug?
Why should Heinz have stolen or not stolen the drug?
Is there good reason for Heinz to steal if he does not love his wife?
Should the judge sentence Heinz or let him off?
What sort of answers do you suppose Kohlberg would see as indicative of a higher or
lower stage of moral development?
Click here to answer the poll questions (anonymously).
To view the results:
1. Click on the “Resources” navigation menu, then ‘Surveys’.
2. Click on the action arrow to the right of the survey title, and choose
3. Click ‘Summary’ and then “Generate HTML Report”.
Click here for a response.
Cautions about Kohlberg
Kohlberg tended to equate being ethical with moral reasoning. Here he resembles Kant
whom we will meet in Unit 3. But moral reasoning is only one aspect of what it takes to be
ethical. Others include:
1. Sensitivity in interpreting the situation.
2. Motivation to prioritize ethical values over other desires.
3. Character, having the courage or discipline to implement one’s decision.
Kohlberg’s ranking of moral stages has also been challenged by a student of his, Carol
Gilligan. She criticized his tendency to equate responses based on universal principles with
high-level moral development while ignoring those based on personal caring and
relationship (Cluster C of responses to the Heinz dilemma). As a result, Kohlberg’s scoring
system tended to rank females on average at a lower stage of moral reasoning than males.
Gilligan defended an ethic of care, which we will discuss further in unit 4.
I brought up Kohlberg, and his idea that there are stages of moral reasoning, in response to
cultural relativism. Kohlberg sought to verify his findings with studies across socio-economic
and cultural divides. But what if we take skepticism about universal moral norms to its
logical conclusion, and question the cultural norms within each society as well? That is our
topic for the next section.
2.3 Why Be Moral?
Why should we be moral or care about moral principles at all? Why not just do what we
want, or do what is best for us? That is the ultimate challenge for the philosophical ethicist.
Subjective Relativism (or Moral Skepticism)
This is the idea that morality is simply a matter of individual opinion or taste, which some
have the power to impose on others. There is no rational or objective basis for ethics. The
subjective relativist does the cultural relativist one better and questions, not merely the
existence of a universal code that can arbitrate between cultures, but the authority of
cultural codes over individuals.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) voiced this position in the words of
one of his atheist characters, that if God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted (Fyodor
Dostoevsky, The Brothers’ Karamazov).
2.3.1 Plato – Glaucon’s Challenge
In philosophy, the classic statement of the “why be moral” problem was posed by Plato
in The Republic. The dialogue opens with several characters trying to define justice and
having the limits of their definitions exposed by Socrates. For example, Thracymachus takes
the position that justice is nothing but the interest of the stronger, those with power, the
rulers. When he grows frustrated with Socrates’questioning and leaves, Glaucon gives his
challenge to morality new life in the famous Ring of Gyges thought experiment.
The excerpt from Plato below is a simplified and modernized version of an old translation,
produced by Jan Narveson of the University of Waterloo. The “357b” is not a page number,
but the standard reference numbering for Plato which you will find in the margins in better
editions of his works.
Does Justice Pay? [Book II of Plato’s Republic, 357b]
Glaucon: I’m sorry about him going off like that, too,
Socrates, for it seems to me that the argument isn’t really
Socrates: It isn’t? Oh, dear – and here I thought it was!
Glaucon: Oh, sure! Hey, we know you better than that,
Socrates! Anyway, I’m troubled. To make my problem clear,
let’s make a distinction.
(1) Some things are good all by themselves, aren’t they? Like
the taste of a good pear – yummy!
You don’t have to refer to anything else to like it.
(2) On the other hand, other things are good not in themselves at all, but only for their
effects. Like, a foul-tasting medicine that cures your bowel ailment – yecch! Nobody would
take such a medicine if it didn’t do that, right?
(3) And then there’s a third sort that is mixed, such as health, which is both pleasant in
itself and good for its results – such as enabling one to get on with one’s life.
Now we can frame my question: in which category is justice: good in itself, good only as a
means, or both?
Socrates: I should think it is the last – good both for its own sake, and also for the other
goods it brings.
Glaucon: That’s what I was hoping you’d say, Socrates. But ordinary people don’t agree
with you, I daresay. They think that justice in itself is a drag! They wouldn’t bother with it if
it weren’t for all the external goods it brings: honors, rewards, the profits of fair business
dealings, and the good opinion of your neighbors, especially.
Socrates: Yes, I realize that is their opinion, all right. But I’m afraid I don’t share their
Glaucon: Somehow, I didn’t think you would! But it seems to me that this view of the
multitude hasn’t really been given its due by Thrasymachus. So I’m going to try to do better
than he did, and give justice a real run for its money. Of course, as you know, I too really
agree with you. But I want to be sure, you know? We don’t want to settle for an illusion or a
mere hunch. So I propose to paint injustice in the most vividly favorable colors I can
manage. O.K.?
Socrates: My, my! Well, this is wonderful, Glaucon. Nothing could please me more, for
after all, this is the most important subject there is, isn’t it? And I can see that you’re all
enthused and will give me a real battle. In fact, I’m frankly quite worried!
Glaucon: We know you too well to believe that, Socrates! But anyway, here goes. What
most people say is that what’s bad about injustice is to suffer from it. When
Thrasymachus’wicked rulers rob or enslave me, that’s bad – bad for me But the guy who
does the wronging – is he suffering? Indeed, not – he’s laughing all the way to the bank
where he deposits his ill-gotten gains. However, ordinary people, seeing the danger of
people like that, band together and make a sort of compact, the purpose of which is to
commit them all against injustice, so that nobody will suffer from it. Still, they only make
such deals because they know they are weak. But what if they could do injustice with
The Ring of Gyges
Glaucon: To examine this more fully, let’s take the old story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in
the service of the king of Lydia. One day while feeding his flock, an amazing thing happened
to him. There was a storm, followed by an earthquake, which opened a great fissure before
him. He clambered down it, and there he beheld a hollow bronze horse fitted with doors.
Opening one of them, he saw inside the corpse of a man with a gold ring on his finger.
Gyges took that ring – with some trepidation, as you can imagine. Putting it on his finger, he
soon forgot he was wearing it, and later showed up at the king’s palace to make his monthly
report on the flocks. While waiting in line with the other shepherds, he chanced to turn the
ring around on his finger and – presto! All of a sudden he became absolutely invisible!
Turning it back to normal restored ordinary visibility. When he realized this, he set to work.
First he got himself appointed as the king’s messenger. As soon as he was in the king’s
chamber, he became invisible, seduced the queen, murdered the king, and so became king
Now suppose that there were two rings, one for a just person, the other for an unjust
person. Would they really behave any differently? The wearer could do anything at all with
impunity – he wouldn’t be kept back by the usual fears of getting caught and punished.
Wouldn’t the formerly just man do the same as the unjust one? Take what he wanted, sleep
with whom he pleased? The man who remained “just” under these circumstances would be
regarded as a simpleton.
To complete our thought-experiment, let’s continue to endow our just man with justice, to
the full. But, let’s deprive him of all the external benefits that usually accompany it. Instead,
let’s give those to the unjust man. Better yet, let’s assume that the just man, though he
really is just, is not thought to be so. He’s falsely convicted of terrible crimes, thrown in
prison, tortured to within an inch of his life, deprived of his property, and reviled by all.
Meanwhile, our unjust chap is really living it up, praised by everybody, heaped with riches
and rewards. And so on – you get the point. Now, Socrates, can you honestly maintain that
the just man still has the better life of the two? Really?
[Now Glaucon’s brother Adeimantus joins in, too:]
Adeimantus: We can go still farther, Socrates. For in addition to what Glaucon has so ably
depicted, let’s also take away the consolation of an after-life. Let’s suppose either that it will
work out just the opposite of what you’d like to have us believe – the just man winds up in
Hell, the unjust in Heaven – or that there simply is no after-life – when we’re done, that’s
that. Wouldn’t the rational person, confronted with all these conditions, choose injustice
over justice? It looks like it. So what you have to do, Socrates, is disregard mere
appearances completely, and prove to us that justice is better than injustice, no matter
what. A tall order!
Video: Gyges Ring movie (2013, 5:16 min. Required)

2.3.2 Activity: Justice and the Ring
image use: source; permission
Click here to answer the poll questions (anonymously). To view the
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In the next section, we’ll look at the possibility of basing morality on prudence. The most
basic way to counter the moral skeptic is to appeal to self-interest, to argue that to satisfy
our basic needs and desires we must respect certain principles of morality.
2.4 Egoism and Morality
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.14-19)
The most promising solution to the “why be moral” problem is if we could link up morality
and self-interest. If being moral was a matter of self-interest, and being good was
demonstrably good for you, we’d have a strong argument why every rational and prudent
human being should be moral. To the extent morality and self-interest can be shown to
coincide, the “why be moral” problem melts away.
Conversely, if morality is one thing, egoism another, and never the twain shall meet, ethics
is faced with a troubling motivation problem. To commit to morality is to sacrifice one’s own
happiness and personal interests, while to pursue the latter is to be a morally bad person.
All in all that’s a pretty sucky choice.
2.4.1 Responses to Egoism
There are three major competing views of the relation between morality and egoism.
A) Egoism is Bad
One view dismisses egoism and self-interest as anti-moral incentives. Selfishness = bad,
altruism = good. Concern with the self and its interests in the main barrier to morality. We
must overcome the ego, transcend our desire for selfish pleasure, if we are to achieve a
truly moral stance in which we act purely out of concern for others or purely out of respect
for the moral law. Kant is one moralist who saw any motivation except respect for the moral
law as somehow tainted.
What are the implications of such a view for business ethics? Not good. Business is about
the pursuit of private profit, about making money. If self-interest is bad, the incentives
fueling capitalist enterprise are largely outside the realm of morality. It is hard to see how
business can be ethical at all. Hence the old joke about business ethics being an oxymoron,
a contradiction in terms. One might end up with a position like Albert Carr’s (see “Is
Business Bluffing Ethical?” in Unit 8), where ethics is relegated to something that exists
outside the realm of business, in the private life of family and church.
B) Building Ethics on Egoism
Another view tries to build ethics on the foundation of self-interest, understood as the
prudent pursuit of security and wealth. Hobbes, who we will discuss in the next unit, falls
into this category. It is also the approach of classical capitalist economics. Consider what
Adam Smith has to say about self-interest and the invisible hand of the market, and how
Voltaire praises the stock exchange.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776):
” It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our
dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves, not to their
humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their
advantage. … Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most
advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage,
indeed, and not that of society, which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage
naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer the employment which is most
advantageous to society. … He intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many
other cases, led by an invisible hand to produce an end which was no part of his intention”
(Smith, 1776).
Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote in Philosophical Letters (1734) of the London Stock
Exchange as a place of peaceful cooperation, in implicit contrast to the religious wars and
intolerance generated by man’s supposedly higher passions:
“Go into the Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you
will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There
the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the
same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.” (This quote can
be found in context here or here.)
For more on Smith and this line of argument, see James Q. Wilson’s article “Capitalism and
Morality,” p.73-75. It is one of the readings for Unit 4.
C) Higher and Lower Egoism
A third view, the most psychologically astute of all, distinguishes between higher and lower
forms of egoism. Here it is recognized that the “self” and its “interests” are fluid, and may
encompass the highest ethical incentives. We need not suppress egoism to be virtuous – we
just need to sublimate it (for example, taking satisfaction in creative works or philanthropy
rather than more narrowly acquisitive pursuits). It is not selfishness as such which leads
people to do wrong and trample on others, but rather selfishness in the service of base and
uneducated desires.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in the Nicomacheam Ethics:
“The good man should be a lover of self (for he will both himself profit by performing noble
acts, and he will benefit his fellows), but the wicked man should not; for he will hurt both
himself and his neighbours, following as he does evil passions” (Aristotle, 1925, 1169a).
Plato, who was Aristotle’s teacher, gives a similar answer to the “why be moral” problem.
The good man would not want to murder, cheat, and steal, even if the Ring of Gyges gave
him power to act with impunity. For the good man has a well-ordered psyche, in which
reason is firmly in control of wayward desires. The good man enjoys the life of the mind,
enjoys acting justly, and enjoys a harmony of the soul. He would not act unjustly to obtain
material wealth or pleasure, even if he could, because he would not regard such as path as
his true interest.
Such distinctions between higher and lower forms of egoism are the best way of defusing
the problem of Psychological Egoism and avoiding many pointless debates. As
Beauchamp & Bowie (p,.14) tell us: “Psychological egoism is the view that everyone is
always motivated to act on his or her perceived self-interest.” It is a descriptive view about
human motivation, and is not easy to refute. However, once we realize that egoism can
express itself in many ways, generous and narrow, idealistic and mercenary, we need not
be troubled by the realization that all our desires and interests flow out of the ego.
2.4.2 Maslow
Abraham Maslow (1906-1970), the humanistic psychologist, proposed a
Hierarchy of Human Needs which is helpful in envisioning the different forms
that egoism can take. Maslow arranged human needs on a scale from the
most basic to the highest. It is only after the basic ones are met that an
individual can focus on the higher ones.
Hierarchy of Human
1. Physiological needs
(food, shelter)
Safety needs
(security, stability,
freedom from fear)
Love needs
intimacy, affection)
Esteem needs
recognition, sense
of achievement)
Self-Actualization (fulfilling one’s potential)
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs corresponds to various ethical theories:
Contract Theory, especially as outlined by Hobbes, is focused on our Safety
needs. The central motives are the fear of death and retaliation, and the
prudential desire to live prosperously while avoiding destructive conflict. It
emphasizes our need for security, self-preservation, and freedom from fear.
We will meet Hobbes in the next unit.
Other ethical theories rely on caring, compassion, love, or benevolence. The
Ethics of Care which we will discuss in unit four is one example. So is
utilitarianism, which requires us to someone care about the well-being of all
humanity. Such theories relate to our Love needs, and our capacity for
sociability and affection.
Video: Why Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs Matters (2019, 6:28 min.)

2.5 Conclusion
In this unit we have distinguished the philosophical approach to ethics from
what it is not, addressed the challenge of cultural relativism, raised the
ancient problem of “why be moral” and discussed the role of egoism in
ethics. We are now ready to examine some particular ethical theories, which
we will do in the next unit.
2.6 References
Aristotle (19251980). The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross,
rev. J.L Ackrill and J.O. Urmson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Beam, Craig (1999). “Liberalism, Globalization, and Cultural
Relativism,” Dialogus 73, 109-125.
Bly, Carol (1996). Changing the Bully Who Rules the World:
Reading and Thinking About Ethics. Minneapolis: Milkweed
Dostoevsky, Fyodor (18801970). The Brothers Karamazov, trans.
Andrew MacAndrew. New York: Bantam.
Maslow, Abraham (1970). Motivation and Personality. 2nd ed. New
York: Harper & Row.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (18801986). The Wanderer and his Shadow,
later added to Human, All Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plato, The Republic (selections), ed. Jan Narveson. Public Domain.
Smith, Adam (1776). The Wealth of Nations (excerpt). Public
Twain, Mark (1884). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New
York: Penguin Books.
Unit Three: Ethical Theories: Contractarian, Utilitarian, and
3.0 Introduction
In Unit 3 we will examine three major ethical theories – Contractarianism
(also known as Contract Theory), Utilitarianism (the consequence and
happiness-based approach of Bentham and Mill), and Deontology (the duty
and rule-based approach of Kant and Ross). Except for Ross, these theories
are foundational in that they attempt to explain the basis of ethics from the
ground up or reduce it to a single unifying principle. In Beauchamp &
Bowie’s terms, we now shift from “Fundamental Problems and Concepts” of
philosophical ethics to “Normative Ethical Theories.” The main difference
between these notes and the text is that here Hobbes’ approach is treated
as one of the competing theories rather than merely an example of egoistic
Learning Outcomes
After completing this unit you will be able to:
Outline and explain the main features of contract theory as
articulated by Hobbes.
Define Hobbes’s concept of the state of nature, his argument for
equality, his argument why it is in our rational self-interest to be
Outline and explain the main features of utilitarian theory as
developed by Bentham and Mill.
Define the greatest happiness principle, distinguish hedonistic vs
pluralist vs preference utilitarianism, and distinguish act vs rule
Critically evaluate the criticism that the theory is too demanding
and the criticism that it permits the unjust sacrifice of
Outline and explain the main features of Kant’s duty-based
approach and Ross’s pluralist deontology.
Define the categorical imperative and evaluate it’s limitations,
and define the concepts of respect for persons and prima facie
Beauchamp, Tom, and Norman Bowie (1997), A Ethical Theory and Business
Practice,” from Ethical Theory and Business , 5th ed, p.19-35.
Carroll, Archie (1996), “Principles of Business Ethics: Their Role in DecisionMaking,” from Annual Editions: Business Ethics 95/96 , p.13-17.
Web Resources
Optional material on Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism (various resources)
J.S Mill, Utilitarianism, ch.2
David Pearce, Brave New World? A Defense of Paradise Engineering
“Does the End Justify the Means?” and “Can Rules Define Morality?”
Questions on each film can be found on the discussion board for Unit 3. You
should have these questions in mind while viewing the films. For maximum
comprehension these should be viewed only after you do the readings and
study the notes for this unit.
Does The End Justify The Means
30 min, 1998 – Series: The Examined Life – Episode # 19
Link to video
Synopsis: Examines how utilitarianism, as conceived by Jeremy Bentham,
considers ethical questions, by looking at a massive dam project being built
deep in the rainforest of Borneo in Malaysia. The dam will destroy traditional
cultures and economies and wildlife habitats, but will also benefit the greater
population of Malaysia. Emphasizes the importance of consequences of
actions and also discusses what is intrinsically valuable, the value of nature
and the deep ecology movement.
Can Rules Define Morality
30 min, 1998 – Series: The Examined Life – Episode # 20
Link to video
Synopsis: Addresses rights-based theories of ethics, particularly that of
Immanuel Kant, and explores some of the implications of his views for
particular issues in ethics.
Glossary Terms
Act Utilitarianism
Categorical Imperative
Pluralist Deontology
Pluralist Utilitarianism
Preference Utilitarianism
Prima Facie Duties
Respect for Persons
Rule Utilitarianism
State of Nature
Persons of Note
Hobbes, Thomas
Kant, Immanuel
Mill, John Stuart
Ross, W.D
Singer, Peter
Due Date Reminder
You should start thinking about Assignment 1, since it is due in week 5.
Check the Roadmap for details. You can skip Assignment 1 and do
Assignment 2 and Assignment 3 instead, but take care not to load too much
work into the final weeks of term.
3.1 Contractarianism (Hobbes)
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.17)
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is the classic exponent of
contract theory. Hobbes was an English political theorist,
author of Leviathan (1651). Hobbes was profoundly
influenced by the religious and civil wars of the period. His
ethical and political theory is all about avoiding the “war of all
against all” of a hypothetical state of nature, and persuading
us to accept a minimal morality that is necessary for civil
peace. Hobbes was tough-minded and cynical about human
nature. He built his theory on the “low but solid ground” of
prudential self-interest and fear of death. From Maslow’s
perspective, Hobbesian theory operates almost entirely at the
level of our basic physiological and safety needs. His basic line of argument
in Leviathan is outlined in the next pages.
3.1.1 Hobbes’ Leviathan
Human beings are Self-interested (or egoistic)
but Rational.
In a State of Nature lacking a
common power or government,
everything would be permitted, there
would be no right or wrong, no
natural conscience.
Equality of Vulnerability. We are
all equal, not because of any highflown ideals, but because of the fact
that “the weakest has strength
enough to kill the strongest”
(Hobbes, 1651, ch.1:13). Everyone
must sleep sometimes. No prudent
person can afford not to take the feelings of others into account.
We have a Mutual Interest in avoiding a State of
Nature because it would be a war of all against all” in which
“the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The
“passions that incline men to peace” are fear of death and desire
for prosperous and comfortable living (Hobbes, 1651, ch.1:13).
Morality is derived from the Social Contract and then enforced
by a sovereign power (“for promises without the sword are but
empty words”). It is a good deal for everyone to escape the
violent anarchy of the state of nature, so Hobbes thinks it is
Rational and Prudent for all self-interested people to obey it.
The power to use force and arbitrate disputes is given by the
social contract to a Sovereign. Hobbes envisioned the
Sovereign as an absolute monarch, as that was the prevailing
political regime of the day. He thought it would be more stable,
less likely to degenerate into civil war, than a democratic
Natural Laws – Hobbes spoke of the following as “natural laws.” However,
they are merely “general rules of reason” which enable us to escape the
State of Nature. The first three suggested by Hobbes are:
Seek Peace, as far as possible, and defend onself when
Be content with as much liberty against others as we would allow
them against us (a version of the Silver Rule, which says don’t
do to others what you don’t want them to do to you).
Keep Covenants, for they are the basis of justice and the social
contract (Hobbes, 1651, ch.1:14-15).
3.1.2 Criticism of Hobbes
One obvious issue is that there never was a historical or pre-historical period
like the Hobbesian state of nature, in which egoistic individuals went at it in
a war of all against all. Human beings are a species of primate, so we’ve
been social creatures since before we evolved into humans. We may be selfinterested (in the uninteresting sense that our desires are always our own),
but most of us care about others to some extent, and care about our nearest
and dearest a great deal. Or at least those us who aren’t sociopaths do.
We were never pre-social individuals who somehow agreed to a contract
forming society. We come into the world as needy, dependent infants, born
into family groups, requiring years of parental care. Sympathy comes as
naturally to us as prudent rationally, though our circle of concern may not be
as broad or as deep as some moralists might like.
Contractarian Response
How would contract theorists respond? They’d say it doesn’t matter whether
anything like the state of nature ever existed. As long as people tend to
think of themselves as free and equal individuals and look for some rational
and prudential reasons for justifying morality and the social order,
contractarian argument has its place. It is particularly useful in two contexts.
1. Contract theory is strong in addressing the “why be moral” issue
and arguing with the moral skeptic. It can show why even an
egoist has good reason for subscribing to the basics of morality,
in which every person agrees not to use force or fraud against
others. In trying to justify a more demanding ethic with an
elaborate system of obligations and virtues, contract theory may
falter, but many of its proponents don’t care, because they are
mainly interested in justifying a liberal or libertarian view of
justice in which individuals have plenty of freedom.
2. This brings us to the second strength of contract theory – its
popularity as a theoretical tool in debates about social justice. I
will have more to say about this when we discuss justice, and
the capitalism versus social debate, in Unit 4.
3.2 Utilitarianism (Bentham & Mill)
(Beauchamp & Bowie p.21-28)
Utilitarianism has been the most influential ethical theory in Englishspeaking philosophy over the past two centuries. Although not without flaws,
it is a handy tool to have in one’s kit when analyzing many ethical issues and
Happiness and Consequences
Utilitarian theory is happiness-based and consequentialist. It holds the ethics
is about promoting happiness, and we should give equal consideration to the
happiness of all. It further holds that the moral worth of actions is measured
by their consequences. Sometimes the more fancy term “consequentialism”
is used to describe utilitarianism, as it is the most influential of all theories
that appeal to consequences.
Bentham and Mill
Utilitarianism was developed by Jeremy Bentham
(1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). You
will learn more about them from the film “Does the
End Justify the Means?” which you should view after
working through the notes and readings for this unit.
The most famous contemporary utilitarian is Peter
Singer (1946- ), an Australian applied ethicist and
defender of animal rights. If you want to read the
most essential chapter from the classic exposition of
utilitarian theory, I suggest J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism,
Single Universal Standard
Utilitarianism is the ultimate in single principle and foundational approaches
to ethics. It seeks to reduce all of morality to a single universal principle that
can be rationally justified. Utilitarian theory holds out the promise that we
can establish a standard of measure for ethics, some quantifiable currency
into which everything can be cashed. Thus it has a strong appeal for those
who want to combat moral prejudices (religious, traditional, etc), those who
want to say:
“So what if people have been doing A for centuries or feel that B is wrong.
Let’s do some hard critical thinking or empirical studies about
how A and B impact human well-being.”
Greatest Happiness Principle
“Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle
(GHP), holds that actions are right in proportion
as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as
they tend to produce the reverse of happiness”
(J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, ch.2, p.137).
According to the GHP, the right action
is that which produces the greatest
amount of happiness for humanity in
This principle seems intuitively persuasive to many, but it is
open to multiple specifications. Just what is this “utility” we are
to maximize? How should we pursue it – directly or indirectly?
How do we deal with ethically troubling conflict between
individual and social utility? We will consider each of these
questions in turn.
3.2.1 Utility – What is the Good? Is it Singular or Plural?
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.23-24)
Utility is happiness – that seems simple enough. But what is happiness
and how do we measure it? There are three views within utilitarian
tradition about how happiness is best understood.
A) Hedonist Utilitarianism – maximize Pleasure
Bentham was a Hedonist Utilitarian. He equated happiness with
pleasure, and wanted the theory to become a calculus of pleasures and
Critics have taken issue, even expressed disgust, at
the equation of human happiness with mere
pleasure. Happiness is about human well-being in
the fullest sense, while pleasure suggests the
physical enjoyment of food, sex, and comfort.
Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New
World (1932) can be read as a critique of a
utilitarian society based on pleasure – in particular
the low-grade pleasures of mood-altering drugs,
mass media, and consumerism, helped along by
genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning for
contentment. It is a society that has taken all the
striving, all the wonder, all the individuality out of life. For a discussion
of the book and utilitarian response, see David Pearce, Brave New
World? A Defense of Paradise Engineering.
(TM-6) Take a Moment
Would you want to live in Brave New World? Why or why not?
Click here for a response.
B) Pluralist Utilitarianism – promote Human Flourishing
For the pluralist, there are many goods or values that make up human
happiness, but no single unit of measure. Human needs are many, the
elements of human flourishing are complex, and values such as
knowledge, moral excellence, love and friendship, etc. have an
intrinsic worth that isn’t reducible to pleasure.
When we discuss Virtue Ethics, you will see that this comes close to
what Aristotle and virtue theorists say about happiness. Pluralism is
less popular with utilitarians, because it compromises the ability of the
theory to provide a single standard of measure.
C) Preference Utilitarianism – satisfy Desire
The third approach, influenced by modern economics, sidesteps the
question of what promotes happiness and equates utility with
satisfying preferences. If A likes doing algebra, E likes eating ice
cream, O prefers sexual orgasms, and V prefers video games, the
preference utilitarian makes no judgment but simply tries to maximize
everyone’s subjective preferences.
But what people want isn’t necessarily good for them, or conducive to
their long-range happiness. Consider children who have been
influenced by advertising to want sugary cereals or junky toys.
Preferences can be warped in others ways too. Consider someone born
into extreme poverty, with no education, and no experience of higher
pleasures or even the idea that they are equal members of society.
Such a person many suffer diminished aspirations, and accept
prejudices and injustice because they don’t know any better.
Unit Three: Ethical Theories: Contractarian, Utilitarian, and Kantian
3.2.2 Utility – How best to pursue it: Directly or Indirectly?
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.24-26)
The most important divide in utilitarian theory is between Act and Rule Utilitarians – those
who think we should always pursue utility directly, and consider whether each action
maximizes happiness, and those who think we should pursue it indirectly, and let ourselves
be guided by rules, principles, and virtues that have passed the utilitarian test.
(A) Act (or Direct) Utilitarianism
Only commandment is “Thou shalt maximize utility.”
But this instruction is too vague to be a useful moral principle. Could you
imagine telling a small child that, and only that? Even for adults there is a lot
of uncertainly about the consequences of our actions. Act utilitarianism leaves
a lot of room for expediency or self-deception when one is tempted to take
the easy road and tries to convince oneself that it may promote utility
Teaching act utilitarianism may be self-defeating from the perspective of
moral psychology, since utility is promoted by the establishment of ethical
rules and practices, or the cultivation of particular virtues and fixed character
One the other hand, if you accept the principle of utility yet allow rules in a
particular case to interfere with maximizing utility, how do you deal with the
accusation of “rule worship” – of irrationally putting rules above human
(B) Rule (or Indirect) Utilitarianism
Maintains the texture of ordinary morality, with its many particular rules,
principles, virtues, and rights.
It is still utilitarian, since utility is the ultimate basis of such ethical practices.
Each rule, principle, virtue, and right that it upholds has been shown to
promote utility.
The rule utilitarian may also appeal directly to utility when faced with a moral
dilemma, a conflict between rules, principles, etc.
Mill, who was an Indirect Utilitarian, wrote:
“To inform a traveller respecting the place of his ultimate destination, is not to forbid the
use of landmarks and direct-posts on the way. The proposition that happiness is the end
and aim of morality, does not mean that no road ought to be laid down to that goal, or that
persons going thither should not be advised to take one direction rather than another.”
(Mill, Utilitarianism, ch.2, p.156.)
Lets unpack this analogy. Our “ultimate destination” is promoting utility. The “landmarks
and direct-posts” are such things as rules, principles, virtues, and rights. We must really on
such signs if we are to travel successfully, even if they do not always point us in shortest
route from point A to point B. But to follow the direct route, as the act utilitarian
recommends, we would have to travel across difficult and unmarked terrain and could easily
lose our way.
Case: Torturing a Terrorist to Prevent an Immanent Attack
We all know that torture is wicked, a violation of human rights. But what if you have just
caught a terrorist who is part of a cell that you know is plotting an attack using weapons of
mass destruction – chemical, nuclear, whatever. You have figured out that the attack is
immanent, just a few hours away. The terrorist you arrested is one of the ringleaders, and
he is not talking. It is suggested that you torture him, using whatever means necessary, to
try to gain information to foil the attack.
Case: Zaccaro’s Conflict of Interest (Beauchamp & Bowie, p.25)
John Zaccaro was appointed guardian of an elderly women’s estate. For his business
purposes, he borrowed $175,000 to be repaid at 12% interest. He did not act with dishonest
intent and may well have earned the woman a larger return on the money than she would
have gained through more conservative investing. Nevertheless, the court found that he
was in conflict of interest, and that “the rule is inflexible that a trustee shall not put himself
in a position where his interest is or may be in conflict with his obligation?”
Click here to answer the poll questions (anonymously).
To view the results:
1. Click on the “Resources” navigation menu, then ‘Surveys’.
2. Click on the action arrow to the right of the survey title, and choose
Click ‘Summary’ and then “Generate HTML Report”.
Click here for a response to the case on torture.
Click here for a response to Zacarro’s case.
3.2.3 Utility – Conflicts between Individual and Social Utility?
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.26-28)
Utilitarianism has been accused of paying insufficient attention to the separateness of
persons. It is eager to promote happiness, but doesn’t really care whose happiness, or
whether some are being sacrificed for others.
(A) Does Utilitarianism permit the unjust sacrifice of individuals for the good of
Case: Condemning an Innocent Man to Prevent a Race Riot
Suppose you are the sole judge in a racially-charged murder trial, and you pronounce a
verdict of guilty or not guilty. The accused, a member of Race X , is widely believed to have
killed a member of Race Y . If he goes free members of Race Y will be outraged and there
almost certainly will be violent riots. Clearly there is a high degree of social disutility in a
guilty verdict. However, there is not sufficient evident to support a verdict of “guilty beyond
a reasonable doubt.”
How much of a problem for Utilitarian theory is our response to this
Rule Utilitarians would have no problem handing
down a “not guilty” verdict in the face of mob
violence, because they support individual rights. Mill
wrote On Liberty, a classic liberal defence of
individual freedom.
Act Utilitarians would remind us that utilitarians must
consider all the negative long-term effects of an
action (loss of trust, erosion of civilized practices,
etc.) before crossing the line into torturing terrorists
or finding innocent men guilty. The cases in which
utilitarianism would recommend shocking violations
of moral norms or individual rights are probably
much fewer than the critics of the theory allege.
(B) Is Utilitarianism too demanding?
Utilitarianism can permit the sacrifice of others, it can also cut the other way and demand
that we sacrifice ourselves or our loved ones. Is the theory too demanding as well as too
permissive? Does it force us to put aside our personal lives, careers, families, and live to
maximize the well-being of humanity?
Case: Saving your Nearest and Dearest
Suppose you had to pick between sacrificing the life of your closest friend, or sacrificing 10
people on the other side of the world. The lives and happiness of the 10 distant strangers
would almost certainly count for more in the utilitarian calculus, even if your friend is an
exceptionally happy and happiness-producing person.
Click here to answer the poll questions (anonymously).
To view the results:
1. Click on the “Resources” navigation menu, then ‘Surveys’.
2. Click on the action arrow to the right of the survey title, and
choose ‘Reports’.
3. Click ‘Summary’ and then “Generate HTML Report”.
Click here for a response about condemning an innocent man.
Click here for a response about saving your nearest and dearest.
We will return to Utilitarianism when discussing distributive justice in units 4, cost-benefit
analysis in the context of the environment and various cases.
3.3 Kantian Deontology
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.28-33)
The traditional arch-rival of Utilitarianism in ethical
theory is Kantian Deontology. While utilitarians
emphasis consequences and promoting human
happiness, Kantians emphasize duty, rules, and
universal principles.
Kant (1724-1804) is known for an approach to morality
that emphasizes acting out of duty and is based on
principles that can be universalized, as well as the
importance of respect for persons.
Deontology – morality based on duty
Right action is that which conforms to a principle.
Obedience to rules is more important than consequences.
Means take priority over ends.
Kant held that morality is good for its own sake, while happiness is
subordinate to morality. For this he is accused of “rule worship” by
utilitarians. He believed it is best if we act out of duty or respect for morality
– not personal inclination, or friendship, or love.
3.3.1 Categorical Imperative
This is the supreme principle of Kantian morality:
“Never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should
become a universal law” (Kant, 1785). In other words, the maxim of my
action should be Universalizable. The categorical imperative is a rationalist
version of the Golden Rule and the “what if everybody did it” argument.
Kant thinks we should follow “maxims” (rules of action based on principles)
like “do not steal.” He thinks that all maxims ought to be universalizable that is, that they should be able to be accepted by all people.
Example of Kantian argumentation
I have a maxim “I will lie whenever it suits my purposes.” This would be an
unacceptable maxim because it cannot be universalized. Imagine trying to
make a universal rule of this type. After awhile nobody would believe
anybody and the entire exercise would be pointless. Lying involves trying to
deceive, but if we all lied all the time people would never believe, and no
one would be deceived. So there is a problem with the logic of the principle –
it is inconsistent. Nothing has been said about utility or happiness, but only
with regard to reason and consistency.
But does the above example really depend purely on logic? Or does it
depend on the potential liar accepting that, consequentially speaking, it is
preferable not to lie than to live in a world where everyone lies whenever
they feel like it? Thus Mill accuses Kant of implicitly relying on appeals to
consequences: “But when he begins to deduce from [the categorical
imperative] any of the actual duties of morality, he fails almost grotesquely,
to show that there would be any contradiction, any logical (not to say
physical) impossibility, in the adoption by all rational beings of the most
outrageously immoral rules of conduct. All he shows is the consequences of
their adoption would be such as no one would choose to incur” (J.S
Mill, Utilitarianism, ch.1, p.134).
One major drawback with the categorical imperative as a supreme principle
of morality is that so much depends on how it is framed. Moreover, not all
maxims that are universalizable are morally acceptable, and not all maxims
that are morally acceptable are universalizable. Let us consider some
Seven Examples
Refusing to repay a debt as promised.
This is a fairly standard Kantian example, and can be dealt with
much like the case of the person who wants to lie whenever it
suits their purposes. To universalize the maxim “people need not
pay their debts unless they feel like it” would undermine the
institution of lending. Even a more limited maxim like “people
need not repay their debts if they are in a tight spot financially”
would be subversive of lending.
Committing suicide.
Suicide is prohibited by Christian morality, and Kant thinks he
can show it to be wrong because it’s not universalizable. But why
should a potential suicide care if everyone followed their
example, especially is they judged life to not be worth living?
Alternately, even people who value life might be able to
universalize the maxim that “when a person is terminally ill,
living a painful diminished existence, it is okay is they voluntarily
choose to hasten death.” Why wouldn’t voluntary euthanasia be
Not having children.
Kant was a bachelor. It is generally held that individuals have no
moral obligation to marry or raise a family. But if everyone
followed Kant’s example, the human race would go extinct.
Bachelorhood is less easily to universalize than euthanasia. So
why isn’t it wrong?
Going to the Swiss Chalet on Weber St. at exactly 6:15 pm
on Friday evening.
Nothing wrong with that, but what if everyone in KitchenerWaterloo did it? Never mind the line up, there would be traffic
chaos. Here we have a perfectly innocent action which clearly is
not universalizable. We don’t worry about universalizability,
because we trust that not everyone will decide to go to the same
outlet of the same restaurant at exactly the same time. Similarly
with the last example, we trust that enough people want to have
children and will have them that we don’t need to exercise moral
coercion on the childless.
Polluting the environment.
Kant did not have anything to say about pollution. That problem
wasn’t on people’s moral radar before the 20th century. In the
old days nature was assumed to be so vast, and industrial
progress so beneficial, that a bit of dirty smoke was no big deal.
The polluter was like the bachelor – not a moral issue, because
we can leave everyone to do what they like and things will work
out. However, today we would condemn the polluter in much the
same terms as we’d condemn the person who tells lies or
ignores debts. Obviously it is tempting for any one company to
pollute, but if the maxim “pollute at will” were universalized it
produces consequences that almost nobody finds acceptable.
Settling all disputes by boxing when you are the
Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
To most people boxing seem like a stupid way to settle disputes,
not to mention unfair to the physically weak.(Yo, you want
custody of the kids, you’ll have to beat me in the ring, bitch!)
But is you’re someone like Mike Tyson such a maxim would seem
quite universalizable. Clearly, not every maxim that someone
finds universalizable is morally right or just.
Lying to the Nazi secret police to save a Jew.
When I ask classes if lying in such a case is justifiable, almost
everyone approves. But Kant wouldn’t approve. As you will see
in the film (“Can Rules Justify Morality”), Kant took an absolutist
position on lying. You shouldn’t lie to a murderer to protect a
potential victim, he argues, because it’s better to avoid the evil
we know (lying), and since we can’t know for sure the
consequences of lying or not lying, it’s better to obey the rule
against lying.
Reflection on examples 3-5 suggests moral rules are only
needed when everyone would be tempted to “cheat” or “shirk” in
one particular way.
Some consideration of consequences seems inevitable in sorting
out which maxims are acceptable and which are not.
Kant fails to address the problem of conflicting duties. In the
example of protecting a innocent fugitive by lying to the secret
police, there is a conflict between not wanting to lie and not
wanting to send an innocent person to their death.
d. 3.3.2 Respect for Persons (Humanity as an End in Itself)
e. Kant says we must “treat humanity, whether
in your own person or in the person of
another, always at the same time as an end
and never simply as a means.” Kant called this
a 2nd Formulation of the Categorical
Imperative, but it seems like a different
principle from the one about formulating
universalazable maxims.
f. What does this mean? In plain terms, Kant is
saying: “it is wrong to use people.” To treat
others merely as a means is to use them, to
treat them as things. Note he does not ask the
impossible and insist that we never treat
others as means. He objects to treating others merely as means,
to ignoring the fact that they are ends in themselves, whose
personhood is worthy of respect.
g. How does this differ from utilitarianism? Utilitarianism insists we
take every person’s utility into account when making decisions.
But it treats utility as an aggregate and is open to using some
individuals as means in the service of the greater end of
maximizing utility. Or at least act utilitarianism takes this
position (rule utilitarianism is more complex). Kantians, on the
other hand, insist there are some things that simply can’t be
done to persons. This fits nicely with the liberal view that
individuals have rights which should never be violated.
h. What are the implications for business? The principle of respect
for persons comes up in business ethics literature more often
than anything else in Kant’s ethics. It is invoked to argue for the
rights of workers and consumers. They should be treated as
ends whose well-being and interests are taken into account, not
just as means to maximizing profit.
3.3.2 Respect for Persons (Humanity as an End in Itself)
Kant says we must “treat humanity, whether in your
own person or in the person of another, always at
the same time as an end and never simply as a
means.” Kant called this a 2nd Formulation of the
Categorical Imperative, but it seems like a different
principle from the one about formulating
universalazable maxims.
What does this mean? In plain terms, Kant is saying:
“it is wrong to use people.” To treat others merely as
a means is to use them, to treat them as things.
Note he does not ask the impossible and insist that
we never treat others as means. He objects to
treating others merely as means, to ignoring the fact that they are ends in
themselves, whose personhood is worthy of respect.
How does this differ from utilitarianism? Utilitarianism insists we take every
person’s utility into account when making decisions. But it treats utility as an
aggregate and is open to using some individuals as means in the service of
the greater end of maximizing utility. Or at least act utilitarianism takes this
position (rule utilitarianism is more complex). Kantians, on the other hand,
insist there are some things that simply can’t be done to persons. This fits
nicely with the liberal view that individuals have rights which should never
be violated.
What are the implications for business? The principle of respect for persons
comes up in business ethics literature more often than anything else in
Kant’s ethics. It is invoked to argue for the rights of workers and consumers.
They should be treated as ends whose well-being and interests are taken
into account, not just as means to maximizing profit.
3.4 Pluralistic Deontology – W.D. Ross
(Beauchamp & Bowie, p.33-35)
W.D. Ross (1877-1971) rejected the single theory approach to ethics – the
attempt, common to both Kant and utilitarians, to reduce ethics to a single
principle or criterion. Ross developed deontology in
a pluralist and intuitionist direction. He thought there are several
independent principles or duties, and that a theory of ethics should fit with
the moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people. His most
famous book, The Right and the Good, was published in 1930. He is also
well-known as a translator of Aristotle. For some reason, Ross’theories find
their way into textbooks on applied ethics more often than into
contemporary debates about ethical theory.
3.4.1 Prima Facie Duties
According to Ross, our obligations are not absolute, they are prima facie.
This is a useful and influential concept that Ross introduced into ethics.
Prima Facie Duties – acts that would be one’s duty unless overridden by
more important moral obligation. Prima Facie literally means “on the face of
it” or ” apparent.” Let’s consider some example below.
Example A: If I contractually agree to teach an evening course, I have an
obligation to show up at 7 pm on the appointed evenings to lecture. But my
obligation is prima facie not absolute. If I come down with the flu, if I’m the
only bystander with a chance to aid a hit and run victim as I walk to class,
my obligation is overridden by a more pressing need or duty.
Example B: Let’s return to the Kantian problem of whether it is right to lie
to a murderer to protect his potential victim. Kant took an absolutist position
on lying, so was led to a conclusion that is hard for most of us to swallow.
But if we regard the obligation to tell the truth as prima facie, it can be
overridden by the more pressing obligation to save an innocent person from
being killed.
Example C: Recall the Heinz Dilemma from Unit 2. If you took the view that
it was okay to steal the drug to save a human life, you were treating the
obligation not to steal as prima facie.
3.4.2 Ross’ List of Duties
Seven Prima Facie Duties
1. Fidelity: The duty to keep promises and fulfil agreements into which one has entered. You
should keep promises because you have made them.
2. Reparation: The duty of restoring to a proper state. Making amends for past wrongful acts.
3. Gratitude: The duty to show thanks to others for their services. Repay others for past benefits.
4. Justice: The duty to distribute rewards or punishments by merit. Fair dealing.
5. Beneficence: The duty to “do good” and improve the condition of others. Active kindness.
6. Self-improvement: The duty to help oneself by improving one’s virtue and intelligence.
7. Non-maleficence: Or non-injury. The duty to avoid doing harm or wrong to others.
Moral Conflict
With Ross, the idea of an exception-free hierarchy of rules and principles has given way to a
recognition of moral conflict. In certain situations, any one of these principles may need to gave
way to more pressing moral considerations The list of duties isn’t even claimed to be complete,
only accurate as far as it goes.
3.5 Conclusion
In this unit we learned about Contractarian, Utilitarian, and Deontological
theories of ethics. We discussed the ideas of Hobbes, Bentham Mill, Kant,
and Ross. In the next unit, we will consider a fourth approach to ethics namely Virtue Ethics – and conclude our introductory tour of ethical theory
with a look at Theories of Justice and the ethical merits of Capitalism versus
3.6 References
Hobbes, Thomas (1651/1962). Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott.
New York: Collier.
Huxley, Aldous (1932). Brave New World. New York: Harper and
Kant, Immanuel (1785/1981). Grounding for the Metaphysics of
Morals, trans. James Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Mill, John Stuart (1991). Utilitarianism in On Liberty and Other
Essays, ed. John Gray. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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o as you would be done by? Don’t get
found out? Follow your intuition? What
ethical principles do managers really use
in business decisions?
conducted by Ronald Berenbeim, for The Conference
Board, identified seven key issues on which at least 80
per cent of his 300 respondents agreed represented ethical
issues in business today. These seven issues comprised
employee conflicts of interest, inappropriate gifts to
corporate personnel, sexual harassment, unauthorised
payments, affirmative action, employee privacy, and
environmental issues [1].
Principles of
The purpose of the current discussion is to describe briefly
how principles of business ethics are used in a decisionmaking process, and to report on a survey that was
conducted among a group of managers and prospective
managers. The survey was designed to present the
respondents with a number of alternative business ethical
principles, and then to ascertain the usefulness or power
of these principles to the respondents. The respondents
then ranked the principles in terms of usefulness to them
in their work. Finally, we describe the consensus that
seems to emerge from the findings of the study.
Their Role in
Decision Making
and an Initial
The Principles Approach
There are several different ways in which managers may
go about improving the ethics of their decision making.
One popular approach, which we shall call The Principles
Approach, is based upon the idea that managers need to
compare their proposed actions, decisions or behaviours
with certain principles of ethics. This raises the question
of what is a principle of business ethics and how might
it be applied?
Archie B. Carroll
Our principles are the springs of our actions; our actions,
the springs of our happiness or misery. Too much care,
therefore, cannot be taken in forming our principles.
A principle of business ethics is a guideline or rule which,
if applied when you are faced with an ethical dilemma,
will assist you in making an ethical decision. Examples
of principles which have been articulated and discussed
by business philosophers and ethicists include the
utilitarian principle, the justice principle and the rights
principle. These principles, along with others, have been
described in detail elsewhere; and our purpose here is
not to add to that body of thought [2].
One clear conclusion that has emerged from society’s and
businesses’ preoccupation with business ethics over the
last decade is that managers at all levels need help in
making ethical decisions in the workplace. It has long been
established that decision making is at the heart of
management. Managers need to make many decisions in
their everyday working lives in which reside questions of
right or wrong, fairness, justice, or, as some business
ethicists say, the allocation of harms and benefits.
In addition to a comparison of personal or corporate
behaviour with an ethical principle is the notion of
standards or norms of acceptability. These norms might
be personal, organisational or societal in terms of their
origin. The process of ethical decision making entails,
therefore, a consideration of (1) the action, behaviour or
decision being considered, (2) standards or norms against
which a comparison might be made, and (3) a principle
of business ethics which provides guidance as to what is
most important in the decision being made: e.g.
utilitarianism, justice, rights. Often, decision making is
made based upon comparisons of (1) and (2) or (1) and (3).
There are dozens of workplace issues in which ethical
questions are now coming to the forefront. A recent survey
Such a principles approach might yield a process of ethical
decision making similar to that shown in Figure 1. Note
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here that the term “ethics screen” is used to imply a
filtering process wherein actions, behaviours or decisions
are compared with standards or norms, and ethical
principles or guides with decision making. The proposed
decision, action or behaviour then “passes” or “fails”
the ethics screen, and results in the course of action being
deemed acceptable or unacceptable.
The Survey
The purpose of the survey described here was to see if
prospective managers (senior level business students) and
actual practising managers would reach any kind of
consensus on what principles of business ethics they found
useful. On separate occasions, the two groups were
presented with the same set of descriptions of ethical
principles which were adapted from earlier work by T.K.
Das and Steiner and Steiner[3]. Thirty-four business
students and 88 middle managers ranked the principles
presented in Figure 2. The eleven principles listed were
extracted from 14 principles studied earlier by Das.
Figure 3 presents the ethical principles that were
considered most important by the 88 managers. Included
in the ranking is a brief statement as to what each means.
These are reported here first because they come from
actual practising managers and must therefore be deemed
most credible.
Ranking Ethical Principles
Below are listed 11 different ethical principles that may be used in business decision making. Rank them in terms of how powerful
or useful they would be for you.
1. You should not adopt principles of action unless they can, without inconsistency, be
adopted by everyone else.
2. Individuals should act to further their self-interests
so long as they do not violate the law.
3. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;
4. If it feels good, do it.
5. If you are comfortable with an action or decision after asking
yourself whether you would mind if all your associates, friends, and family were
aware of it, then you should act or decide.
6. You do what your “gut feeling” tells you to do.
7. If the end justifies the means, then you should act.
8. You should take whatever advantage you are strong enough and powerful
enough to take without respect for ordinary social conventions and laws.
9. This is an age of large-scale organisations — be loyal to the organisation.
10. You should do only that which can be explained before a
committee of your professional peers.
11. You should follow the principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”.
Name of Principle*
Categorical Imperative
Conventionalist Ethic
Golden Rule
Hedonistic Ethic
Disclosure Rule
Intuition Ethic
Means-Ends Ethic
Might-Equals-Right Ethic
Organisation Ethic
Professional Ethic
Utilitarian Principle
* The names of these principles were not included on the survey sheet. They are supplied here just for purposes of explanation.
EthicalPrinciples Ranked According to Figure
Value by Practising Managers. N=88
Do unto others as you would have them
do unto you.
Disclosure Rule
Golden Rule
Disclosure Rule
Intuition Ethic
Categorical Imperative
Professional Ethic
Utilitarian Ethic
Proportionality Ethic
Organisation Ethic
The Intuition Ethic
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You do what your “gut feeling” tells you
to do.
Ranking of Ethical Principles by Three
The Golden Rule
If you are comfortable w i t h an action or
decision after asking yourself whether
you would mind if all your associations,
friends, and family were aware of it, then
you should act or decide.
The Categorical Imperative
Students Students
n=34 n=265
* Not on Managers or SE survey
You should not adopt principles of action
unless they can, w i t h o u t inconsistency,
be adopted by everyone else.
(tie) 5.
The Professional Ethic
You should do only that which can be
explained before a committee of your
professional peers.
(tie) 6.
The Utilitarian Principle
You should follow the principle of ” t h e
greatest good for the greatest number.”
Figure 4 summarises the ranking done by the managers,
along with the ranking done by a sample of business
students from a large Southeastern university. Also
included is the ranking which was done in the T.K. Das
study among a large group of Southwestern business
students. The researcher regrets that the surveys of
managers and Southeastern students did not include all
of the principles listed by Das, but most of them (11 out
of 14) were on the survey and this provides some useful
Some Consensus Emerges
Several interesting findings emerge from these three
surveys. Most notable is the fact that there is consensus
among the three groups on the Golden Rule and the
Disclosure Rule as the top two ranking ethical principles
among those considered. Further, the Intuition Ethic and
Categorical Imperative were ranked third and fourth by
the managerial group and drew strong support from both
student groups. Likewise the Professional Ethic and
Utilitarian Ethic, which tied for fifth by the Managers, were
strongly supported by the SE student group and partially
supported by the SW group. The SW group placed two
principles in the fourth and fifth position which were not
on the survey of the other two groups.
It is worth noting that the Golden Rule — “Do unto others
are you would have them do unto you” — is a fairly
straightforward, easy to understand principle. Further, it
guides the individual decision maker to behaviour, actions
or decisions which he or she should be able to assess
as acceptable or not based upon some direct comparisons
with what he or she would consider ethical or fair. There
is nothing esoteric about this. All it requires — and this
is sometimes seen by some as difficult — is that the
decision maker affords others the same kind and degree
of consideration that he or she would think is right in
similar personal circumstances.
The Golden Rule is among
the oldest of the principles
of living â–¡
The Golden Rule simply argues that, if you want to be
treated fairly, treat others fairly; if you want to be told
the truth, tell others the truth; if you want your privacy
protected, respect the privacy of others. The key is
impartiality. According to this principle we are not to make
an exception of ourselves. In essence, then, the Golden
Rule personalises business relations and brings the ideal
of fairness into business deliberations[4].
Perhaps the reason the Golden Rule is so popular is that
it is rooted in history and is among the oldest of the
principles of living. Further, it is universal in the sense
that it requires no specific religious beliefs or faith. Almost
since time began, religious leaders and philosophers have
advocated the Golden Rule in one form or another. The
following is illustrative [5]:
— The Hindu Mahabharata professes: “Men gifted
with intelligence and purified souls should always
treat others as they themselves wish to be
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— Confucius summed up the rules of life as follows:
‘ ‘What you do not want done to yourself, do not
do to others”.
— In the Bible Jesus taught in the book of Matthew:
“So in every thing, do to others what you would
have them do to you”.
— Rabbi Hillel, when asked by a supplicant to be
taught the Law, answered: “What thou thyself
hatest, do not to thy neighbour. That is the whole
Law. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
It is easy to see, therefore, why Martin Luther could say
that the Golden Rule is part of the “natural law”, because
it is a moral rule which anyone can recognise without any
particular religious teaching. That this thousands-of-yearsold wisdom should surface as the number one ethical
principle is indeed suggestive of the enduring
understanding of how humanity should treat humanity.
Some things just never change, it is said.
Intuition is the
immediate thought we
have before rational thought
or inference D
the Intuition Ethic. Whereas the previous two principles
required some degree of rational thought about how the
decision maker would like to be treated and how others
might regard the proposed action, the intuition ethic is driven
by one’s quick and ready insight. Intuition, sometimes
thought of as “gut feeling”, is the immediate thought we
have before engaging in rational thought or inference.
A person should
not adopt principles unless
they can be adopted by
everyone else D
Intuition is probably the result of an endowment of moral
consciousness we each have, combined with experience
and wisdom gained over time. It is a kind of awareness
that might be the sum total of all that the decision maker
is or has experienced. It is very possible that the intuition
ethic might yield an evaluation of a proposed action that
embodies considerations of the Golden Rule and the
Disclosure Rule as well as other principles. Managers are
often driven to make quick decisions, and it is tempting
to believe that they go on their own “gut feeling” when
time does not permit a more careful assessment based
upon other principles or guidelines.
Technically, Immanuel Kant stated the C ategorical
Imperative as follows: “Act only according to that maxim
by which you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law.” Stated in another way, this
principle argues that a person should not adopt principles
of action or behaviour unless they can, without
inconsistency, be adopted by everyone else. This principle
is useful in terms of the manager searching for universal
guidelines of consistency, but it really does not provide
pointed guidance in a decision making situation. In a sense
the categorical imperative is an abstract guideline that
could be imposed upon other, more useful, principles.
The Disclosure Rule, which could be seen as
complementary to the Golden Rule, moves the focus of
attention to how others whose opinions you respect would
regard your decision, action or behaviour. According to
the Disclosure Rule, you are probably on a sound ethical
footing if you are still comfortable with a proposed action
or decision after asking yourself whether you would mind
if all your associates, friends, and family were aware of
it. The concept of public exposure is a powerful tool; and,
though it does not provide ironclad assurance that you are
acting ethically, it does provide some strong indication of
how the action is likely to be viewed.
The Professional Ethic holds that you should do only that
which can be explained before a committee of your
professional peers. In a sense this is a more restricted
version of the disclosure rule and, though useful, is not
as rigorous because of the possibility that those in similar
areas of work might be more understanding of ethical
lapses than the general public. In other words, you could
more easily find someone in your own profession or line
of work to agree with your proposed action than perhaps
among your friends or family who are not immediately
familiar with the constraints you are up against.
The third-ranked principle by the managers studied was
Finally the Utilitarian Principle, which argues for the
greatest good for the greatest number, is idealistic,
somewhat abstract, but quite difficult to apply. How is one
ever able to determine what decision or course of action
reflects the greatest good for the greatest number? This
principle is extremely attractive on first thought, but is
very difficult to apply and use.
Summing Up
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There are a number of useful ethical principles around
should managers wish to use them. First, managers must
wish to use them. All the principles in existence will not
suffice if the individual leader or decision maker is not
interested in being ethical. An underlying assumption to
the use of the ethical principles is, then, that the manager
wishes to do the right thing.
A process of ethical decision making was presented, and
this entailed the manager subjecting his or her proposed
action to an ethics screen composed of an assortment of
ethical principles and standards of acceptability. The
process should help the manager to think through or
“model” what the decision making process should look
like when ethical considerations are included. There is
no guarantee that the ethics screen will filter out all
proposed actions that may be poorly formulated. It does,
however, add a measure of ethical process to decision
making. It requires the manager to “think ethically” when
making decisions.
Finally, a small set of ethical principles rose to the surface
as most valuable when considered by a group of practising
managers and soon-to-be-managers. The three principles
which were ranked highest were quite straightforward and
easily understood — treat others as you want to be
treated, do only what you would feel comfortable with if
those whom you care most about knew it, and follow your
intuition. We should add in closing, however, that the
modern concern for principles of ethical decision making
that are neatly wrapped in a ready-to-use package cannot
really be met. Though we desire to have such precision
and closure, with no loose ends or puzzling leftovers, we
simply cannot identify or agree upon rules, slogans,
proverbs or principles that will eliminate all thought and
deep introspection.
There are ethical principles that managers can agree upon
as useful for management decision making. The real
challenge seems to be in their use. As Herman Nelson
once said ” . . . i t is in the application of principles which
anyone can understand that management proves itself good
or bad”. This quite certainly applies here. As so often
is the case with successful managers or organisations, the
acid test is with implementation.
1. Berenbeim, R.E., Corporate Ethics, The Conference
Board, New York, 1987, p. 3.
2. De George, R.T., Business Ethics, 2nd Ed., Macmillan,
New York, 1986.
3. Steiner, G.A. and Steiner, J.F., Business, Government and
Society: A Managerial Perspective, Random House, New
York, 1980, pp. 383-9; Das, T.K., “Ethical Preferences
among Business Students: A Comparative Study of
Fourteen Ethical Principles”, Southern Management
Association Proceedings, 13-16 November, 1985, pp. 11-12.
4. Barry, V., Moral Issues in Business, Wadsworth,
Belmont, California, 1979, pp. 50-51.
5. Shinn, R.L., The Sermon on the Mount, United Church
Press, Philadelphia, 1962, pp. 76-7.
6. The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business ofLife,
Forbes, New York, 1976, p. 356.
Dr Archie B. Carroll is Professor of Management and holder of the Robert W. Scherer Chair of Management and Corporate
Public Affairs at the University of Georgia, USA.
Application Questions
(1) Complete the ranking of ethical principles exercise (Figure 2 in the article). Do these principles vary according
to the situation?
(2) Outline your personal ethical standpoint on privacy, environmental issues and unauthorised payments. Do they
always coincide with practice in your organisation?
(3) Should principles ever be compromised?
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