Course Syllabus | LH's Virtual Office | Chapter 2 Outline

Business Ethics: Concepts & Cases: Chapter 2 Learning Objectives and Overview
Ethical Principles in Business

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the nature of utilitarian moral calculation and the difficulties and consequent limitations of this approach.
  2. Understand the general concept of rights the distinction between negative rights and positive rights, and the special nature of contractual rights.
  3. Understand Kant's attempted deontological justification of rights and the limitations of the Kantian approach.
  4. Understand the general concept of justice and distinguish between distributive, retributive, and compensatory justice.
  5. Distinguish egalitarian, contribution based, and needs based conceptions of distributive justice.
  6. Understand the need to recognize special duties and obligations of care and the importance of character.
  7. Appreciate the necessity and the difficulty of integrating considerations of utility, justice, rights, and care.


Utilitarians conceive of morality as a kind of higher economics, and of moral reasoning on the model of economic profit-loss calculations with the following differences: (1) the "profits" and "losses" at issue are not monetary but intrinsic costs and benefits, (2) the costs and benefits not just for the agent but for everyone are considered.   Utilitarians differ as to what they regard as the intrinsic benefits and costs to be counted.  Jeremy Bentham, the originator of the approach, deemed them "pleasures" and "pains".  His most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, speaks instead of "happiness" and "unhappiness" -- Mill's greatest happiness principle enjoining us to do what results in "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" remains perhaps the most famous formulation of the Utilitarian approach.  Contemporary Utilitarians mainly incline towards speaking of the intrinsic benefits at issue as "interest satisfactions" or "preference satisfactiona" and of the costs as "dissatisfactions."  Utilitarianism is widely thought to be lacking insofar as it considers only consequences and neglects considerations of rights and justice.

Conceptions of morality emphasizing rights and duties, as well as those emphasizing justice, view morality as a kind of higher law.  Rights can be viewed as entitlements to act in certain ways, or be treated in certain ways, without being subject to punishment or blame.  As ever, moral rights need to be distinguished from legal rights: moral rights are universal human rights; legal rights vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Every right imposes a corresponding duty on others.  On the basis of apparent differences between duties of omission and commission many recognize a further distinction between negative rights (imposing only negative duties of omission or noninterference) and positive rights (imposing positive duties of commission).  This distinction figures largely in discussions of distributive justice (below).   Contractual rights and duties are "special" rights and duties arising from agreements and limited to the parties to these agreements.  A basis for claims of moral rights is difficult to establish.  Immanuel Kant is widely recognized as having made the most noteworthy attempt.  Kant's categorical imperative asserts a universal human right to autonomy as a basis for all rights and duties. While Kant's attempt is open to criticism on grounds of imprecision and impracticality, perhaps the most damning objection is the "different strokes" or "heteronymy" (Kand) objection that, in the minds of knaves, Kant's approach will license all sorts of knavery since the Kantian approach only seems to require that the knavery be consistent in order for it to be be morally justified.

Justice has to do with fairness and is concerned with the comparison of the treatment given to different individuals.  Justice and rights are connected insofar as violations of rights are considered unjust.  Considerations of rights and justice are normally taken to trump cost-benefit considerations, though sufficiently large costs and benefits are sometimes taken to trump rights and justice back.  Three categories of justice are distinguished: distributive justice is the fair distribution of society's benefits and burdens; retributive justice is the fair imposition of penalties on those who do wrong; compensatory justice is the repayment for losses suffered due to others misconduct or mistakes.  The fundamental principle of justice that equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally can be accepted by all because it is empty of content until what differences warrant different treatment is specified.  Competing conceptions of distributive justice, notably, differ on just this point.  Egalitarian conceptions allow no distinctions and hold, consequently, that every person should be given an equal share of society's benefits and burdens: egalitarianism seems better suited to the the apportionment of political benefits and burdens than economic ones.  Contribution based conceptions of distributive justice hold that benefits should be proportional to what the individual contributes to society or the group.  Different contribution based conceptions differ on how to measure contribution.  Effort and productivity are the most commonly recognized factors: capitalist contribution based justice counts contribution of capital as productive.  In opposition to this, socialistic needs based conceptions of distributive justice propose distributing benefits according to individuals' need for them and burdens according to individuals' abilities to bear them.  To the pure communist principle -- "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!" (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, 1874) -- socialist practice adds "and his work."

Utilitarian and justice-rights based approaches agree in their demand for impartiality.  Utilitarians demand impartial assessment of costs-benefits ("each counts one") and justice-rights based approaches impartial application of rules.  Both approaches, consequently, may be criticized on the grounds that they fail to adequately acknowledge the importance of "special duties" of partiality or care necessary for achieving and maintaining intimacy and relationships.  A related complaint is that utilitarian and rights-justice based approaches by focusing on externals -- on consequences (in the case of utilitarianism) and the letter of the law (for rights-justice based approaches) -- fail to adequately take account of the the spirit of the act and the moral character of the agent.  Virtue based approaches seek to remedy this deficit.  Care based and virtue based approaches are open to criticism for being insufficient guides to action.  In institutional settings their failure to suggest any procedure for moral decision making together with their focus on subjective estimations of character and closeness even seems an invitation to wrongful sorts of favoritism such as nepotism and objectionable (ethnic, religious, and other forms of) discrimination.  Nevertheless, care & character based criticisms, as well as their disagreement with each other, point up the incompleteness of both utilitarian and rights-justice based approaches despite the more rigorous seeming decision procedures they seem to suggest.  Consequently, we need to weigh the relative importance of different types of considerations (consequences, rights-justice, care & character) in specific situations on the basis of rough criteria and subjective (or in an institutional setting, intersubjective) judgments of comparative value.

 Course Syllabus | LH's Virtual Office | Chapter 2 Outline