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2.2 Major Ethical Perspectives

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the various major theories about ethics in human decision making.
  2. Begin considering how the major theories about ethics apply to difficult choices in life and business.

There are several well-respected ways of looking at ethical issues. Some of them have been around for centuries. It is important to know that many who think a lot about business and ethics have deeply held beliefs about which perspective is best. Others would recommend considering ethical problems from a variety of different perspectives. Here, we take a brief look at (1) utilitarianism, (2) deontology, (3) social justice and social contract theory, and (4) virtue theory. We are leaving out some important perspectives, such as general theories of justice and “rights” and feminist thought about ethics and patriarchy.


UtilitarianismThe theory that the “right” moral act is the one that produces the greatest good for society. is a prominent perspective on ethics, one that is well aligned with economics and the free-market outlook that has come to dominate much current thinking about business, management, and economics. Jeremy Bentham is often considered the founder of utilitarianism, though John Stuart Mill (who wrote On Liberty and Utilitarianism) and others promoted it as a guide to what is good. Utilitarianism emphasizes not rules but results. An action (or set of actions) is generally deemed good or right if it maximizes happiness or pleasure throughout society. Originally intended as a guide for legislators charged with seeking the greatest good for society, the utilitarian outlook may also be practiced individually and by corporations.

Bentham believed that the most promising way to obtain agreement on the best policies for a society would be to look at the various policies a legislature could pass and compare the good and bad consequences of each. The right course of action from an ethical point of view would be to choose the policy that would produce the greatest amount of utility, or usefulness. In brief, the utilitarian principle holds that an action is right if and only if the sum of utilities produced by that action is greater than the sum of utilities from any other possible act.

This statement describes “act utilitarianism”—which action among various options will deliver the greatest good to society? “Rule utilitarianism” is a slightly different version; it asks, what rule or principle, if followed regularly, will create the greatest good?

Notice that the emphasis is on finding the best possible results and that the assumption is that we can measure the utilities involved. (This turns out to be more difficult that you might think.) Notice also that “the sum total of utilities” clearly implies that in doing utilitarian analysis, we cannot be satisfied if an act or set of acts provides the greatest utility to us as individuals or to a particular corporation; the test is, instead, whether it provides the greatest utility to society as a whole. Notice that the theory does not tell us what kinds of utilities may be better than others or how much better a good today is compared with a good a year from today.

Whatever its difficulties, utilitarian thinking is alive and well in US law and business. It is found in such diverse places as cost-benefit analysis in administrative and regulatory rules and calculations, environmental impact studies, the majority vote, product comparisons for consumer information, marketing studies, tax laws, and strategic planning. In management, people will often employ a form of utility reasoning by projecting costs and benefits for plan X versus plan Y. But the issue in most of these cost-benefit analyses is usually (1) put exclusively in terms of money and (2) directed to the benefit of the person or organization doing the analysis and not to the benefit of society as a whole.

An individual or a company that consistently uses the test “What’s the greatest good for me or the company?” is not following the utilitarian test of the greatest good overall. Another common failing is to see only one or two options that seem reasonable. The following are some frequent mistakes that people make in applying what they think are utilitarian principles in justifying their chosen course of action:

  1. Failing to come up with lots of options that seem reasonable and then choosing the one that has the greatest benefit for the greatest number. Often, a decision maker seizes on one or two alternatives without thinking carefully about other courses of action. If the alternative does more good than harm, the decision maker assumes it’s ethically okay.
  2. Assuming that the greatest good for you or your company is in fact the greatest good for all—that is, looking at situations subjectively or with your own interests primarily in mind.
  3. Underestimating the costs of a certain decision to you or your company. The now-classic Ford Pinto case demonstrates how Ford Motor Company executives drastically underestimated the legal costs of not correcting a feature on their Pinto models that they knew could cause death or injury. General Motors was often taken to task by juries that came to understand that the company would not recall or repair known and dangerous defects because it seemed more profitable not to. In 2010, Toyota learned the same lesson.
  4. Underestimating the cost or harm of a certain decision to someone else or some other group of people.
  5. Favoring short-term benefits, even though the long-term costs are greater.
  6. Assuming that all values can be reduced to money. In comparing the risks to human health or safety against, say, the risks of job or profit losses, cost-benefit analyses will often try to compare apples to oranges and put arbitrary numerical values on human health and safety.

Rules and Duty: Deontology

In contrast to the utilitarian perspective, the deontological view presented in the writings of Immanuel Kant purports that having a moral intent and following the right rules is a better path to ethical conduct than achieving the right results. A deontologist like Kant is likely to believe that ethical action arises from doing one’s duty and that duties are defined by rational thought. Duties, according to Kant, are not specific to particular kinds of human beings but are owed universally to all human beings. Kant therefore uses “universalizing“ as a form of rational thought that assumes the inherent equality of all human beings. It considers all humans as equal, not in the physical, social, or economic sense, but equal before God, whether they are male, female, Pygmy, Eskimoan, Islamic, Christian, gay, straight, healthy, sick, young, or old.

For Kantian thinkers, this basic principle of equality means that we should be able to universalize any particular law or action to determine whether it is ethical. For example, if you were to consider misrepresenting yourself on a resume for a particular job you really wanted and you were convinced that doing so would get you that job, you might be very tempted to do so. (What harm would it be? you might ask yourself. When I have the job, I can prove that I was perfect for it, and no one is hurt, while both the employer and I are clearly better off as a result!) Kantian ethicists would answer that your chosen course of action should be a universal one—a course of action that would be good for all persons at all times. There are two requirements for a rule of action to be universal: consistency and reversibility. Consider reversibility: if you make a decision as though you didn’t know what role or position you would have after the decision, you would more likely make an impartial one—you would more likely choose a course of action that would be most fair to all concerned, not just you. Again, deontologyA theory that judges the morality of choices not by results (or “goods”) but by adherence to moral norms. The duty to act in accord with these norms is one that bears no relation to the expected consequences of the action. requires that we put duty first, act rationally, and give moral weight to the inherent equality of all human beings.

In considering whether to lie on your resume, reversibility requires you to actively imagine both that you were the employer in this situation and that you were another well-qualified applicant who lost the job because someone else padded his resume with false accomplishments. If the consequences of such an exercise of the imagination are not appealing to you, your action is probably not ethical.

The second requirement for an action to be universal is the search for consistency. This is more abstract. A deontologist would say that since you know you are telling a lie, you must be willing to say that lying, as a general, universal phenomenon, is acceptable. But if everyone lied, then there would be no point to lying, since no one would believe anyone. It is only because honesty works well for society as a whole and is generally practiced that lying even becomes possible! That is, lying cannot be universalized, for it depends on the preexistence of honesty.

Similar demonstrations can be made for actions such as polluting, breaking promises, and committing most crimes, including rape, murder, and theft. But these are the easy cases for Kantian thinkers. In the gray areas of life as it is lived, the consistency test is often difficult to apply. If breaking a promise would save a life, then Kantian thought becomes difficult to apply. If some amount of pollution can allow employment and the harm is minimal or distant, Kantian thinking is not all that helpful. Finally, we should note that the well-known Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” emphasizes the easier of the two universalizing requirements: practicing reversibility (“How would I like it if someone did this to me?”).

Social Justice Theory and Social Contract Theory

Social justice theorists worry about “distributive justice”—that is, what is the fair way to distribute goods among a group of people? Marxist thought emphasizes that members of society should be given goods to according to their needs. But this redistribution would require a governing power to decide who gets what and when. Capitalist thought takes a different approach, rejecting any giving that is not voluntary. Certain economists, such as the late Milton Friedman (see the sidebar in Section 2.4 "Corporations and Corporate Governance") also reject the notion that a corporation has a duty to give to unmet needs in society, believing that the government should play that role. Even the most dedicated free-market capitalist will often admit the need for some government and some forms of welfare—Social Security, Medicare, assistance to flood-stricken areas, help for AIDs patients—along with some public goods (such as defense, education, highways, parks, and support of key industries affecting national security).

People who do not see the need for public goodsGoods that are useful to society (parks, education, national defense, highways) that would ordinarily not be produced by private enterprise. Public goods require public revenues (taxes) and political support to be adequately maintained. (including laws, court systems, and the government goods and services just cited) often question why there needs to be a government at all. One response might be, “Without government, there would be no corporations.” Thomas Hobbes believed that people in a “state of nature” would rationally choose to have some form of government. He called this the social contractThe idea that people in a civil society have voluntarily given up some of their freedoms to have ordered liberty with the assistance of a government that will support that liberty. Hobbes and Locke are generally regarded as the preeminent social contract theorists., where people give up certain rights to government in exchange for security and common benefits. In your own lives and in this course, you will see an ongoing balancing act between human desires for freedom and human desires for order; it is an ancient tension. Some commentators also see a kind of social contract between corporations and society; in exchange for perpetual duration and limited liability, the corporation has some corresponding duties toward society. Also, if a corporation is legally a “person,” as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 2010, then some would argue that if this corporate person commits three felonies, it should be locked up for life and its corporate charter revoked!

Modern social contract theorists, such as Thomas Donaldson and Thomas Dunfee (Ties that Bind, 1999), observe that various communities, not just nations, make rules for the common good. Your college or school is a community, and there are communities within the school (fraternities, sororities, the folks behind the counter at the circulation desk, the people who work together at the university radio station, the sports teams, the faculty, the students generally, the gay and lesbian alliance) that have rules, norms, or standards that people can buy into or not. If not, they can exit from that community, just as we are free (though not without cost) to reject US citizenship and take up residence in another country.

Donaldson and Dunfee’s integrative social contracts theory stresses the importance of studying the rules of smaller communities along with the larger social contracts made in states (such as Colorado or California) and nation-states (such as the United States or Germany). Our Constitution can be seen as a fundamental social contract.

It is important to realize that a social contract can be changed by the participants in a community, just as the US Constitution can be amended. Social contract theory is thus dynamic—it allows for structural and organic changes. Ideally, the social contract struck by citizens and the government allows for certain fundamental rights such as those we enjoy in the United States, but it need not. People can give up freedom-oriented rights (such as the right of free speech or the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures) to secure order (freedom from fear, freedom from terrorism). For example, many citizens in Russia now miss the days when the Kremlin was all powerful; there was less crime and more equality and predictability to life in the Soviet Union, even if there was less freedom.

Thus the rights that people have—in positive law—come from whatever social contract exists in the society. This view differs from that of the deontologists and that of the natural-law thinkers such as Gandhi, Jesus, or Martin Luther King Jr., who believed that rights come from God or, in less religious terms, from some transcendent moral order.

Another important movement in ethics and society is the communitarian outlook. Communitarians emphasize that rights carry with them corresponding duties; that is, there cannot be a right without a duty. Interested students may wish to explore the work of Amitai Etzioni. Etzioni was a founder of the Communitarian Network, which is a group of individuals who have come together to bolster the moral, social, and political environment. It claims to be nonsectarian, nonpartisan, and international in scope.

The relationship between rights and duties—in both law and ethics—calls for some explanations:

  1. If you have a right of free expression, the government has a duty to respect that right but can put reasonable limits on it. For example, you can legally say whatever you want about the US president, but you can’t get away with threatening the president’s life. Even if your criticisms are strong and insistent, you have the right (and our government has the duty to protect your right) to speak freely. In Singapore during the 1990s, even indirect criticisms—mere hints—of the political leadership were enough to land you in jail or at least silence you with a libel suit.
  2. Rights and duties exist not only between people and their governments but also between individuals. Your right to be free from physical assault is protected by the law in most states, and when someone walks up to you and punches you in the nose, your rights—as set forth in the positive law of your state—have been violated. Thus other people have a duty to respect your rights and to not punch you in the nose.
  3. Your right in legal terms is only as good as your society’s willingness to provide legal remedies through the courts and political institutions of society.

A distinction between basic rights and nonbasic rights may also be important. Basic rights may include such fundamental elements as food, water, shelter, and physical safety. Another distinction is between positive rights (the right to bear arms, the right to vote, the right of privacy) and negative rights (the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to be free of cruel or unusual punishments). Yet another is between economic or social rights (adequate food, work, and environment) and political or civic rights (the right to vote, the right to equal protection of the laws, the right to due process).

Aristotle and Virtue Theory

Virtue theoryAristotle’s perspective on finding happiness through the application of reason in human affairs advises continual practice to develop habits of virtuous moral character. In a modern setting, deliberating on core values and their application to individual and corporate ethical dilemmas and adhering to the recommendations of core values analysis would provide similar practice., or virtue ethics, has received increasing attention over the past twenty years, particularly in contrast to utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethics. Virtue theory emphasizes the value of virtuous qualities rather than formal rules or useful results. Aristotle is often recognized as the first philosopher to advocate the ethical value of certain qualities, or virtues, in a person’s character. As LaRue Hosmer has noted, Aristotle saw the goal of human existence as the active, rational search for excellence, and excellence requires the personal virtues of honesty, truthfulness, courage, temperance, generosity, and high-mindedness. This pursuit is also termed “knowledge of the good” in Greek philosophy.LaRue Tone Hosmer, Moral Leadership in Business (Chicago: Irwin Professional Publishing, 1994), 72.

Aristotle believed that all activity was aimed at some goal or perceived good and that there must be some ranking that we do among those goals or goods. Happiness may be our ultimate goal, but what does that mean, exactly? Aristotle rejected wealth, pleasure, and fame and embraced reason as the distinguishing feature of humans, as opposed to other species. And since a human is a reasoning animal, happiness must be associated with reason. Thus happiness is living according to the active (rather than passive) use of reason. The use of reason leads to excellence, and so happiness can be defined as the active, rational pursuit of personal excellence, or virtue.

Aristotle named fourteen virtues: (1) courage, particularly in battle; (2) temperance, or moderation in eating and drinking; (3) liberality, or spending money well; (4) magnificence, or living well; (5) pride, or taking pleasure in accomplishments and stature; (6) high-mindedness, or concern with the noble rather than the petty; (7) unnamed virtue, which is halfway between ambition and total lack of effort; (8) gentleness, or concern for others; (9) truthfulness; (10) wit, or pleasure in group discussions; (11) friendliness, or pleasure in personal conduct; (12) modesty, or pleasure in personal conduct; (13) righteous indignation, or getting angry at the right things and in the right amounts; and (14) justice.

From a modern perspective, some of these virtues seem old-fashioned or even odd. Magnificence, for example, is not something we commonly speak of. Three issues emerge: (1) How do we know what a virtue is these days? (2) How useful is a list of agreed-upon virtues anyway? (3) What do virtues have to do with companies, particularly large ones where various groups and individuals may have little or no contact with other parts of the organization?

As to the third question, whether corporations can “have” virtues or values is a matter of lively debate. A corporation is obviously not the same as an individual. But there seems to be growing agreement that organizations do differ in their practices and that these practices are value driven. If all a company cares about is the bottom line, other values will diminish or disappear. Quite a few books have been written in the past twenty years that emphasize the need for businesses to define their values in order to be competitive in today’s global economy.James O’Toole and Don Mayer, eds., Good Business: Exercising Effective and Ethical Leadership (London: Routledge, 2010).

As to the first two questions regarding virtues, a look at Michael Josephson’s core values may prove helpful.

Josephson’s Core Values Analysis and Decision Process

Michael Josephson, a noted American ethicist, believes that a current set of core values has been identified and that the values can be meaningfully applied to a variety of personal and corporate decisions.

To simplify, let’s say that there are ethical and nonethical qualities among people in the United States. When you ask people what kinds of qualities they admire in others or in themselves, they may say wealth, power, fitness, sense of humor, good looks, intelligence, musical ability, or some other quality. They may also value honesty, caring, fairness, courage, perseverance, diligence, trustworthiness, or integrity. The qualities on the second list have something in common—they are distinctively ethical characteristics. That is, they are commonly seen as moral or ethical qualities, unlike the qualities on the first list. You can be, like the Athenian Alcibiades, brilliant but unprincipled, or, like some political leaders today, powerful but dishonest, or wealthy but uncaring. You can, in short, have a number of admirable qualities (brilliance, power, wealth) that are not per se virtuous. Just because Harold is rich or good-looking or has a good sense of humor does not mean that he is ethical. But if Harold is honest and caring (whether he is rich or poor, humorous or humorless), people are likely to see him as ethical.

Among the virtues, are any especially important? Studies from the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, California, have identified six core valuesValues that are generally recognized as positive ethical characteristics of an individual or a business organization. People may have strong views about other kinds of ethical values, but core values are more widely accepted. in our society, values that almost everyone agrees are important to them. When asked what values people hold dear, what values they wish to be known by, and what values they wish others would exhibit in their actions, six values consistently turn up: (1) trustworthiness, (2) respect, (3) responsibility, (4) fairness, (5) caring, and (6) citizenship.

Note that these values are distinctly ethical. While many of us may value wealth, good looks, and intelligence, having wealth, good looks, and intelligence does not automatically make us virtuous in our character and habits. But being more trustworthy (by being honest and by keeping promises) does make us more virtuous, as does staying true to the other five core values.

Notice also that these six core values share something in common with other ethical values that are less universally agreed upon. Many values taught in the family or in places of worship are not generally agreed on, practiced, or admired by all. Some families and individuals believe strongly in the virtue of saving money or in abstaining from alcohol or sex prior to marriage. Others clearly do not, or at least don’t act on their beliefs. Moreover, it is possible to have and practice core ethical values even if you take on heavy debt, knock down several drinks a night, or have frequent premarital sex. Some would dispute this, saying that you can’t really lead a virtuous life if you get into debt, drink heavily, or engage in premarital sex. But the point here is that since people do disagree in these areas, the ethical traits of thrift, temperance, and sexual abstinence do not have the unanimity of approval that the six core values do.

The importance of an individual’s having these consistent qualities of character is well known. Often we remember the last bad thing a person did far more than any or all previous good acts. For example, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton are more readily remembered by people for their last, worst acts than for any good they accomplished as public servants. As for a company, its good reputation also has an incalculable value that when lost takes a great deal of time and work to recover. Shell, Nike, and other companies have discovered that there is a market for morality, however difficult to measure, and that not paying attention to business ethics often comes at a serious price. In the past fifteen years, the career of ethics and compliance officer has emerged, partly as a result of criminal proceedings against companies but also because major companies have found that reputations cannot be recovered retroactively but must be pursued proactively. For individuals, Aristotle emphasized the practice of virtue to the point where virtue becomes a habit. Companies are gradually learning the same lesson.

Key Takeaway

Throughout history, people have pondered what it means “to do what is right.” Some of the main answers have come from the differing perspectives of utilitarian thought; duty-based, or deontological, thought; social contract theory; and virtue ethics.


XYZ Motor Corporation begins to get customer complaints about two models of its automobiles. Customers have had near-death experiences from sudden acceleration; they would be driving along a highway at normal speed when suddenly the car would begin to accelerate, and efforts to stop the acceleration by braking fail to work. Drivers could turn off the ignition and come to a safe stop, but XYZ does not instruct buyers of its cars to do so, nor is this a common reaction among drivers who experience sudden acceleration.

Internal investigations of half a dozen accidents in US locations come to the conclusion that the accidents are not being caused by drivers who mistake the gas pedal for the brake pedal. In fact, there appears to be a possible flaw in both models, perhaps in a semiconductor chip, that makes sudden acceleration happen. Interference by floor mats and poorly designed gas pedals do not seem to be the problem.

It is voluntary to report these incidents to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), but the company decides that it will wait awhile and see if there are more complaints. Recalling the two models so that local dealers and their mechanics could examine them is also an option, but it would be extremely costly. Company executives are aware that quarterly and annual profit-and-loss statements, on which their bonuses depend, could be decisively worse with a recall. They decide that on a cost-benefit basis, it makes more sense to wait until there are more accidents and more data. After a hundred or more accidents and nearly fifteen fatalities, the company institutes a selective recall, still not notifying NHTSA, which has its own experts and the authority to order XYZ to do a full recall of all affected models.

Experts have advised XYZ that standard failure-analysis methodology requires that the company obtain absolutely every XYZ vehicle that has experienced sudden acceleration, using microscopic analysis of all critical components of the electronic system. The company does not wish to take that advice, as it would be—as one top executive put it—“too time-consuming and expensive.”

  1. Can XYZ’s approach to this problem be justified under utilitarian theory? If so, how? If not, why not?
  2. What would Kant advise XYZ to do? Explain.
  3. What would the “virtuous” approach be for XYZ in this situation?