Business Ethics -- Introductory Notes
by Gordon L. Ziniewicz
1. [Review the "definitions" of Ethics on Page One of the syllabus.] Is "Business Ethics" an oxymoron? Why or why not (subjective)? Compare to the terms, "Medical Ethics" and "Legal Ethics."
2. "Values" or "valued objects" are things that are important to us, that matter to us. For each person, some things are more important than others. Values are ranked as priorities. What we think or say is most important to us may be different from what is really most important to us.
3. If something is most important for us, we tend to subordinate everything else to that. For example, if money is what is most important to us, we might subordinate other things and people, even our own health and well-being, to that end. Is the highest priority of business to make a profit, to make money? Then what sorts of other "values" or valued things might be subordinated to that?
4. Insofar as we strive for the things we value, these things are ends (as opposed to means), goals, aims, or ideals. Things that are less important to us become "means" to our "ends" (the things that are more important to us). What is a "means" in one situation can become an "end" in another situation. Overall, the ranking of priorities is also a ranking (hierarchy -- lower and higher) of means and ends. Is money a means or an end?
5. The things we do (actions), including the resources we use, are means toward these ends or goals.
6. "Principles" are guidelines, rules, directions, or "blueprints" we follow in order to act. They are more general than facts in the situation. Situations always have something "unique" about them, but they also have things in common with other situations. General guidelines (principles) are relevant because situations have things in common. They are less helpful when the situation has too many surprises or new qualities.
7. Principles come from personal experience and collective experience (custom, convention, or tradition) of connections between certain kinds of actions and certain kinds of results. For example, the maxim that "one should respect one's elders" is based upon the tradition that respect for those who have more experience is generally a good idea and has more positive than negative results. The word "moral" comes from the Latin word mores, which means customs or conventions (culture). Laws are generally based on custom.
8. Principles are "hypotheses" derived from human experience. Like scientific hypotheses, they have to be tested by outcomes; and, like scientific hypotheses, they should be modified if they no longer work. Human life involves experiment, trial and error, and requires changes and adaptations to surprises and new kinds of experiences. Scientists change their theories in the light of new evidence and test results.
9. Generally speaking, individuals who have experienced many similar situations and -- very important -- who have learned from their experience are more able to tell what sorts of actions make things better and what sorts of actions make things worse. Principles based on collective experience -- the experience of many people over a long period of time -- are often more useful than principles based on one person's experience. It is a good idea to learn from the mistakes of others, so that we can make different and new mistakes ourselves.
10. "Action" means setting things in motion, whether mentally or physically. We "do something" that shifts or changes actual conditions in the situation. We modify the situation, "change the course of events." Action means intervention in the course of events. "Inaction" or doing nothing allows things to keep going the way they have been going. Note: With or without us, things keep going on; things keep happening.
11. "Right" is a term we use for actions that fit our principles, aims, or values. "Wrong" is a term we use for actions that are inconsistent with our principles, aims, or values.
12. "Doing what is right" means doing what makes things better in the immediate situation and "in the long run." "Doing what is wrong" means doing what makes things worse in the immediate situation and "in the long run."
13. "Better" and "worse" describe what has happened because of what we do (how things turn out or "consequences" of our actions). We usually have a feeling about the situation; we "sense" whether things are working out or not working out.
14. "Judgment" means "practical wisdom." It is the "art" or skill, acquired through experience and thinking, of doing what is right on a regular basis. It is based in part on the habit of making good choices in the past by sizing up the facts in real situations (concrete experience of real things and people), knowing how to deliberate and what principles to apply, and learning to value things that really matter). [Review the introductory quotes (from Heraclitus and Aristotle) on page one of the syllabus.]
15. Since more than one action is always possible in a situation (including even "doing nothing"), judgment means making choices between or among different possible courses of action. Intelligent "choice" requires deliberation. Deliberation is a type of thinking in which we weigh alternative courses of action. Deliberation requires imagination. We imagine ourselves doing this or that or another thing, and we try to predict or imagine how things will turn out in each case (foresight or anticipation). We have to think about the future, but the future exists only as a possibility in the imagination. At best, foresight is an intelligent guess.
16. Ethical choice assumes that we have the capacity to think freely, to imagine alternatives, and to change things. It presupposes that we have some (although not complete) control of what is going on, both inside of and outside of us. Our options are limited by our background, our experience, our habits, our education, our position, our culture, other people, and actual conditions. But we can always think or imagine some alternatives to the status quo of existing patterns of behavior and events. The ability to imagine alternatives and alternate futures is the essence of "hope."
17. Determinism (see Determinism) makes Ethics impossible, because, with determinism (in the strict or hard sense), the future has already been "caused" (by the past) and is not affected by our present choices and actions. For the "fatalist" or determinist, there are no alternatives. There is only one "possible" future. In Ethics, choice and action make a difference. There are many possible futures. What counts is the art of envisioning and trying to bring about a better rather than a worse one.
18. "Power" is the capacity to change actual conditions: to remove obstacles and to use resources. Those who have fewer obstacles and more resources have more power. They can change lots of conditions all at once. For example, the CEO of General Motors has more power than an assembler in the factory. Workers acting together (unions) have more power than workers acting alone. The most powerful individuals in business (or in government) can make lots of things better or worse all at once. Steering a small boat requires less skill than directing a large ship or a whole fleet. Those who have lots of power should have really superior judgment and be very wise and careful about their choices and actions, because their capacity for doing harm as well as good is enlarged. Those who have very little power ("Little people") don't make history, but they can't bring it to an end either.
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