Ethics is about what is right and what is wrong. The pursuit of ethics involves many areas of our lives: religion, philosophy, morals, values and even history. Additional tools we can use to make ethical decisions include logic, conscience, and feelings. I believe ethics means taking all of these factors into account, plus any others that may be relevant, in making a decision to do the right thing. Obviously, what factors we put into the decision will affect the outcome. The definition of what is “right” can be hotly debated. Again, each of these factors simply complicates any decision we make. For example, just because we want to do something, doesn’t make it right. Simply because we feel like doing something, doesn’t make it right. Clearly, no one factor can necessarily help us reach correct ethical decisions. Sometimes the most difficult ethics decisions we make involve a conflict in important values.
Business ethics are important because business is an important part of life. The discussion of ethics in the context of a course on law is appropriate because a free society such as ours tends to reflect its ethics in the laws it passes.
Let me suggest the following process in making ethical decisions:
1. Determine the facts: In order to make well-grounded ethical decisions, we need to know the facts. In business situations, this includes an investigation of the law. Business people are required to follow the law. The current state of the law is one of the facts necessary to know the right decision to make. Obviously, business people will usually rely on lawyers to gather this legal information, and the lawyers will give the business person an “opinion” about whether certain activity is legal. But the activity itself must be investigated so the proper facts can be given to legal counsel. Usually this initial investigation is simply done by the company, or by the person in the company faced with the ethical dilemma.
2. Decide whether an ethical dilemma exists: Dilemmas are choices we must make which do not have obvious and clear answers, at least when first presented. An ethical dilemma is presented whenever the decision may be viewed by others as morally “right or wrong.” How do we know when we face ethical dilemmas? We use our first impressions, our feelings, our logic, our upbringing, and our conscience. We use any other factor that may trigger internally a question in our minds about whether the action we are taking is appropriate in a moral sense. One way to avoid simply dismissing such thoughts and feelings is to ask ourselves simple questions based on objective criteria, such as:
“At a cocktail party would I tell somebody that I engaged in this behavior or action?”
“Would I tell the people who raised me that I engaged in this action?”
“Would I tell my minister?” Better yet, “Would I feel the need to confess?!”
“Would I tell my first grade teacher?”
The purpose of each of these questions is to delve into our past and present experience and teaching to determine whether we would be embarrassed or uncomfortable about taking certain action. If we would be embarrassed or uncomfortable, we probably are facing an ethical dilemma. Note that this step does not necessarily tell us how to resolve the dilemma, but merely tells us we are facing an ethical dilemma.
3. Synthesize and analyze: This is a two step process.
A. State the problem. The problem must be stated in light of facts gathered. For example a problem could be stated thusly:
“Is it acceptable for me to lie to my neighbor’s husband about whether his wife is at my home when he intends to harm her?”
“Is it acceptable for me to start a business of my own that will compete with my employer’s business?”
The more simply the problem is stated, the more likely you will be able to flesh out the basic underlying facts, feelings, prompting of conscience and logic needed to resolve the issue.
B. State the pros and cons. At this point, you should use your understanding and knowledge of philosophical concepts that attempt to address right from wrong. These may be religious, such as the golden rule, or they may relate to a legalistic approach, such as examining the rights and duties of the parties affected by the choice. The pros and cons may also include the examination of such abstractions of character like honesty, integrity, truthfulness, love, thankfulness and so forth. This may also involve considering the consequences of the action to you and others. Simply stated, examining the action at this level requires us to be familiar with and understand the various philosophical approaches suggested by philosophers about moral decision making.
C. Apply ethical reasoning. Ethical reasoning is a study in philosophy. Philosophical study of ethics includes many different approaches and theories. These philosophies should be applied to the problem. If you are not familiar with philosophical approaches to ethics, consider independent research of the following, which are some of the more popular types of ethical analysis, but there are many others:
Kant’s Categorical Imperative
Rights and Duties Analysis
4. Take the action: Once you have analyzed the situation and weighed the possible outcomes, you need to make a decision. If your decision is challenged, you will be in a good position to say why you came to the conclusion that your action was right. Society may disagree with you, but if you have a reasoned approach as to why you think certain actions should be taken or not taken then you have begun the process of debate and greater understanding of the problem itself. A careful investigation may also keep you from being fired, thrown in jail or fined!