Ethics – the foundation of ethos

12 Jul 2022

Ethics are important in society because it reflects honour and human dignity that crystalize ethos that drive personal achievements and innovations

Moral judgement

Decision makers in organisations are often faced with ethical dilemma in their work process. Most choices are obvious to choose with laws and regulations to guide along, some immoral actions touch the grey area of the laws, it is not illegal but impact human dignity. Therefore, we need to look at the ethics theories to perform moral judgement to make morally right decisions, especially when we are confused by the options and moral impacts. These principles are back up by theoretical framework and wisdom of the past.    


First concept is Utilitarianism which was developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

According to this principle, an action is morally right if it results the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people affected by the action.

A person acts Utilitarianism if he or she adopts actions based on the moral judgement on the amount of pleasure and pain caused by the actions. When the collective pleasure outweighs the pain inflicted then the actions are considered morally right.
Applying this concept to Child labour issue in the third world countries. One might argue that child labour could be morally right because the child earns some money as pleasure for his or her family, the parents might be happy because or else their children would end up on the streets for exploitation any way, possibly in worse pain than exploitation by low wages. The money could help the children to buy some education which otherwise not affordable to them, and the hiring company has the pleasure of low costs benefits.
However, on the other hand, decision makers of large corporations would argue that the pain of tarnished company image outweigh the benefits of low costs, hence many listed companies would avoid child labour in outsourcing to third world countries, given child labour morality can be very sensitive and emotional to human dignity in developed society.            

As such, when applying Utilitarianism, one must aware of the following problems:

-      It is very subjective to the person assessing the pleasure and pain.

-      Pleasure and pain sometimes are not easy to quantify and weigh.

-      Minority interests might be overlooked and ignored.

Hence, the below theory can provide further insights in the moral judgement of the ethical dilemma.

Kantian ethics

This theory named Categorical Imperative framework, it was developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The maxims below help business person/person to test if the actions are morally right.

Maxim 1- Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Maxim 2 - Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Maxim 3 – Act only so that the will through its maxims could regard itself at the same time as universally lawgiving.

A person acts Kantian ethics if their actions pass the test of the above 3 elements.

 -      according to Maxim 1, the action can be performed by everyone as a universal law. For example, murder is an immoral action, if everyone is legalised to murder to earn money, then there will be no possibility of human life left on earth. Another example, lying is immoral, if everyone is allow lying then there is no truth in what we say to facilitate the functioning of business process or other human activities.  

 -      according to Maxim 2, the actions should not ignore human dignity. For example, when we employ workers with wages we are regarded as using the workers as means, so we cannot ignore their health and safety needs and personal goals as an end. That’s why Australia has Super schemes to secure workers retirement, and Child labour is forbidden in developed countries.

-      according to Maxim 3, the actions would be accepted by everyone. For example, if you are comfortable to let everyone know in the news about your actions, then the actions likely to be morally right.    

Analects of Confucius

Let’s also consider to use the wisdom from the East. Analects of Confucius was edited by Confucius (551- 479 BC). There was one unique saying from his teaching translated in English stated that

“Do not do to others what you do not do yourself”

This test is fairly easy to use to determine if the action is morally right when thinking in the positions of others impacted by the actions. The child labour become obviously not morally right because as a decision maker you would not want your own child to be exploited that way.


Final thought

The consequences of moral judgement cannot be taken lightly. Especially those hold significant power such as legislators and policy makers, their decisions affect humanity on a grand scale and impact human civilisation. Interpretation of ethical practices and adoption of different theoretical approach can become a heated and emotional issue. It can lead to ideological struggle and conflicts. States that adopt socialism can defend their policies with Utilitarianism which often in conflict with States that adopt liberalism with Kantian ethics.
Human rights treatment are often the factors that govern foreign policies between States.
Because those who favour liberalism would criticise socialism on ignoring minorities and don’t view human dignity as vital element for collective development, socialism is being criticised for using Utilitarianism in false sense by over estimating the pleasure and underestimating the pain. But then again, the truth is that it is the respect for human dignity that form the foundation of ethos in a society that drive innovation and development. Ethos allows humans to live in harmony. The fairness and honour of dignity allow all talented individual to pursue self-actualization that drive progress of civilisation. Therefore, Kantian ethics need to be practiced on a personal level to form the foundation then top up to organisations, institutions and governance establishments. Just look at the success of the countries that practice Kantian ethics in their system.    

Let’s apply your learning from this blog to a hypothetical situation: let say you saw “A person with a gun” is chasing a victim, you knew which way in the junction the victim turn into, would you tell lie to “the person with the gun” to save the victim? And why? Given you don’t know the background of both parties and you must make a choice.       


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Johnson Chau
I really like that quote from confucius - what amazes me is that people from centuries ago is able to come up with such novel and thought provoking ideas, especially at a time where education is limited. Love to see more articles about this!
MBA ChitChat
Let’s apply your learning from this blog to a hypothetical situation: let say you saw “A person with a gun” is chasing a victim, you knew which way in the junction the victim turn into, would you tel a lie to “the person with a gun” to save the victim? And why? Given you don’t know the background of both parties and you must make a choice.