Business Ethics

In business ethics, people have always struggled to choose between two different ideas – whether the ends justify the means or vice versa. Theories of duties and rights focus on a person’s actions and neglect their outcome. Meanwhile, theories of consequences argue that the ends justify the means. Even though such theories as theory of duties, libertarianism and utilitarianism have their strengths and weaknesses, it can be argued that the consequences are more important than the actions if the benefit of the ends is great for the greatest number of people.

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Libertarianism, the area in the rights theory which views human’s basic rights as moral guidance, supports the idea that the means justify the ends. For libertarians, such rights as the right to life, freedom, free speech, religious expression, pursuing happiness and possessions with an emphasis on personal rights and happiness are “the providers of moral guidance”. The main advantages of the theory of rights is its simplicity and support of a freedom of one’s expression. Even though libertarianism stands for and protects human’s rights, it has some limitations as it does not promote tolerance or offer solutions. For instance, as a person has a right for freedom, an employer cannot command an employee what to wear at work. At the same time, as the company is the employer’s property, he or she has a right to give commands there as long as they do not abuse a worker. Therefore, both the employer and the employee are equally correct, and the theory of rights cannot offer any solution of the situation without neglecting one’s rights. Therefore, the rights theory has its limitations in the process of problem resolution or finding means justifiable or not.  

The biggest strength of theory of duties is its outlining of people’s responsibilities; however, their biggest weakness is its inapplicability in some cases. Theory of duties is based on the notion that people should obey a set of certain rules. Therefore, people have duties to the others and themselves. According to Brusseau, ethical responsibilities of an individual to the other people include avoiding of wronging others, keeping promises, demonstration of respect, being honest, promoting everybody’s welfare as well as being thankful for help. In addition, people have a duty to compensate any harm they do to the others. These ethical responsibilities and their simplicity can be considered the strengths of the duty theory as they provide general guidance on people’s behavior, and some of these can be found in religious texts like the Bible. At the same time, theory of duties has limitations as it cannot be applied in all instances without hurting any party. In fact, focusing on ethics of one’s actions can lead to negative consequences that eliminate the correctness of the theory of duties. For instance, the duty of fairness is far more controversial than the ethical responsibilities discussed above. According to Brusseau, Aristotle’s idea of fairness means equal treatment of equals and unequal one of unequals. It creates an ethical dilemma of whether it is correct to consider someone unequal and treat him or her unequally or not. For instance, in the case described by Nabilah Deen, Holly’s coworkers’ unequal treatment of her because of her gender made the woman feel abused. A large construction company intern, Holly, works mainly with men, who consider her unequal and treat her accordingly. For instance, they often “hold out their arms as though expecting her to fall, slip, or hurt herself”. From the male workers’ perspective, a female intern is weaker and less experienced, and therefore, should be treated not like their physically strong coworkers, who have been working for the company for many years. Thus, these people follow Aristotle’s idea, and their actions are their duty.  Nevertheless, the consequence of their ethically right unequal treatment of Holly is her sense of insecurity and worrying about her future at the company. At the same time, the workers’ seeking for fairness makes them neglect their duty to demonstrate their respect to the others. In other words, unequal treatment of unequals is an act of disrespect; therefore, they should be treated equally no matter what. For instance, in Holly’s case, her co-workers have to let her do her job no matter how dangerous or difficult it is for a female intern. In the case if she falls or injures herself, they should not change their attitude to her even if it means being indifferent. Therefore, equal treatment of unequals as the consequence is more ethically justifiable than means in this case.

The ends justify the means if the results of one’s actions are beneficial to the greatest number of people. The theory of the greatest good, utilitarianism views means as justifiable if they make as many people as possible happier. Among the advantages of the utilitarian theory include clarity, flexibility, simplicity, and acceptability, while subjectivity, breadth and injustice are among its disadvantages. One more advantage of the theory of consequence is that it offers a solution for ethical issues by justifying a goal and its means if it increases net happiness. The case of 7-Eleven is a great example of the notion that the ends do not justify the means if it does not make the greatest number of people happier.  In Australia, the convenience store chain 7-Eleven exploited its workers. According to Adele Ferguson, Sarah Danckert and Klaus Toft, ABC’s documentary series Four Corners revealed that 7-Eleven paid its workers less than half the legal minimum wage to reduce the labor costs. Moreover, “the range of apparently illegal activity by franchisees extends beyond wage fraud and includes blackmail and withholding passports and drivers licenses of staff”. The ethical issues involved in the case range from cheating and deception to pitiless exploitation and law breaking. At the same time, 7-Eleven increased its profits by keeping store costs down as a consequence. The company is the biggest convenience store chain in Australia at the price of exploitation and breaking the law. Even though the purpose of being the biggest chain seems to be justifiable from the utilitarian’s point of view, the means of making hundreds 7-Eleven’s workers unhappy by cutting their salary is not. The fact that 60 percent of 7-Eleven stores underpaid their stuff shows that the company’s actions significantly decreased net’s happiness, and therefore, cannot be justified. At the same time, if the owners’ actions were guided by the theory of rights, they would not underpay their workers. 

Even though theories of duties, rights and consequences have their strengths and weaknesses, it can be argued that the ends justify the actions if they benefit the greatest number of people. The theory of duties is based on the idea that people have moral responsibility to act in accordance with the rules regardless the potential goodness or badness of the consequences. The theory of rights protects people’s basic ones, however, causes conflicts and does not help to resolve them. The theory of consequences justifies ends regardless means if the result makes as much people as possible happier. Simplicity, clarity and acceptability are among the strengths of utilitarianism, while its subjectivity and unfairness are among the theory’s disadvantages. Nevertheless, a person has to take all these ethical theories into consideration while making an important decision in business.

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