Business Ethics: Four Disciplines
Business ethics is best understood as a branch of ethics called applied ethics, that is, the discipline of applying value to human behavior, relationships and constructs, and the resulting meaning.
Business ethics is simply the practice of this discipline within the context of the enterprise of creating wealth (the fundamental role of business).
In spite of some recent bad press, business people are first and foremost human beings. Like all persons, they seek meaning for their lives through relationships and enterprise, and they want their lives to amount to something. Since ethics is chiefly the discipline of meaning, the business person, like all other human beings, is engaged in this discipline all the time, whether cognizant of it or not. Therefore, we will begin by looking at how humans have historically approached the process of making meaningful decisions. Here are four ethical approaches that have stood the test of time.
The Utilitarian approach is perhaps the most familiar and easiest to understand of all approaches to ethics. Whether we think about it or not, most of us are doing utilitarian ethics much of the time, especially those of us in business.
The Utilitarian asks a very important question: "How will my actions affect others?" They then attempt to quantify the impact of their actions based on some least common denominator, such as happiness, pleasure, or wealth.
Deontological simply means the study (or science) of duty. Duty-based ethics is enormously important for (though consistently ignored by) at least two kinds of folks: politicians and business people.
It is also the key to a better understanding of our responsibilities as members of teams. Teams are narrowly focused on achieving very clearly defined goals: winning the race, or successfully introducing a new product.
In any team situation the goal is critical, but treating team members with respect is imperative. Teams fall apart when a team member feels used or abused (treated as less important than the overall goal itself).
For philosophers, virtue means the excellence of a thing. The virtue of a physician is to heal, the virtue of a lawyer is to seek justice.
The ultimate end for a person must be an end that is self-sufficient, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else”. For Aristotle, this state of virtue (a fulfilling life) is achieved not by accident but through intent, reason and practice.
The Communitarian asks the important question, "What are the demands (duties) that the community(ies) of which I am a part make on me?"
Communitarians are quite critical today of the attitude of so many in our society who, while adamant about their individual rights, are negligent of their social duties. The “me generation” has created a need for a new breed of ethicists who insist that, from family and neighborhood to nation and global ecosystem, the communities in which we live require us to accept substantial responsibilities.
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