Utilitarianism can be summed up by the following two claims:

  1. The right action in any situation is the one that produces the greatest balance of benefit over harm.
  2. Everybody counts equally.

Each of these components requires some explanation. First, what is meant by “benefit”? Different utilitarian philosophers have interpreted this term differently. Some have held that what is important is happiness. That is, we should maximize the total amount of happiness or pleasure for all concerned. Others have held that what is important is actual welfare or well-being. They argue that we should maximize the extent to which we actually help people (and minimize harm) regardless of whether or not that makes them happy. This distinction will not matter much for us in this course, but it is good to be aware that there are different interpretations of what it means to “benefit” somebody.

One thing that utilitarians generally agree on, however, is that they are concerned with all types of benefits, both short-term and long-term. So, utilitarianism asks us to consider all foreseeable benefits and harms that may result from our actions, not just ones that will result immediately. One final note about the notion of benefit: utilitarians are concerned not just with harms and benefits that are guaranteed, but also with harms and benefits that are possible or likely. When a benefit or harm is possible or likely, utilitarians tell us to include the degree of possibility in our calculations: a potential harm or benefit that is very unlikely counts for less than a potential harm or benefit that is very likely (though they must still be counted to some extent).

Second, what is the significance of the utilitarian’s claim that “everybody counts equally?” For one thing, this means that we are never justified in giving extra weight to our own preferences just because they are our own.  Nor are we justified in giving preferential treatment to the interests of family or friends; as far as moral decision making goes, strangers matter just as much. It also means, for example, that the interests of a poor man ought to count for just as much as the interests of a king.

This does not mean that utilitarianism demands that we all benefit the same amount from every decision. Sometimes, that won’t be possible. What’s important to utilitarians is that in making a decision, everyone’s interests are given equal consideration. Note further that utilitarians do not require that we maximize benefit to each person. What matters for utilitarians is the total amount of benefit or harm, when we “add up” the benefits and harms for each person. So an action that harms a few people in order to benefit a lot of people would likely be endorsed by utilitarians.

At this point it is imperative to point out that utilitarianism is often described as cost-benefit analysis (CBA).  However this is a serious misunderstanding of the theory.  Utilitarianism is not CBA, yet in this course, and many others, students consistently make this mistake.   CBA is an economic theory whereasutilitarianism is a moral theory.  The goal of CBA is cost-effectiveness while the goal for utilitarians is a morally justified outcome that benefits, and reduces harm for the greatest number of people in order to create a better society for all. The notion of utility must be defined, and everyone counts equally.  Confusing this moral theory with CBA is inaccurate and can be quite unfair to those who have developed it.

It is also important to note that there is disagreement among various utilitarian thinkers over the meaning of the term “everybody.” Does “everybody” mean “all humans”? Or, “all creatures capable of feeling pain”? (Peter Singer, author of the book Animal Liberation, is a famous modern-day utilitarian who holds roughly the latter view.) Most utiliarians take the term “everybody” to mean “all persons.”

Strengths & Weaknesses of Utilitarianism

The main intuitive strength of utilitarianism lies in its emphasis on equality. It seems right (to most people) that, when it comes to making moral decisions, all people ought to count equally. For a utilitarian, everybody counts equally: men and women, the young and the old, and people of different races, religions, or sexual orientation.

The primary weakness of utilitarianism lies in its single-minded emphasis on outcomes. This narrow focus, according to critics, neglects important considerations such as justice. For example, imagine a situation in which the police are having trouble catching a killer. Let us imagine that the police have reason to think that the killer has left the country, but that the public is so upset about this murder, and about the police’s failure to solve the crime, that the city is on the brink of civil unrest. If riots break out, there will be much destruction of property, and possibly loss of life. In such a situation, reasoning based solely on outcomes might suggest that the police would be justified in framing an innocent man for this crime. Providing they were sure they could do so successfully, “solving” the crime in this way might well bring peace to the city. But wouldn’t this be grossly unfair – unjust – to the man they framed? Worries such as this have led many moral theorists to the conclusion that while the net benefits of a course of action are important, they cannot be the whole story.

A further criticism of utilitarianism is that it seems to imply very burdensome obligations. For example, you’ve got a choice with what to do with the money in your savings account. You can save it for a rainy day, or you could give it all to a famine relief organization. If you save the money, you will benefit yourself. But if you gave it all to famine relief, you might actually save lives. The utility-maximizing thing to do would be to empty out your bank account and send the money to a charitable organization. And, according to a strict utilitarian, if you fail to do so you will have done something morally wrong. In fact, a strict utilitarian seems forced to say that owning any luxuries at all (television, computer, nice clothes and so on) is unethical, given that you could do more good by giving that money to charity. While most of us would agree that we could all do a little more to help those less fortunate, most people find it implausible that it could be morally obligatory to give away all non-essential goods. To most people, such an act would seem heroic; according to a utilitarian, it is mandatory.

A final worry about utilitarianism lies in its apparent insensitivity to special duties and particular obligations. For example, most people would intuitively think it right that we should pay more attention to the well-being of our family than to the well-being of strangers. Imagine a different version of the example from the previous paragraph. Now, the choice you will have is whether to save money for your children’s education, or instead send that same amount of money to relief organizations overseas. Sending your kids to university will of course benefit them, but not nearly as much as the same money would benefit starving people in another country. For utilitarians, the choice seems clear. Yet most people would say, again, that this asks too much of us.

A Further Complication: “Rule Utilitarianism”

In response to certain criticisms, some utilitarian philosophers have developed a special variety of utilitarianism called “Rule Utilitarianism.” Without going into too much philosophical detail, the basic idea is straightforward. Standard utilitarian thinking says that, in any situation, you should choose whatever action is going to maximize benefit for the group of people affected. Rule utilitarians say, “No way! You shouldn’t choose on a case-by-case basis like that! We should establish rules of thumb that will reliably maximize benefit for the group in the long run; then, in any situation, all you have to do is follow those rules.” In other words, while regular utilitarians ask you to choose actions that maximize utility, Rule Utilitarians ask you to follow RULES that, in the long run, will maximize utility.

A quick example may help. Imagine a situation in which you consider telling a lie to get out of a jam. A utilitarian might advise you to ask yourself, “Will telling a lie in this situation maximize benefit, taking everyone into consideration?” A rule utilitarian, on the other hand, is more likely to advise you to ask yourself, “Would a rule of thumb that advocated lying in situations such as this maximize benefit in the long run?”

Deontology: Theories of Duty

This group of moral theories assumes that right and wrong is a matter of doing one’s duty.  In this course we will look at two theories: the very famous theory provided by Kant and Ross’s theory of prima facie duty.

Kantian Theory

Another group of philosophers has said that in making moral decisions we should focus not on the consequences of our actions, but on whether or not we are doing our duty. The word “deontology” means roughly “a theory of duties.” The two most influential deontologicalmoral theories are those of Immanuel Kant and W.D. Ross.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His theory is considered the primary deontological theory in ethics and is typically the one that leads to the best arguments.  Kant argued that we should make moral decisions based upon what he called the “categorical imperative.” He was particularly opposed to utilitarianism because it did not seem to produce what he would consider ‘moral’ since the intent of the person acting was ignored.  The Categorical Imperative is the one, over-arching super-rule of ethics, for Kant. He gave us two different “versions” of the Categorical Imperative, which he thought were 2 different ways of expressing the same key idea.

The FIRST version of the Categorical Imperative says (roughly) that in any situation, we ought to act according to that principle which we could consistently translate into a moral law for all rational agents. And we should do so, according to Kant, regardless of the consequences of doing so. Kant, for example, thought that we have a duty to tell the truth, since nobody could consistently ask that lying become a universal law. After all, if it was permissible to tell lies all the time, no one could believe anyone. The vast majority of our interactions with each other assume that we are each telling the truth.  This is what makes a lie so noteworthy, and it also provides the liar with an advantage over others…if they can get away with it.  If everyone lied all the time, however, then there would be no advantage to lying,  since no one would believe anyone anyway.  Thus lying is morally wrong because it produces a logical contradiction. (Lying is an advantage and lying is not an advantage).  So, you can’t wish that everyone lied, without tying yourself in logical knots!

Some people interpret the first version of the Categorical Imperative as The Golden Rule where we’re told “Behave only as you would want others to behave, too.” That’s not a good way of understanding Kant, (in fact Kant was quite concerned that he’d be misunderstood this way) because morality is not about focusing on what WE would want.  We cannot put ourselves at the center of every moral issue and decide that whatever we want must be morally right.  That would be moral subjectivism.  What’s important, for Kant, is whether a given way of acting COULD be embraced by all of us, as a shared rule withoutproducing a logical contradiction.

But Kant’s disregard for consequences also means that he thought we should tell the truth regardless of the outcome of doing so. It’s not too difficult to think up examples of situations in which telling the truth could do a great deal of harm. For Kant, such harms are an acceptable consequence of doing one’s duty.

The details of Kant’s moral theory are complicated. We will focus on just a few key elements. Why did Kant say that we should act according to rules that could serve as a moral law for all rational agents? The reason is roughly that Kant wanted to emphasize the equal and inherent moral worth of all people due to their rationality.  Rationality is a capacity that adult humans share and does not have anything to do with intelligence, education etc.  It’s simply the ability to think rationally, if one so chooses.  Since the people around you have moral worth due to their rationality, they deserve to be treated with respect. Further, since you have this moral worth, you should act in a suitable manner – that is you should act like a responsible moral person, someone who is capable of figuring out what the right thing to do is and doing it. This notion of equal, inherent moral worth is one that continues to be influential in moral and political philosophy.

The SECOND version of the Categorical Imperative focuses more directly on this idea of the moral worth of all humans. According to the 2nd version, Kant says that in making ethical choices, you should always act in such a way that you are treating human beings as “ends” (i.e., as inherently valuable and worthy of respect), rather than as “mere means” (i.e., rather than as tools that you can use and manipulate for your own purposes.) The core idea, here, is respect. We should never treat other people as if they were mere instruments, mere tools to be used in getting the things we want.  The second version of Kant’s moral theory tells us that it is wrong to sacrifice one human for another, or to treat that person as less than ourselves.  Their rationality gives them inherent moral worth which is equal to yours, so there is no good reason to suggest that your needs, wants, desires etc count for more than anyone else’s.  Without good reason, then actions are unjustified and thus immoral.

Ross’s Prima Facie rules

The second deontological theory we will look at is presented by W.D. Ross, in his book The Right and the Good (1930). However, this is a challenging theory to apply as it provides no specific guidance and is easily challenged.  It’s good to know that Ross’s theory is another type of deontology, but it’s unlikely to provide convincing arguments in a course like business ethics which addresses very specific issues.

Unlike Mill or Kant, Ross held that there was no one moral principle that could cover every situation. Ross held that various kinds of situations, and various kinds of relationships, produced different kinds of obligations. He thus devised a list of what he called “prima facie obligations” or prima facie duties. The seven kinds of duties which Ross identified are: Fidelity, Reparation, Gratitude or Reciprocity, Beneficence, Nonmaleficence, Justice and Self-improvement. (A moral theory making use of several distinct moral principles like this is called a pluralistic moral theory.) The Latin term “prima facie” means roughly “arising at first sight.” This term is used here to signal Ross’s contention that in any particular situation, we may well be faced with more than one apparentobligation.

For example, imagine you have made a promise to have lunch with a friend. But on the way to lunch, you are the first to arrive at an accident scene, and you may be able to help. If you stop to help, you will have to miss lunch with your friend. In such a situation, according to Ross, you have a prima facie duty (of fidelity) to keep your promise to your friend. You also have a prima facie duty (of beneficence) to stop and help at the accident. In such a situation, Ross says that our actual duty will depend on the circumstances. How bad is the accident? Do you have medical training? How urgently did your friend need to see you? Ross says that there is no formula for balancing our various obligations in situations such as this: we must make what Ross calls an “all-things-considered judgment.”

Ross’s framework is attractive to some since it recognizes that a variety of different kinds of ethical reasons might apply in different situations. Sometimes, for example, it’s most important to create the most benefit, and sometimes it’s more important to focus on treating people with respect. However, the biggest problem for this theory is that Ross does not tell us how to balance these different ethical reasons in real life.  It’s therefore not clear how to put this theory into action, answer specific questions about what our duty is, and is easily refuted since there is no particularly compelling reason to privilege one duty over another.

One sees evidence of the influence of deontological ethics in modern talk of rights. Philosophers often talk in terms of a necessary connection between one person having a duty to do something, and other person having a related right. For example, if I have a right to enjoy my property, then you may be said to have a duty (or obligation) not to interfere with my enjoyment of my property. Similarly, if I have a duty to honour a promise I made to you, then you might be said to have a right to expect that I fulfill my promise.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Duty Theory

The main strength of duty theories is likely to be found in their tendency to prohibit absolutely certain kinds of apparent injustices. Only a duty-based theory can make sense of an absolute prohibition. And it does seem like certain actions (think up your own examples!) ought to be thought of as completely prohibited, as utterly immoral no matter what. (A utilitarian, on the other hand, can never forbid particular types of actions categorically. Whether a given action is right or wrong will, again, depend on the consequences.)

One common criticism of duty theory lies in the lack of a “decision procedure” or formula for resolving conflict between various duties. For example, Kant’s categorical imperative implies a duty not to lie as well as a duty not to hurt others. But sometimes it seems like we must lie in order to avoid harming someone.  Kant attempts to address this concern by elaborating on his concept of contradiction.  However, this is a much more significant problem for Ross since the various duties listed by Ross can easily come into conflict which makes this a very problematic theory to apply in the real world.

Other Types of Theories

Other moral theories do not provide clear answers on what is right or wrong, but rather attempt to offer a way to resolve specific problems, or focus on how we ought to live, rather than telling what we ought to do.  These theories can be useful in helping navigate questions about why we should honour contracts, or what sort of people we should be to live good lives, but they do not provide answers about what actions to take in specific cases.  However, as you become more familiar with ethical reasoning, it will become clearer how to incorporate these considerations into the problems of business ethics, although it’s unlikely they will give us answers to bigger questions on their own.

Social Contract Theory or “Contractarianism”

Contractarianism, or social contract theory, has come in many “flavours” over the past two centuries. Historical contractarians include Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), David Hume (1711–1776) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778); important modern day contractarians include the late John Rawls and Canada’s own David Gauthier. But the unifying starting point is that morality is, above all, a social phenomenon.

Social contract theorists ask us to consider what moral rules rational people would accept if they were setting up a society from scratch. That is, imagine for a moment that you lived in a world without rules. (Not just without government or law enforcement, but without rules altogether.) Such a world would likely be very nasty. (Or, as Hobbes famously wrote, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”) Now ask yourself, in order to escape such a nasty situation, what rules would rational folks agree to be bound by? That is, what would be the terms of the “contract” that people in such a situation would agree to? What should the “rules of the game” be? The social contract argument says roughly that if it would be rational to agree to a particular rule when devising a new society, then we should consider ourselves bound to follow that rule in our moral decision-making.

An important part of (most versions of) contract theory is a focus on reciprocity. That is, social contract theorists strongly believe that all moral obligations have to be reciprocal: they have to go in both directions. For example, if we were devising a new society, it would be reasonable for me to promise not to steal – so long as you promise the same thing. Contractarians ask, “what is a reasonable restriction on my behaviour, given how others are acting?”

Strengths and Weaknesses of Contractarianism

The main attraction of contractarianism lies in its emphasis upon consent. That is, contract theory bases moral obligation on what people can agree to. On such a conception, morality is not imposed upon us, but agreed to. Many have thought this an attractive vision of what ethics is about.

The main criticism of social contract theory is based upon the theory’s reliance on “hypothetical” consent. As real people in real situations, we might reasonably ask, “Why should I care what I would have agreed to in some other situation?”

Virtue Theory

Virtue theory has its historical roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384–322 BCE). Modern virtue theorists include Alasdair MacIntyre and Elizabeth Anscombe. Virtue theory is a way of looking at ethics that says that rather than focusing on rules and obligations, we ought instead to focus on the development of good character traits, or virtues. Among the virtues typically mentioned are courage, generosity, temperance, justice and truthfulness. For Aristotle, for example, the virtue of courage was to be found in avoiding being cowardly (a vice) and also avoiding being rash (also a vice).

Given their focus on personal characteristics, instead of asking “What should we do?” virtue theorists ask, “What sorts of people should we be?” For virtue theorists, actions themselves are only significant insofar as they demonstrate certain kinds of personality traits. Virtue theorists tell us that rather than thinking about what rules we should follow, we should think instead about what sort of person sets a good moral example. We should follow good moral examples when we see them, and we should strive to set a good moral example ourselves. In particular, the focus is not on the value of particular actions, but on whether – over the long run – we are displaying the appropriate kinds of character traits.

One reason many people find virtue theory appealing is that it seems to be consistent with how morality is experienced in life. That is, we often think not in terms of doing the right thing in any one circumstance, but of being – and striving to become – a good person. Further, virtue theory seems to accord well with the common intuition that actions sometimes matter less than the character of the people who perform them. When a bad person does something with good consequences, we seem justified in denying him praise.

The main criticism of virtue theory, perhaps, is that it is hard to say much about what kind of person one is without reference to the kinds of actions she performs or the kinds of rules she follows. What is it about an individual that makes her deserve being called “truthful?” One obvious answer is that she is truthful if she always follows the rule, “Tell the truth.” How do we tell whether a person is brave? By checking to see whether she commits brave acts. This casts doubt on the merit of a focus on virtues that is divorced from the notion of good actions.

Module Summary

We have now reviewed the basic details of a number of moral theories, namely deontological or duty ethics, utilitarianism, social contract theory, and virtue theory. In this course, we will not take a position on which of these theories is the most defensible, or the best suited to issues in business ethics. Each of these theories constitutes a sophisticated attempt to arrive at a general account of how we should live our moral lives.

The approach we will take in this course is to think of these various moral theories as tools. These theories provide a set of concepts, and a range of arguments that we can use to discuss issues in business ethics. What we will likely find is that for some kinds of issues, it will seem to make sense to reason like a utilitarian. A corporate executive, for example, might make good use of utilitarian reasoning in deciding which of two factories should be closed. It might be argued that, other things being equal, it makes the most sense for her choose whichever course of action will cause the least suffering – that is, close the factory that employs the fewest people. For other issues, a focus on duties and rights will seem more plausible. For instance, an office manager might consider searching every employee’s desk in hopes of finding out who has been stealing office supplies. This might be the most efficient way to solve the problem – it would maximize benefit – but it would also be a breach of the workers’ right to privacy.

In yet other cases, we may want to focus on the need to develop certain kinds of virtues, as when a corporate executive decides on a course of action based upon the example she knows she will be setting for her employees.Thus for any moral problem we discuss, we now have a toolbox consisting of various kinds of arguments that we can apply. We must exercise caution in using this toolbox, however. Each of these moral theories was conceived of as a stand-alone option that in important ways denies that the others are correct. Kant, for example, explicitly denies that consequences matter, so we can’t be both a Kantian and a utilitarian. There is thus something fishy about being a utilitarian one day and a deontologist the next. We can, however, reasonably claim to use both “utilitarian arguments” and “contractarian arguments” (for example). But we do a disservice to the devoted proponents of those theories if we allow ourselves to think that we are actually following the theories.

A further cautionary note: in taking advantage of the availability of all four of these theories, we may be tempted to choose which theory to use based on what conclusion we want to reach. Think, for example, of the problem faced by a sales manager whose most important customer refuses to deal with female sales reps. He has the choice of keeping his female reps off this account, and thus harming their careers, or allowing female reps an equal chance at this account, and risk losing a key customer. If I already believe that discrimination is inherently morally evil, then I may be tempted to appeal only to rights-based theories, and will be tempted to say that the manager should not cave in regardless of the consequences. (This might be the right course of action, but as students of moral philosophy we should never simply assume so.) We must therefore be careful not to use moral theories, and the sophisticated arguments they provide, simply to back up our existing beliefs.

Moral Relativism

Some people find the idea of a moral theory difficult to understand. A theory is supposed to be something that applies to everyone. But doesn’t each of us have different ideas of wrong and right? Questions like this often lead people to a position called “moral relativism.” Moral relativism is the doctrine that moral truth or value is relative to the beliefs of some individual or group. Effectively, the view is that something is right for me but not be for you and we can just agree to disagree.  That’s a nice sentiment but not very defensible.  If I think stealing your wallet is ok because I need the money, and you disagree with me, surely we want to say more than let’s agree to disagree.  This seems to miss the point about ethics and ethical actions.

Relativism comes in two types. The most common sort is cultural relativism, which is the doctrine that morality is relative to the beliefs or practices of particular cultural groups. The second, more extreme form of relativism is known as “subjectivism.” Subjectivism is the doctrine that morality is relative to the beliefs of the individual.

While an extended examination of moral relativism is beyond the scope of this course, the frequency with which some version or another of this doctrine pops up suggests that it warrants at least a brief mention. First, let us deal very briefly with subjectivism. Very few people, if any, actually believe that right and wrong is relative to the individual. In fact, our everyday moral practices imply that we do all believe in at least some shared values. For example, it is only because we have shared moral beliefs that we bother blaming people when we think they’ve done something wrong. We only blame people for their actions when we think those actions have failed to live up to some shared standard. What about cultural relativism? A thorough examination of the merits of cultural relativism is, again, beyond the scope of this course.

For our purposes, it will be sufficient to point out two things. First, there does seem to be a remarkable degree of agreement, even among members of very different cultures, as to the basic principles of morality. All cultures put restrictions on lying. All cultures see justice as a good thing. Different peoples may differ in how they apply those principles, or in the relative weight assigned to them, but they honour them none the less suggesting that they are not, in fact, relative at all.

Second, from the point of view of moral philosophy, the fact that “my culture believes doing X is morally wrong” is never sufficient reason to believe that doing X is wrong. As philosophers, we always want to ask questions like, “Why do we think doing X wrong?” “How do we know that doing X is wrong?” “What would happen if we all decided that doing X is right instead?”