This paper discusses three forms of teleological ethics, namely utilitarianism, ethical egoism and virtue ethics, and how they can be applied to business situations. From the discussion, it is clear that teleological (consequentialist) ethics are important in the business scene, particularly in the context of effective leadership, maintaining a positive public image and perception with consumers, solving ethical dilemmas, and internalizing virtues among employees.
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Today, in the 21st century, ethical theories play a more prominent role in organizations than at any time in business history, particularly after the exposure of corporate malfeasance and ethical scandals involving global companies such as Enron (Thompson, Thach, & Morelli, 2010). As a matter of fact, ethics in the workplace is increasingly gaining more and more attention as it sensitizes managers and employees to internalize the knowledge that they should act in a particular manner so as to retain a strong moral compass (Paliwal, 2006). In this light, the present paper looks into three forms of teleological ethics, namely utilitarianism, ethical egoism and virtue ethics, and how they can be applied to business situations.
Forms of Teleological Ethics
Tasiolus (2010) cites Griffin in his argument that teleological or consequentialist theories view the good as the fundamental basis in the structure of morality and the right as derived from it. However, he explains that consequentialism, as an adaptation of teleology, restricts the right and wrong of an action.
Teleological ethics has been described as an approach to ethical thinking which locates the end result or goal of our actions as the primary consideration, implying that the rightness or wrongness of doing is at all times determined by their propensity to generate certain consequences which are intrinsically good or bad (Lewis & Speck, 1990).
Available literature shows that utilitarianism is a subcategory of theological ethics in that it focuses on the end result of a goal of our actions as the primary consideration of whether such actions are morally right or wrong. Hall (2009) acknowledges that the traditional view of utilitarianism as demonstrated in the writings of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham holds that it is the happiness or satisfaction of individuals that are to be used as the major criterion in deciding the rightness or wrongness of an action, but this orientation has changed in more recent times to include the conception of benefits to people or the fulfillment of their interests as the primary focus. Utilitarian value theorists, according to Frederiksen (2012), include hedonistic utilitarians who claim that pleasure (happiness) is the only intrinsically good thing, pluralistic utilitarians argue that other things in addition to pleasure should be added to the list of intrinsically good things (e.g., knowledge, freedom, beauty, fairness, friendship, generosity), and preference utilitarians argue that if pleasure appears subjective and unquantifiable, our preferences, linked to our desires, choices and behavior, are more objective and may, therefore, avail a firmer basis for a theory of value.
Another subcategory of teleological ethics is ethical egoism, which holds that the maximization of one’s own good or self-interest is in accordance with morality. Some advocates who hold a strong view of ethical egoism argue that it is always moral for an agent to maximize their own self-interest and it is immoral for the agent not to maximize their self-interest. In the weak version of ethical egoism, however, advocates of the normative theory argue that although it is always moral for an agent to maximize their own good or self-interest, it is not necessarily immoral for an agent to avoid doing that (Baugher & Weisbord, 2009).
The last subcategory of teleological or consequentialist ethics to be discussed in this section is referred to as virtue ethics. Virtue ethics shares with utilitarianism its core concern with the end outcome of actions as the primary determinant of what is morally right or wrong; however, the two differ in the way they interpret the constituents of a positive moral outcome (Audi, 2012). While general utilitarianism holds that a positive moral outcome is one which provides the greatest amount of happiness or agent to the moral agent, virtues ethics view the “telos” or end goal as not just the immediate happiness of a moral agent or a group of agents, but rather the degree to which human beings are able to realize their fullest potential (Audi, 2012). Existing literature demonstrates that “virtue ethics is sometimes described as emphasizing the character traits of the agent, while utilitarianism concentrates on outcomes and deontological ethics on the act itself” (Koehn, 1995 p. 533). A virtuous individual, according to Audi (2012), not only demonstrates certain beliefs that truly represent their own attitudes but must also have desires and other incentives appropriate to the virtue.
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Relationship & Application to Business Ethics
Teleological ethics form a critical component of effective leadership in business organizations. Thompson et al (2010) argue that leaders with high ethical standards work towards maintaining a positive reputation of the organization, which in turn enhances the goodwill and public image of the organization in the eyes of consumers, leading to business success. Consequently, as demonstrated by these authors, it is in the organization’s best interest to maintain a positive public image and perception with consumers. These authors also argue that an ethical firm that maximizes the value of the community by addressing the community’s concerns through the actions and behavior of leaders will undoubtedly promote economic and social performance, particularly in the context of achieving higher stock market returns, increased worker productivity, and increased consumer satisfaction. A business organization using utilitarianism ethical frame to maximize the benefits to community members or the fulfillment of their interests through corporate social responsibility programs, for example, stands to benefit economically and socially through maintaining a positive public image and perception with customers.
Paliwal (2006) is the opinion that ethical frameworks assist business leaders and decision-makers to solve ethical dilemmas that often arise from the internal conflict between ends and means. Using ethical egoism, for example, a business executive will be able to solve an ethical dilemma involving the voluntary contribution of money to sustain community projects. If the maximization of the company’s own good or self-interest will not be achieved through, for example, increased sales volumes to the community are in question, then the business executive will definitely be morally right not to provide the money to be used by community members.
Lastly, in his lecture on “Ethics as a Business Strategy”, Liveris (2011) acknowledges the existence of value ethics in business practice by saying that Dow’s values are at the core of ethical behavior and affect the way employees treat each other as well as how customers and suppliers are treated. From the author’s exploration, it becomes clear how virtue ethics influence moral agent in business contexts to not only conform to right thinking and desire but also to demonstrate an inherent desire to do what is good and noble depending on the reinforced values. In its application, it can be argued that many organizations have been able to enhance employee productivity and performance by identifying those employees who are acting virtuously and making them role models to inculcate these virtues to other employees.
Audi, R. (2012). Virtue ethics as a resource in business. Business Ethics Quarterly, 22(2), 273-291.
Baugher, D., & Weisbord, E. (2009). Egoism, justice, rights, and utilitarianism: A student views of classical ethical positions in business. Journal of Academic & Business Ethics, 1(1), 1-11.
Frederiksen, C.S. (2012). The presentation of utilitarianism within the field of business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics Education, 9(1), 193-214.
Hall, R.T. (2000). An introduction to healthcare organizational ethics. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.
Koehn, D. (1995). A role for virtue ethics in the analysis of business practice. Business Ethics Quarterly, 5(3), 533-539.
Lewis, P.V., & Speck, H.E. (1990). Ethical orientations for understanding business ethics. Journal of Business Communication, 27(3), 213-232.
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Thompson, K.J., Thach, E.C., & Morelli, M. (2010). Implementing ethical leadership: Current challenges and solutions. Insights to a Changing World, (4), 107-130,