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Four Major Perspectives on Ethics

Updated on August 9, 2019
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MBA graduate Lani has spent the past 8 years, researching, discussing and writing about major concepts relating to business and leadership

Rules, regulations and policy functioning in the cities and towns of America today follow an intricate weaving of four major views of ethics; (1) utilitarian, (2) individualism, (3) moral-rights, and (4) commutative justice. The following paragraphs will describe all four perspectives and their most apparent drawbacks. Each description is given in the form of a question provided by authors Schermerhorn & Bachrach in the textbook titled Management (2015). The answers to each question deciphers the difference between each argument. Though each question and answer may be different one common thread between all four of these views is an inherent lack of total inclusion, a group is always left out and is refused consideration. For this reason, a blend of all four is most palatable in practical application.

Utilitarian

Question: “Does a decision or behavior do the greatest good for the most people?” (Schermerhorn & Bachrach, (2015). Figure 3.1 Four views of ethical behavior p.53). A utilitarian would approach an ethical dilemma with this question before settling on a decision. Major drawback? Posing this question has no consideration for those who do not fall into the “most people” category. Making a decision in this matter implies to those who are outside of the “most people” category that their needs, wants, and rights are no longer valid or valued because they fall into the minority? Is consideration for these people irrelevant or invaluable? Of course not. Rights, needs, and considerations for minority groups are just as important as those of the majority. Health care and education are sectors where the faults of utilitarianism rear its ugly head. Majority, in the case of health care and education is not defined by number of people but number of dollars. More money equals better care and better education. This raises another question. Is a wealthy person more deserving of excellent healthcare and education than a poor person? Leave a comment with your perspective.

Individualism

Question: “Does a decision or behavior promote one’s long-term self-interest?” (Schermerhorn & Bachrach, (2015). Figure 3.1 Four views of ethical behavior p.53). In theory the act of aligning ethics to one’s long-term self-interest seems like an optimal approach. However, this line of thinking rest in the notion that people, as mature adults, will be self-regulating. An obvious drawback to this definition of ethics is the historical fact that people are absolutely not self-regulating. In my article, "Business Ethics and Damaged Trust," I cover Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco as examples of how people are more often inclined to cross the line between self-regulating individualism to greedy capitalism and selfishness. These examples may be high profile and deal with hundreds of millions of dollars but there is no question that these types of ethical violations in the name of individualism happen every day at every level of business. Though the culprits may think about their own self-interest their actions often affect more than just themselves, they often greatly affect many of the people in their inner and outer circles of influence. The acts of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay destroyed two multimillion dollar companies, catastrophically affecting the lives of hundreds of people not just the handful of men who were arrested and charged in the scandal.

Moral-rights

Question: “Does a decision or behavior maintain the fundamental rights of all human beings?” (Schermerhorn & Bachrach, (2015). Figure 3.1 Four views of ethical behavior p.53). The drawback? No universal set of fundamental rights. What is perceived and valued as a basic right to one individual may not be the same for another. What is acceptable and what is faux pas in one country is not always so in another and bringing one set of rules to the other may not be ethical at all. Schermerhorn & Bachrach define these differences as “cultural relativism” and “suggest there is no one right way to behave; ethical behavior is determined by its cultural context.” (2015. P.55). To make matters more complicated, culture is not just relative, it is dynamic. As times change so too does the culture. What may seem ethical and acceptable today may not be acceptable in days to come, and vice versa.

Clearly rights are not universal, sexuality and religion still experience constant and pronounced resistance, socially and legally and members of alternative groups are regularly denied equal protection under the law in comparison to their more “acceptable” counterparts. The idea of morals are strongly influenced by religion and religion tends to have antiquated interpretations of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. The term moral absolutism “suggest ethical standards apply universally across all cultures” (Schermerhorn & Bachrach, (2015). Figure 3.1 Four views of ethical behavior p.55) and this is just not rational. People and cultures are so different in so many different places; there is no way to employ universal morality.

Commutative Justice

Question: “Does a decision or behavior show fairness and impartiality?” (Schermerhorn & Bachrach, (2015). Figure 3.1 Four views of ethical behavior p.53). The drawback? From a psychological perspective human beings observe life through their own individual set of goggles, also known as filters. Information is sent and received through the filters of experience, education, moral values, opinions, and stereotypes (Sharpe 1991). Gaining more education/experience in a topic may help a person be less biased but we all have our filters and are, therefore, constitutionally incapable of being impartial. Without impartiality there can be no commutative justice. Our individual ideas of morals, right and wrong, just and unjust are passed down to us from our parents and eventually built on as we encounter peer pressure, religious reiterations, media, etc., all of which are extraordinarily biased.

What it all boils down to

The distinctive difference between a utilitarian versus an individualistic approach is one focuses on the good of the masses while the other focuses on the good of one. One may argue an individualistic approach feeds into the utilitarian view in that it has the greater good of the masses in mind but meets the same end by first focusing on the individual. The moral rights view differs from the commutative justice view in that there is nothing impartial about serving the moral rights of a population. By definition the moral rights view calls for decisions to be partial towards the universal rights of all human beings. The commutative justice view speaks nothing about rights; this view simply focuses on the fairness and impartiality of any decision, whether that decision is morally acceptable or not is irrelevant. So like I said in a previous article…..ethics are hard!

References

Sharpe, D. (1991) Effective communication. Montana State University Extension, Circular 1291. Retrieved from http://www.msucommunitydevelopment.org/effectivecommunication.html

Schermerhorn. J. & Bachrach, D. (2015). Management, (13th ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons. Figure 3.1 Four vies of ethical behavior p.53.

Schermerhorn. J. & Bachrach, D. (2015). Management, (13th ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons. p.55.

Thornton, M. A., & Rupp, D. E. (2015). The joint effects of justice climate, group moral identity, and corporate social responsibility on the prosocial and deviant behaviors of groups. journal of business ethics, 1-21.Thornton 2014).

Wallace, N., & Mello, J. (2015). Collaborative culture: The new workplace reality. Foresight: The international journal of applied forecasting, (39), 31-35.

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