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When considering the subject of business ethics, the concept of morality comes out as a challenge depending on the definition that each individual is willing to adapt for that particular situation. The subject of ethics is also a versatile; it is also relative, especially considering that objectives, as well as long and short term goals vary and each person has a unique perspective in as far as the connection between means and ends is concerned. There are various theories in ethical considerations within the business field, and this paper sets out to explore three of them, namely virtue ethics, deontological and utilitarianism theories. The concern is to establish which of these moral theories is the strongest, which one is the best for application in business, and how they can be tailored to suit a given business.
Virtue ethics is an approach to normative ethics, in which virtues in one’s character are considered as fundamental in construction of an ethical threshold in their business practice, and can thus be used to determine or evaluate ethical behavior. Deontological ethics, on the other hand, implies a position in normative ethics, whereby an action’s morality is determined based on its adherence to the rules. Utilitarianism is also a theory in normative ethics, which emphasizes that the right choice is the one that maximizes utility in the given situation and preferably reducing the negatives.
According to Holmes (2006), virtue ethics approach to morality allows one to consider each action based on the situation and on its impression on the character of the individual in question. What this means is that rather than judging an action as right or wrong based on its outcome or even its position against the rules, actions are judged by the circumstances within which they prevail, and considered for whether they are for the benefit of the individual, a group or the society. The concept here is to ascertain whether ne’s actions are inspired by their selfishness or a greater good. This theory is based more on the intentions behind an act, than on the act itself, thus making judgments that are neither based on the outcomes, nor the rules but rather the individual intentions to characterize the person.
Donaldson, Werhane, and Cording (2002) note that in a business setting, intention is not considered as consequential, as in other aspects of one’s life. Good intentions may work in a social setting, but for a business, intention needs other validating additives like outcomes and even rules. This implies that virtue ethics is not necessarily the best approach for application in business. It may be strong in terms of how it judges characters within a business setting but it does not help in instilling morality within an organization. Among other things, the concept of good intentions would be found wanting seeing, as it does not guarantee good business performance.
In seeking to modify this theory for application in business, one may consider an innovative corporate culture in which decisions and actions are applauded based on the intentions that guide them and not on their outcomes or adherence to the rules. Companies that thrive on innovation often seek to empower their employees to think ‘outside the box’ and come up with new ideas that would improve an organization’s performance. In more ways than one, this increases the chances of failure, just as much as it boosts the possibility for success, and the only way to ensure that people within an organization remain inspired to be innovative is to judge them based on their intentions for every innovative thought that they come up with. Considering that an innovative corporate culture is one that is prone to a lot of trial and error situations, the need to appreciate the intentions and attempts of employees stands out conspicuously.
According to Donaldson, Werhane, and Cording (2002), deontological ethics is known for empphasizing on the rules, in that an action is not judged based on its intentions or outcomes but rather by its adherence to the rules. Rules here imply a rigid set of do’s and don’ts that determine the character of the individual by placing them on the right or wrong side of the set rules. Regardless of the outcomes, this approach simply looks at the rules, making it as simple as black and white. Within a business setting, this is the kind of approach that emphasizes on the need to play by the rules and be bound by duty, when it comes to decisions making within an organization. Here, the right thing is often set in stone, implying that it cannot be changed or manipulated into a grey area. This makes the approach practical within a business setting, that is strict and in need of strict rules for minimizing risks and ensuring effective operations, like in the nuclear energy business, where the rules are the difference between failure and success.
The past few years have shown that businesses thrive in a space that allows for free thinking in the context of improvements and new approaches. The fact that this theory emphasizes on sticking to the rules implies that it could be a great impediment to organizational growth seeing, as it does not encourage or recognize innovation, unless it is in adherence to the set rules of an organization. This is the kind of ethical consideration that could be used in bureaucratic and hierarchical settings in which the rules are considered as guidelines and must never be broken without extensive consultations within the top management.
Applying this theory to a business would require having policies that guide employees through every aspect of the organization’s operations, in order to ensure that they always live up to the expectations of the management in terms of their performance. The challenge here is to have employees do the right thing at all times, without turning them into machines with no space for thinking outside the box and making decisions on the spot, as would be seen in an innovative corporate culture with the virtue ethics approach.