According to Soanes & Stevenson (2010), ethics can be defined as ‘a set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field or form of conduct.’ Ever since the olden days, human beings have been trying to decide a clear distinction between right and wrong. Although there are a set of rules or norms that society follows, however, the line between black and white is often blurred making it hard to determine what is ethically correct or unjust.
Currently, the world is following three general moral philosophies. They are metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics (Shaw & Barry, 2009). Each school of thoughts portrays different issues that argue about the meaning of being morally right. However, one concept cannot stand on its own without being dependent on the others (Shaw & Barry, 2009). Therefore, these moral philosophies are inter-related. Metaethics is the general outlook to ethical studies. It involves the study on metaphysical and psychological issues (Shaw & Barry, 2009). Normative ethics involves coming up with a moral standard to judge an action whether it is morally right or wrong (Shaw & Barry, 2009). Meanwhile, applied ethics will look at, examine and analyze moral issues that are specific or controversial such as abortion and homosexuality (Shaw & Barry, 2009).
This article will discuss moral issues that are involved in a business environment by using the principles from normative ethics or deontology. There are three strategies that are suggested; virtue theories, duty theories and consequentialist theories (Brenkert & Beauchamp, 2009). However, this article is only going to focus on analyzing and examining duty based theories. Immanuel Kant is probably one of the most prominent figures in this area (Brenkert & Beauchamp, 2009). Therefore, this article will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses on Kant’s duty-based ethics. It will also include suggestions for managers or professionals who want to apply this ethical theory in their organization and the benefits that they can gain from it.
Kant’s duty-based ethics
Kant is one of the most sought after names when it comes to business ethics. Having been influenced by Pufendorf, Kant agrees that each individual has the obligation to perform moral duties to oneself as well as to other people (Bowie, 1999). However, he argues that there are two types of duty; hypothetical and categorical imperatives (Bowie, 1999). The hypothetical imperative is when an individual will perform a certain action in order to achieve a desired end result (Bowie, 1999). Meanwhile, the categorical imperative involves an individual performing a certain action as compulsory regardless of the end result or away from any personal influence (Bowie, 1999).
For Kant, he believes that categorical imperative is the basis principle to determine whether one’s action is deemed to be ethically correct. He has proposed three versions or maxims of categorical imperatives (Bowie, 1999). Firstly, an action can only be considered as ethically correct if it can be accepted or made into a universal law (Bowie, 1999). For example, an individual who is in financial trouble make a fake promise to return back the money which he or she has borrowed. One has to decide whether it is possible to make an untruthful agreement when one is in a desperate situation into a universal law. If the answer is no, then, according to Kant, the action is unethical. The second maxim states that a person should be treated as an end and not the means to achieve an end (Bowie, 1999). This means that every individual should be treated with respect and not just as an instrument to achieve personal happiness or goals. For example, it will be morally wrong to commit suicide because an individual is seen as using life as a mean to escape from experiencing further misery or hardship. Finally, the third maxim calls upon each individual to act as a member of an ideal kingdom where he or she is both the ruler and subject at the same time (Bowie, 1999). It simply means that a set of rules that are made should treat every individual with respect and dignity. These rules should also be accepted by everybody.
The next section of this article will delve deeper into Kant’s duty-based ethics by paying special attention to the three formulations that are mentioned above. Each maxim will be examined on their strengths and weaknesses supported by examples that are related to business.
Kant’s Duty-Based Ethics: Strengths and Weaknesses
Based on the first maxim from the categorical imperative, Kant suggests that every action should follow a certain set of guidelines that is adheres by everyone as a universal law without any exception (Pfeiffer & Forsberg, 2004). Both the action and principle must be coherent in order to be considered as ethically or morally wrong (Pfeiffer & Forsberg, 2004). Therefore, if an individual does not agree to follow certain rules, those standards are no longer relevant or valid. For example, if everyone feels that it is fine to break promises in any given situation, then, promises will no longer holds any value in the society.
One of the positive outcomes from the first maxim is that it ensures a certain level of certainty when it comes to ethical decision making (Case, 1996). This is because Kant’s duty-based theories only focus on the actions and not the consequences of those actions. So, an individual should be able to take a moral action without much dilemma if the decision is right and govern to a set of rules that can be universalized (Case, 1996). For example, from a business point of view, a company who tried to re-negotiate a contract is considered as immoral. This happens with General Motors who tried to reduce the price that are stated in the initial contracts with their suppliers (SAGE Publication, 2011). So, one has to think whether the action of breaking contracts can be universalized. The answer is no simply because contracts will cease to exist as nobody will believe that the other party has the intention of keeping their promises.
However, most critics argue that in the real world, nothing is clear cut. Since Kant’s duty-based theories can be considered as an absolutist, there should be no exceptions to any given rules (Smith, 2008). Many business organizations will often re-negotiate contracts due to many factors such as economic change. A contract that is made 5 years ago may no longer be relevant today. Although this situation often occurs, many businessmen still believe in the action of contract making. If it is solely based on Kant’s first maxim, then, contract making will become irrelevant.
Another advantage of applying this ethical theory is the emphasis given to the moral values of every person. Kant’s second maxim proposes that every human being should be treated as an end and not as an instrument to meet an end (Ferrell & Fraedrich, 2010). The focus of this principle is to give equal treatment to every human being (Ferrell & Fraedrich, 2010). In order to achieve this, Kant’s has suggested two different forms of freedom; negative and positive freedom. Negative freedom emphasizes that an individual should not be deceived or coerced into doing something (Ferrell & Fraedrich, 2010). Meanwhile, positive freedom is the privilege to allow an individual to develop to his or her full capability (Ferrell & Fraedrich, 2010). In a nutshell, in order to treat another human being with respect, an action should not involve any form of deception or coercion and it must allow the development of a person’s moral potential.
Due to the current economic downturn, many companies are laying off their employees. To many people, this may seem to be an immoral act. However, according to Kant’s second maxim, this may not necessarily unethical as long as the employers do not deceive or coerce their employees into taking the job (Painter-Morland & Werhane, 2010). This is because most employers argue that employees should be well aware there is a chance of unemployment when they are hired for the job position. Furthermore, workers often jump from one job opening to another in search for better personal benefits. Therefore, this makes the action of laying off employees morally correct. As a result, critics argue that Kant’s duty-based ethics permits wrong actions to occur that consequently will make the world a less happy place (Painter-Morland & Werhane, 2010). Employees lay off during economic turmoil has bad consequences. During this time, workers are looking at their employers to treat them with respect and reward them for their loyalty. When this situation does not happen, critics debate that employers are not exercising human rights. This act in itself goes against Kant’s second maxim.
Finally, the third formulation suggested by Kant that is each member of the society or organization should act as if they are a member of an ideal kingdom in which he or she is the ruler as well as the subject (Donaldson & Werhane, 2007). This brings about the advantage that every individual possesses the autonomy and rationale to make informed as well as ethically correct actions (Donaldson & Werhane, 2007). In a business setting, any regulations and policies that are made by an organization should take into account the interest of every individual before they are implemented (Donaldson & Werhane, 2007). This allows the ability for every human being to be treated with respect under a set of rules that are agreed by everyone.
However, critics argue that Kant’s duty-based theory does not deal with conflicting situations (Donaldson & Werhane, 2007). In a real business scenario, it will involve giving employees a lot of autonomy when it comes to decision making. An individual’s interest has the power to overrule the interest of the whole group. Kant’s third maxim will also mean that an organization should not have a hierarchical organization where workers perform the orders by their managers. When duties are conflicted, Kant duty-based ethics does not suggest any resolution for the situation (Donaldson & Werhane, 2007). Furthermore, without a certain autonomy given to the managers, an organization will cease to work efficiently.
The Usefulness of Applying Kant’s Duty-Based Ethics in a Workplace
Although Kant’s duty-based ethics have its limitations and challenges but if the three maxims are taken as a whole, it can serve as a guide to managers and professionals on managing their organizations better (Boje, 2008). Since Kant stresses the importance of morally motivated actions, organizations will be able to create a positive working experience (Boje, 2008). One of the methods of applying Kant’s duty-based ethics is to have a more democratic workplace. When employees are given more autonomy in an organization, they will feel a sense of belonging making them more motivated to do a better job. Aside from that, companies that place considerable interest on their workers will also provide a sense of security making them more loyal to the firm.
One good example is to implement an open book policy where employees are frequently updated with the financial status of their companies (Case, 1996). This method is headed by Jack Stack from Springfield Manufacturing Company (Case, 1996). Since employees are able to obtain important information at any point of time, this makes it difficult for employers to deceive or hide any unwanted negative news from them. As a result, employees will more likely cooperate with the organization in order to help it to get over these hard times. Motivation to work harder can come in many forms. It can be due to being respected or the work is meaningful giving the workers a sense of satisfaction.
Boje, D. M (2008). Critical Theory Ethics for Business and Public Administration. Information Age Publishing. Charlotte.
Bowie, N. E (1999). Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell. New Jersey.
Brenkert, G. G & Beauchamp, T. L (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics. Oxofrd University Press. New York.
Case, J (1996). The Open-Book Management: Coming Business Revolution. HarperBusiness. New York.
Donaldson, T & Werhane, P (2007). Ethical Issues in Business: A Philosophical Approach. Prentice Hall. New Jersey.
Ferrell, O. C & Fraedrich, J (2010). Business Ethics: Ethical Decision Making& Cases. South-Western College Pub. Boston.
Painter-Morland, M & Werhane, P (2010). Cutting-edge Issues in Business Ethics: Continental Challenges to Tradition and Practice. Springer. New York.
Pfeiffer, R.S & Forsberg, R. P (2004). Ethics on the job: Cases and Strategies. Wadsworth Publishing. Beverly.
SAGE Publication (2011). SAGE Brief Guide to Business Ethics. SAGE Publications. Thousand Oaks.
Shaw, W.H & Barry, V (2009). Moral Issues in Business. Wadsworth Publishing. Beverly.
Smith, J. D (2008). Normative Theory and Business Ethics. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Lanham.
Soanes, C & Stevenson, A (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press. New York.