Four Ethical Approaches
Four Ethical Approaches- By Buie Seawell, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver There are many ways to define "ethics," almost as many as there are ethicists. For our purposes, let's use this definition: Ethics is the discipline and practice of applying value to human behavior (as well as to the constructs of human culture particularly to morality, customs and laws) resulting in meaningfulness. From the earliest moments of recorded human consciousness, the ethical discipline has exhibited four fundamental "approaches" These four approaches are often called "ethical decision-making frameworks:" Utilitarian Ethics (outcome based), Deontological Ethics (duty based), Virtue Ethics (virtue based) and Communitarian Ethics (community based). Each has a distinctive point of departure as well as distinctive ways of doing the fundamental ethical task of raising and answering questions of value. It is also important to understand that all four approaches have both overlaps and common elements. Some of the "common elements" of all four approaches are the following: · Impartiality: weighting interests equally · Rationality: backed by reasons a rational person would accept · Consistency: standards applied similarly to similar cases · Reversibility: standards that apply no matter who "makes" the rules These are, in a sense, the rules of the "ethics game", no matter which school or approach to ethics one feels the closest identity. The Utilitarian approach is perhaps the most familiar and easiest to understand of all the four approaches to ethics. Whether we think about it or not, most of us are doing utilitarian ethics a much of the time, especially those of us in business. The Utilitarians asks a very important question: "How will my actions affect others?" And they go on to attempt to "quantify" the impact of their actions based on some "least common denominator," like happiness, pleasure, or wealth. Therefore, Utilitarians are also called "consequentalists" because they look to the consequences of their actions to determine whether any particular act is right or wrong. "The greatest good for the greatest number" is the Utilitarian motto. Of course, defining "good" has been no easy task, and what some people think of as good,
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others think of as worthless. When a businessperson does a "cost benefit analysis," he/she is doing Utilitarian ethics. The least common denominator is usually money. Everything from the cost of steel to the cost of a human life must be given a dollar value, and then one "just does the math." The Ford Pinto was a product of just such reasoning thirty years ago at the Ford Motor Company. Fixing the gas-tank problem Ford reasoned would cost more than human lives were worth. Stuff (like rear-end accidents) happens. Folks die. The most familiar use of "outcome based reasoning" is in legislative committees in representative democracies. How many constituents will benefit from a tax credit vs. how many will be diminished is the question before the Revenue Committee at tax rectification time. Representative democracies depend on most decisions being decided on the greatest good for the greatest number. Democratic governments are naturally majoritarian. But in constitutional democracies there are some things that cannot be decided by "doing the math", i.e. adding up the votes. Some questions should not even be voted on. The founders of our nation expressed this fundamental concept with three words: certain unalienable rights. Enter the Deontological Ethicists. Immanuel Kant is the quintessential deontological (duty based) ethical theorist. Kant, who lived in 18th Century Prussia (1724-1804), was one of the most amazing intellects of all time, writing books on astronomy, philosophy, politics and ethics. He...