Major Ethical Perspectives

Read this description of Utilitarianism in relation to other ethical theories. After reading, be sure you are able to define deontology, describe social contract theory, and discuss the role of virtue in ethical matters.

Josephson’s Core Values Analysis and Decision Process

Michael Josephson, a noted American ethicist, believes that a current set of core values has been identified and that the values can be meaningfully applied to a variety of personal and corporate decisions.

To simplify, let's say that there are ethical and nonethical qualities among people in the United States. When you ask people what kinds of qualities they admire in others or in themselves, they may say wealth, power, fitness, sense of humor, good looks, intelligence, musical ability, or some other quality. They may also value honesty, caring, fairness, courage, perseverance, diligence, trustworthiness, or integrity. The qualities on the second list have something in common – they are distinctively ethical characteristics. That is, they are commonly seen as moral or ethical qualities, unlike the qualities on the first list. You can be, like the Athenian Alcibiades, brilliant but unprincipled, or, like some political leaders today, powerful but dishonest, or wealthy but uncaring. You can, in short, have a number of admirable qualities (brilliance, power, wealth) that are not per se virtuous. Just because Harold is rich or good-looking or has a good sense of humor does not mean that he is ethical. But if Harold is honest and caring (whether he is rich or poor, humorous or humorless), people are likely to see him as ethical.

Among the virtues, are any especially important? Studies from the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, California, have identified six core valuesin our society, values that almost everyone agrees are important to them. When asked what values people hold dear, what values they wish to be known by, and what values they wish others would exhibit in their actions, six values consistently turn up: (1) trustworthiness, (2) respect, (3) responsibility, (4) fairness, (5) caring, and (6) citizenship.

Note that these values are distinctly ethical. While many of us may value wealth, good looks, and intelligence, having wealth, good looks, and intelligence does not automatically make us virtuous in our character and habits. But being more trustworthy (by being honest and by keeping promises) does make us more virtuous, as does staying true to the other five core values.

Notice also that these six core values share something in common with other ethical values that are less universally agreed upon. Many values taught in the family or in places of worship are not generally agreed on, practiced, or admired by all. Some families and individuals believe strongly in the virtue of saving money or in abstaining from alcohol or sex prior to marriage. Others clearly do not, or at least don't act on their beliefs. Moreover, it is possible to have and practice core ethical values even if you take on heavy debt, knock down several drinks a night, or have frequent premarital sex. Some would dispute this, saying that you can't really lead a virtuous life if you get into debt, drink heavily, or engage in premarital sex. But the point here is that since people do disagree in these areas, the ethical traits of thrift, temperance, and sexual abstinence do not have the unanimity of approval that the six core values do.

The importance of an individual's having these consistent qualities of character is well known. Often we remember the last bad thing a person did far more than any or all previous good acts. For example, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton are more readily remembered by people for their last, worst acts than for any good they accomplished as public servants. As for a company, its good reputation also has an incalculable value that when lost takes a great deal of time and work to recover. Shell, Nike, and other companies have discovered that there is a market for morality, however difficult to measure, and that not paying attention to business ethics often comes at a serious price. In the past fifteen years, the career of ethics and compliance officer has emerged, partly as a result of criminal proceedings against companies but also because major companies have found that reputations cannot be recovered retroactively but must be pursued proactively. For individuals, Aristotle emphasized the practice of virtue to the point where virtue becomes a habit. Companies are gradually learning the same lesson.