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Ethics, in Greek language means morals. In fact, ethics is de¬ned as the re¬‚ection on what is moral Ethical theories deal with the question of how human beings ought to behave in relation to one another. (Dontigney, 2012 They attempt to systemize, defend and recommend concepts of right and wrong behaviour. They can be applied both individually and on a bigger scale like in companies. Different companies make their decisions based on various sets of theories. These theories are more like viewpoints from which guides them when making a decision. Each theory influences decisions made by an individual or company like predicting an outcome or following duties to reach what is called an ethically correct decision.For a company to zero in on a single theory to follow, it is important for the company to realize that not everyone makes decisions in the same way.
There are mainly two different sets of ethical theories. Teleological which are consequential theories and deontological which are non-consequential theories. These can be further broken down into ethical egoism, utilitarianism and virtue ethics for teleological theories and for deontological theories; it would consist of Kantian and justice ethics. Let us take a detailed look into all these theories before making a statement on which theory is the most useful in making company decisions.
The word “teleology” in Greek language means “ends.” It is more concerned about the end product of a decision made rather than the actions.The goodness or badness of the outcome makes or breaks the decision made. However, the actions undertaken have no say. An example according to this theory can be, killing a bad person is morally correct if it is for the greater good.
Ethical egoism is a standardized or an accepted philosophical view. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. It does not describe how people behave but how they are supposed to behave. Ethical egoism is the normative theory whereby people ought to act exclusively in their self-interest (Jones et al., 2007). Therefore, the moral principle of ethical egoism suggests that an act is ethical when it promotes the individual’s long-term interest. It is possible for people to help others, follow the rules of society, and even grant gifts if they believe that those actions are in their own best interest. Ethical egoism is different from the other ethical positions as it portrays that other people’s interests is or should never be considered in making a moral decision. An ethical egoist believes sacrificing something for others is not a moral action unless it makes them happy or if the sacrifice gives himself benefits. This could satisfy a person in the short term, but in the long run it is not advisable as if everyone is just as egoistic, nobody would want to help when in times of need. An example would be that this individual who loves to shop. She sees this dress in a shop and wants to buy. However, she only has enough money to buy food for her household. So in an act of ethical egoism, she decides to spend the food money on the dress instead of getting food for her family as it benefits her and does not care about the people at home who have not had their food.
A utilitarian considers doing something is right if the action proves useful in bringing about the best consequences in the end. Utilitarian decision makers are required to estimate the effect of each alternative on all parties concerned, and to select the one that optimizes the satisfaction of the greatest number (Velasquez, 1998). Utilitarianism represents the dominant and most influential consequence based or teleological theory. Utilitarianism focuses on ends and not on the means required to achieving those ends and it takes into account all present and future benefits and harms that accrues or might accrue to anyone who is affected by the action, including items that may be difficult to evaluate accurately (Schumann, 2001). So in this theory, it is clear that as long as the work is done or the outcome of an action is desirable, one can undertake any methods. The flaw of this method is that it does not assume that all individuals should be treated in the same way. An real life example would be the Americans bombings in Japan during World War 2. The Americans’ point is that the Japanese were developing the same kind of weapon to wage war so if that happened, many other countries could be affected. So before such a disaster could happen, they acted early and dropped a bomb of their own, killing thousands rather than sacrificing millions.
The general concept behind Virtue Ethics is that it focuses on what the individual should choose for his/her own personal inward behaviour or character rather than the individual relying solely on the external laws and customs of the person’s culture, and if a person’s character is good then so ought the person’s choices and actions be good. (Gowdy, 2010) This theory as it suggests, is used to make moral decisions. This method is based on the person having moral character and intentions, and their actions being ethical on that basis. It relies on an individual and not on other factors such as religion, society or culture. It is based on the question “what sort of person should I be” rather than “what should I do”. In simple terms, it is more of one’s character and integrity. It’s about what you are, rather than what you do. This is more of a practice knowledge. The more you practice, the more virtuous you are. The more virtuous you are, the more you will more likely make moral decisions. There are many examples to this theory like, not stealing, not taking medical leave unless you are legitimately sick, showing up to meetings or work on time and not lying unless it is for a good cause.
Deontological theories, or duty-based theories, hold that human beings have a moral obligation to follow certain principles. Deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. (Alexander et, al, 2008) According to these theories, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty.
According to Rawls (1971), under a veil of ignorance, rational, self-interested, and equal individuals will agree that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties. Moreover, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Budd, 2004). In Rawls’s opinion, the first virtue of social institutions is justice for the individual and not aggregate welfare. He is concerned more with how the pie is divided than with how large it is. Inequalities are just only if they result in benefits for everyone, with particular emphasis on the least advantaged (Jones, 2007). The theory of justice requires decision makers to be guided by equity, fairness, and impartiality (Cavanagh et al., 1981). It relies on three types of moral prescriptions: (a) that individuals who are similar in a relevant respect should be treated similarly and individuals who are different in a relevant respect should be treated differently in proportion to the difference between them; (b) that rules should be administrated fairly and clearly; and (c) that individuals should not be held responsible for matters over which they have no control, and should be compensated for the cost of their injuries by those responsible for these injuries (Cavanaugh et al., 1981). Decision making and reasoning based on the theory of justice focus on the distributional effect of actions (Cavanagh et al., 1981).
Now since all the theories have been explained and analysed, it is time to make a statement on which ethical theory is the most useful in guiding company decisions and why so. Based on my research, I feel that utilitarianism is the most useful and quite important in guiding company decision making. One can argue that utilitarianism does not please everyone emotionally and only takes the big picture into account. An act or choice is morally right if, in carrying out the act, one exercises, exhibits or develops a morally virtuous character. It is morally wrong to the extent that by making the choice or doing the act one exercises, exhibits or develops a morally vicious character. (Garrett, 2005) Every theory has its very own pros and cons. But for a company to make the correct decision in moving forward, they have to be utilitarian. In these times, a company is judged on how much profits they make and what is the position of the company. To be the best, you cannot give in to your emotions and set of rules of what to do and what not to do. The main aim here is to reap the sows. Business managers have to realise that when it comes to business decisions, its always a win-lose situation. Like for example, in order for gaining market share, a company must make its competitors to lose their shares. One cannot refuse to do such an act saying that it is morally wrong and giving in to their emotions. Another example would be increasing the value of a long term shareholder may require sacrificing of short term profits such as bonuses or monetary rewards to a company’s employees or even the employer himself. But in the long term, there would be much more profits and monetary rewards to share. Lastly, I feel that the utilitarian approach is the best as a utilitarian is much more flexible in responding to different situations. A utilitarian only has two mind-sets varying from short term to long term goals or financial to non-financial goals. So when faced with a problem, a utilitarian will weigh up options and consider the corporate profitability instead of other factors such as employees or the community.
Latest minor modification November 28, 2005
Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael, “Deontological Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
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