Business Ethics

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In business, many different topics that are related to ethics are involved. A discussion of each of these topics is important, which is why this paper talks about each of those topics in detail. There are seven different types of business ethics that this paper refers to. In the order that these topics are addressed, they are as follows: duty-based ethics, consequences-based ethics, rights-based ethics, human nature-based ethics, relativistic-based ethics, entitlement-based ethics, and virtue-based ethics. Adding to these paragraphs, an opinion response is also included, and it also gives the paper a conclusion to wrap up the detailed look into this area. For each type of business ethics, a brief definition, including other names for the style if any are relevant, follows. Then, the paper provides a workplace example of at least forty words in order to demonstrate that there is enough knowledge to come up with a new example that does not refer directly to class materials. Other sources are used as necessary, and all of these sources will be both scholarly and easily available online. Overall, this paper shows a complex picture of the various types of business ethics that can be used in order to make better business policies and to keep companies more ethical in general.

Duty-Based Ethics

Duty-based ethics has many other names, some of which have really long words in them, like deontological ethics. Obligation and rules are two words that are also used instead of duty in duty-based ethics. The idea is that a person is morally required to follow the rules or to fulfill an ethical duty. An example of how this shows up in the workplace might be the worker who insists on working until five o’clock on the dot even when there is no work to be done. The boss can even say out loud that it is alright to go home at four-thirty, but the worker with a duty-based sense of ethics will sit in the cubicle or wherever until it is absolutely time to leave.

Consequences-Based Ethics

Consequences-based ethics, which is also named consequentialism, might be the most realistic of the ethical approaches. The basic idea is very simple because consequence-based ethics relies on punishment or “consequences” for bad actions. This makes it easy for people to weigh the costs and benefits, which is very practical. Being practical is important, as some scholars have written: “It's not that managers dislike the idea of doing the right thing. As University of Toronto Assistant Professor Andrew Stark argues, far too many business ethicists just haven't offered them the practical advice they need” (Stark, 1993, p. 38). This shows that consequence-based ethics could be helpful because it is more down to earth than some other systems.

A scenario involving consequences-based ethics is easy to construct. Suppose a worker is considering whether to steal a pad of paper from the office. If the worker believes there will be no punishment, the consequences-based approach would be to take the pad of paper. This would then be a completely ethical act because it gives the worker a good consequence. That worker now has a pad of paper, which is a good thing for the worker. This is why punishment must be used to change the equation in consequences-based ethics.

Rights-Based Ethics

Rights-based ethics is about making sure that people get the things to which they have basic human rights, like life and freedom. It is also about not interfering with other people getting their rights met. In the workplace, an example might be if someone who is disabled applies for a job and the person doing the hiring knows there are practical concerns with accommodating that person. Under some other systems, it is perfectly moral to consider the company’s needs first and to decide that making changes could be too much trouble. With rights-based ethics, though, the decision is different. Disabled people, too, have a right to “pursue happiness” by working. The hiring decision must take this into account.

Human Nature-Based Ethics

Human nature-based ethics is exactly what it sounds like—it is an ethical approach that focuses on what humans would be like when outside the structures of modern society. What is natural and comes easily is assumed to be good, even if it means people do things that are against the law, within reason. This type of ethics supports watching out for oneself even at the expense of others, and some have studied how these attitudes relate to other factors: “Age is negatively related to one’s Machiavellian orientation and positively related to negative attitudes about corporate efforts at social responsibility. The results suggest a greater need to focus business ethics instruction based on student characteristics” (Arlow, 1991, p. 63). It is interesting that the college students studied had a more idealistic view of ethics the younger they were, only embracing human nature as they got a little older.

A business-based example of human nature-based ethics might be if a worker took the approach of always doing what felt enjoyable regardless of the consequences. For example, a worker might harass someone toward whom there was a sexual attraction, thinking that because it felt good to give this kind of attention, it must be morally right. It is easy to see how this approach could lead to sticky situations.

Relativistic-Based Ethics

Relativistic-based ethics is also called ethical relativism, which is a very similar name for the same thing. It is also related to cultural relativism, which is an idea that comes from anthropology. Relativistic-based ethics is a term that means context is very important and it is impossible to tell if something is moral or not without knowing the cultural and other contexts where the action took place. In business, this could show up with a company outsourcing labor to a less-developed country where equality among all people is not held as a high value the way it is in some cultures from the developed world. Those in the country where the business was founded might be upset by some of the inequality they see in the country where outsourcing takes place. Under relativistic-based ethics, though, the upset people cannot really know if the inequality they see is immoral or not without knowing that culture.

Entitlement-Based Ethics

Entitlement-based ethics is an even more extreme version of some of the practical approaches to business ethics. The idea states that each person is only responsible to look out for the benefit of the self. No one else matters. This is kind of like consequences-based ethics, except that in consequences-based ethics, a person can look beyond the self and choose to view “good consequences” as referring to good things happening for a whole company or even the whole world. Entitlement-based ethics is limited to the self. For example, much white-collar crime could be said to be based on the ethics of entitlement. People decide that getting more money, which is good for them, is the only moral outcome that matters, and so they feel they can just steal from a company and not even feel very bad about it.

Virtue-Based Ethics

Virtue-based ethics can be thought of as the opposite of consequences-based ethics, which this paper talked about above. With virtue-based ethics, the emphasis is on moral character and on doing the actions that will make someone the best person possible. The problem with virtue-based ethics is that it seems to have little to do with the real world. This makes it hard to translate to the area of business. For example, it has been pointed out that, “The search for moral character, a stable personality trait that would predict immoral behavior began with the classic classroom cheating studies of Hartshorne and May (1928) . . . [T]hese studies seemed to demonstrate that immoral behavior was situation-specific” (Trevino, 1992, p. 454). This is not a good finding for virtue-based ethics because virtue-based ethics should be universal and not affected by the situation so much.

An example of how this works in the workplace might be that everyone in the office is in the habit of padding their expenses when on business trips, but then a new worker comes in and refuses to do this even though it is normal. That worker cares more about having good character and integrity than about whether or not this is something that will go unpunished. That is virtue-based ethics.

Opinion Response and Conclusion

Personally, I think I have always mentally used a system of virtue-based ethics, even though I did not know it. I believe that things are absolutely right or wrong because they make you a better or a worse person, not for any other reason. Therefore, I think everyone should try to be the best person possible. This is a really hard system to keep up because if I fail, then I feel like an awful person and I just let everything else slide, too, all at once. However, I do not think I would feel comfortable with a system more like entitlement-based ethics. This is because I do not know if I could be so self-serving without losing who I am. I guess I have a little bit of duty-based ethics in there, too, because I also think it is an obligation to do things for others and not only be out for myself.

Some of the other systems, like consequences-based ethics, seem like they would be really practical and easy to apply to a business model. I think it is alright for people as individuals to make different decisions about which system to use than the decisions that entire businesses make. I have heard some people talk about companies as if a company is just one giant person, but it is not. A business has its own needs and it has to choose an ethical system accordingly. That is why it has been a valuable discussion to explore all these things in this paper.


Arlow, P. (1991). Personal characteristics in college students' evaluations of business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 10(1), 63-69.

Stark, A. (1993). What's the matter with business ethics? Harvard Business Review, 71(3), 38.

Trevino, L. K. (1992). Moral reasoning and business ethics: Implications for research, education, and management. Journal of Business Ethics, 11(5-6), 445-459.