Harvard Business School
November 3, 1983
Ethical Frameworks for Management
This note introduces the student of management to basic ethical frameworks because such frameworks contribute to managerial practice: effective and responsible decision making is impoverished without conceptual self-awareness. The themes addressed in this note should help aspiring managers to discover some of the background assumptions in their own thinking about the ethical aspects of business. Only after such assumptions are acknowledged can they be subjected to reflective scrutiny, to be either reinforced or revised. Josiah Royce, a 19th century Harvard philosopher, remarked:
Remain blind if you will; we have no means of preventing you. But if you want to know the whole ethical truth, you can find it only in the moral insight. All else is caprice. To get the moral insight, you must indeed have the will to get the truth as between the conflicting claims of two or more doctrines. This will being given, the moral insight is the necessary outcome even of skepticism itself.1
Classifying Ethical Frameworks
“Ethics” and “moral philosophy” refer to a domain of inquiry, a discipline, in which matters of right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, are systematically (or at least carefully) examined. “Morality,” by contrast, is most often used to refer not to a discipline, but to a pattern of thought and action “in place” in an individual or a group or a whole society. In this sense, morality is what the discipline of ethics is about. Thus business morality is what business ethics is about. Philosophical ethics can be approached historically or conceptually. The first approach affords a richer understanding of the circumstances surrounding the development of various ethical frameworks as well as a better perspective on their connections to other ideas in politics, religion, science, and art. The second, while it lacks this contextual richness, nevertheless permits a more structured understanding of the logical alternatives open to one in search of a defensible decisionmaking framework. It is this conceptual strategy that will be followed here. Where historical asides seem helpful, however, they will be included.
1 Josiah Royce, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1965). First published by Harper
& Row, 1885.
This note was prepared by Associate Professor Kenneth E. Goodpaster as a basis for class discussion. Copyright © 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.
This document is authorized for use only in Business Ethics and Corporate Governance by Prof. Rajan Mani from June 2012 to December 2012.
Ethical Frameworks for Management
Three Ways of Thinking About Morality
There are three primary ways in which we might take an interest in the thoughts, feelings, and actions that go under the heading of “morality” in ordinary human affairs. One is simply to try to understand the facts, that is, to describe or explain the actual moral beliefs and convictions of an individual or group, making no assumptions whatsoever about the validity of those beliefs and convictions. Of course, we do informally describe and explain such “moral data” every day in our conversational, nonscientific observations about those around us. The main point is that we are describing, not prescribing. This way of thinking about morality, therefore, is called descriptive ethics. Another kind of interest in morality is what philosophers call analytical. Here the...
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