Rules or Duty-Based Theories : ‘Deontological’

Another category of ethical theories are classified by philosophers as deontological, the term coming from the Greek word “deon” or “duty.”

This impressive sounding word basically indicates that actions are best judged as “good,” standing alone and without regard to consequences.

Thus, the inherent rightness of an act is not decided by analysing and choosing the act that produces the best consequences, but rather according to the premise that certain actions are “correct” in and of themselves because they stem from fundamental obligations.

Intentions or motivations, then, determine whether a decision is ethical or unethical.

Perhaps the most famous duty-based theory was developed by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant contended that moral laws took the form of categorical imperatives-principles that defined behaviour appropriate in all situations and that should be followed by all persons as a matter of duty.

Kant proposed three formulations of the categorical imperative:

1. Act only on maxims that you can will to be universal laws of nature (universality)

2. Always treat the humanity in a person as an end and never merely as a means (never treat people as means to an end)

3. So act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time (moral community)

The first formulation argues that there are universal moral standards. For example, could any society universalise customer shoplifting? The answer is no. Similarly, bribery of government officials by business people is unethical following the first formulation.

The second formulation is concerned with treatment of all stakeholders as persons. The application of this principle in business is to never treat customers as means, manipulating their behaviour to attain company goals.

The third formulation views any business organisation as a moral community. Managers, then, should respect the humanity of all workers in the firm, and employees should try to achieve common goals and shared ends.

In a larger sense, a market – including suppliers, competitors and customers – constitutes a relevant moral community.

For business, duty-based approaches to ethics have important implications. This theory suggests, among other things, that cost-benefit analysis is inappropriate to the evaluation of some situations.

Why? Decisions which produce a good corporate outcome but significantly hurt other stakeholders in the process are not morally acceptable using this line of reasoning.

For instance if marketing professionals have a special obligation to vulnerable consumers, such as the elderly, children or the less educated who are unable to resist advertising appeals that more sophisticated consumers receive with skepticism, those advertising appeals violate that obligation.

In addition, it suggests that the goal of seeking the maximum net consequences of an action may include intermediate steps that could be judgedas morally inappropriate. Why is this so? Because means as well as ends should be subjected to moral evaluation.

Thus, an implication of duty-based theories is that sometimes business executives must take actions that do not produce the best economic consequences.

To do otherwise could be morally wrong. That is, some actions might violate the basic duty to treat everyone fairly. For example, reflection indicates that the customers of the low-income stores where the poorest cuts of meat and vegetables are sent have been used merely as a means to obtain a satisfactory economic end.

Like utilitarianism, duty-based theories are controversial in part because there are many different deontological theories.

Various moral philosophers have compiled different lists of basic obligations or duties. While the lists overlap, they are not identical.

Second, duty-based theories represent the antithesis of modem relativism (i.e., the notion that moral decisions can be made only in the context of particular situations). Hence, they are viewed by some as not being well suited to our complex, multicultural and global marketplace because they emphasise the development of universal rules.

The very nature of such absolute approaches includes certain problems that are inherent in the development of categorical imperatives.

Among them are the following:

1. There are always contingencies that seem to complicate real-world situations: For example, suppose that a sales driven organisation has an absolute rule against the practice of providing gifts to customers. Suppose further that it enters a new international market where gift giving is a common and expected practice. Now also consider the prospect that success in this market will determine whether the firm can survive. Should the universal rule be violated or changed to accommodate these contingencies?

Other examples also might be explored. What about the prospect of dire consequences if one tells the truth? Are duties to customers or employees conditioned by their comparative vulnerability?

2. Universals also do not take into account the ethical character of the formulator of the universal principle: If the morality of the person formulating the principle is flawed, it is possible that the principle itself will be deficient. For example, one might take issue with the universal maxims formulated by egoistic managers who see business as merely a game, the sole purpose of which is the accumulation of personal wealth.

3. There may not be a mechanism for resolving conflicts among two absolute moral duties: Managers clearly have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders and a duty of fidelity to their employees. What happens when action requires a trade-off between these duties? Which duty takes precedence? Is one universal more absolute than another? What about the duty of motherhood for a female employee versus loyalty to the job and company?

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