Ethical Theories

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Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "ethics" as the "discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation," "a set of moral principles or value" or "a theory or system of moral values." Ethics assists individuals in deciding when an act is moral or immoral, right or wrong. Ethics can be grounded in natural law, religious tenets, parental and family influence, educational experiences, life experiences, and cultural and societal expectations. Ethics in business, or business ethics as it is often called, is the application of the discipline, principles, and theories of ethics to the organizational context. Business ethics have been defined as "principles and standards that guide behavior in the world of business." Business ethics is also a descriptive term for the field of academic study in which many scholars conduct research and in which undergraduate and graduate students are exposed to ethics theory and practice, usually through the case method of analysis. Ethical behavior in business is critical. When business firms are charged with infractions, and when employees of those firms come under legal investigation, there is a concern raised about moral behavior in business. Hence, the level of mutual trust, which is the foundation of our free-market economy, is threatened. Although ethics in business has been an issue for academics, practitioners, and governmental regulators for decades, some believe that unethical, immoral, and/or illegal behavior is widespread in the business world. Numerous scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s seemed to add credence to the criticism of business ethics. Corporate executives of WorldCom, a giant in the telecommunications field, admitted fraud and misrepresentation in financial statements. WorldCom's former CEO went on trial for alleged crimes related to this accounting ethics scandal. A similar scandal engulfed Enron in the late 1990s and its former CEO, Ken Lay, also faced trial. Other notable ethical lapses were publicized involving ImClone, a biotechnological firm; Arthur Andersen, one of the largest and oldest public accounting firms; and Healthsouth, a large healthcare firm located in the southeast United States. These companies eventually suffered public humiliation, huge financial losses, and in some cases, bankruptcy or dissolution. The ethical and legal problems resulted in some corporate officials going to prison, many employees losing their jobs, and thousands of stockholders losing some or all of their savings invested in the firms' stock. Although the examples mentioned involved top management, huge sums of money, and thousands of stakeholders, business ethics is also concerned with the day-to-day ethical dilemmas faced by millions of workers at all levels of business enterprise. It is the awareness of and judgments made in ethical dilemmas by all that determines the overall level of ethics in business. Thus, the field of business ethics is concerned not only with financial and accounting irregularities involving billions of dollars, but all kinds of moral and ethical questions, large and small, faced by those who work in business organizations.

The discussion that follows is organized into three parts: (1) the major theories or "moral philosophies" that are applied to business ethics; (2) a well-established model of ethical decision-making in business; and (3) the factors that affect individual ethical decision-making in the business context. APPROACHES TO ETHICAL DECISION-MAKING

Philosophers have studied and written about ethics for thousands of years. The moral philosophies or ethical "theories" that have been developed form the foundation for ethics in business. Table 1 shows some of the major ethical philosophies that are applied to business ethics. Each of the ethical philosophies is briefly considered in this section. TELEOLOGY.

Teleological theories of ethics focus on the consequences caused by an action and are often referred to...
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