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Ethical Theory: Overview

Ethical Theories are attempts to provide a clear, unified account of what our ethical obligations are. They are attempts, in other words, to tell a single “story” about what we are obligated to do, without referring directly to specific examples. It is common in discussions of business ethics to appeal to one or more ethical theories in an attempt to clarify what it is right or wrong to do in particular situations. Some of the philosophical ethical theories commonly appealed to include:

  • Utilitarianism, which says that the right thing to do in any situation is whatever will “do the most good” (that is, produce the best outcomes) taking into consideration the interests of all concerned parties;
  • Kantianism (or Deontology more generally), which says that—as a matter of respect—there are certain absolute (or nearly absolute) rules that must be followed (for example, the rule that we must respect people’s privacy, or respect other people’s right to make decisions about their own lives);
  • Social Contract Theory (or “contractarianism”), which says that, in order to figure out what ethical rules to follow, we ought to imagine what rules rational beings would agree to in an “ideal” decision-making context;
  • Virtue Theory, which says that we ought to focus not on what rules to follow, but on what kinds of people (or organizations!) we want to be, and what kinds of ethical examples we ought to follow;
  • Feminist Ethics, which is a complex set of interrelated perspectives that emphasize interpersonal concerns such as caring, interdependence, and the ethical requirements of particular relationships. Such concerns are traditionally identified with women, but Feminist Ethics should not be thought of as a theory only for women.

In some cases, scholars attempt to use a single ethical theory to shed light on a topic or range of topics. (A good example would be Norman Bowie’s book, Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective.) A more typical approach—one taken by many business ethics textbooks today—is to attempt to use insights from various ethical theories to shed light on different aspects of a particular problem. Such an approach might involve, for example, asking which decision in a particular situation would result in the best consequences (a Utilitarian consideration) but then asking whether acting that way would violate any Kantian rules or whether a person acting that way would be exhibiting the kinds of virtues that a good person would exhibit.

The role of ethical theory in business ethics is somewhat controversial, in part because Business Ethics is seen as a branch of “applied ethics.” Some regard applied ethics (and hence Business Ethics, along with bioethics, environmental ethics, etc.) as a field that takes “standard” ethical theories and applies them to practical problems. Such an approach might involve asking, for example, “What would Kant say about privacy in the workplace?” Others regard applied ethics as an attempt to gain theoretical insight (or to “build” better ethical theories) by testing them against real-life problems.

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The Concise Encyclopedia of Business Ethics Copyright © 2023 by Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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