Lawrence P. Ulrich, Ph.D.


[1] How are ethical principles formulated?

Ethical principles can be a part of any ethical system. They will always be formulated within the context of the ethical goods and values that are identified in the particular system. Their rankings relative to each other may also be determined by the ethical system. For example, in the divine command version of natural law ethics the principle of beneficence would probably outrank the principle of autonomy because the moral law is not dictated by the individual agent but by a divine source. The beneficent person would try, above all, to apply the will of God to individual circumstances in an attempt to secure the greatest benefit for the person involved in the particular set of circumstances. In the Kantian and utilitarian systems the principle of autonomy would enjoy preeminence because of the emphasis on the individual's designing the system of moral judgments and weighing the values to be considered.

Ethical principles take the form of statements of obligation. Thus they always contain the word "should" or some equivalent of it. For example, "One should . . . " is a customary formulation. Concepts are not principles. Thus, "personal dignity" is a concept rather than a principle. "One should respect the personal dignity of patients" would be the statement of a principle. The function of principles in moral discourse is to promote a particular value or feature of a person or thing and, thereby, promote its well-being and allow it to flourish.

[2] Does one find only one ethical principle in an individual situation?
In any situation a number of the ethical principles intersect. On occasion they will conflict. When conflict occurs it is necessary to examine each principle to determine how it arises in the particular set of circumstances. When such conflict occurs, the principles will have to be balanced against each other and a decision will ultimately have to be made about which principle(s) governs the case. Business practices are not always governed by a single principle. Often several principles will govern the decision to be made by providing mutual support.

What follows is not an attempt to analyze the place of each principle within the various systems. Such an effort would be too complex for the purpose of this essay. What will be attempted will be an explanation of each of the principles identified and a brief explanation of how the principle manifests itself in contemporary business practices. Since none of the principles seem to function with an absolute status in contemporary situations, some of the modifications on the exercise of the principles will be identified. Many of these restrictions are matters of considerable debate. No attempt will be made here to resolve these debates although, in some instances, some of the major features of the controversies may be identified.


[3] What is the principle of autonomy?

The principle of autonomy has come to occupy a preeminent position in democratic societies in light of their commitment to thoroughgoing self-determination.. This principle may be formulated in the following way: A person should be free to perform whatever action he/she wishes, regardless of risks or foolishness as perceived by others, provided it does not impinge on the autonomy of others. This principle gives ultimate control (self-governance) for a moral action to the agent who is making the decision to perform the action.
[4] How does the principle of autonomy relate to the notion of personal dignity?
Autonomy is a principle of moral empowerment and places the responsibility for the consequences of an action on moral agents themselves. Someone acting on the principle of autonomy cannot legitimately blame another for adverse consequences. Taking responsibility for one's actions is a central feature of personal dignity.

It should be noted that the perceptions of others are not sufficient warrant to stop an autonomous action. If the agent is competent or possesses decisional capacity, then the possibility of risk to the agent which might impress an observer does not give the observer the right to override the decision of the agent. Even if the observer considers the action to be foolish as well as risky, the agent still has final control over the action. Of course, the observer is not obliged to assist the agent in performing the action unless there is a specific contractual or professional relationship requiring the observer to do so.

[5] How does supplying consumers with information figure into the promotion of their autonomy?
It is difficult to say that individuals ever act completely autonomously. Their behaviors are frequently conditioned and they may lack some information that, if known, might cause them to behave otherwise. However, others can maximize the autonomy of moral agents by assisting them in reflecting on their proposed actions and by providing appropriate information so that the agent can have a more refined perspective on the anticipated action. Assisting consumers and workers to be more autonomous may be one of the most important roles of the business professional and the corporation.

Since there is such a vast array of products and services available for consumption in the contemporary marketplace, consumers need extensive information to be able to make good choices. They also need the opportunity to be clear about the values that drive their decisions. Workers, as consumers of labor opportunities also need information about their positions, particularly in a volatile labor market often driven by the dynamics of "employment-at-will."

[6] What are the modifications on the exercise of one's autonomy?
The principle of autonomy is not absolute. It functions contextually and its exercise frequently depends upon other values, priorities, and social conditions that are part of the corporate or consumer settings. The principle clearly states that decisions cannot be made which impinge on the autonomy of others. Actions cannot be justified under the principle of autonomy if they cause harm to others. Just exactly how much harm must be done or the kind of harm which must be done in order to override the principle of autonomy requires extensive analysis and discussion in particular circumstances. The importance of the principle of autonomy cannot be underscored too greatly if human values are to be protected and human beings are to flourish.

[7] What is the principle of beneficence and what place does it hold in democratic societies?

The principle of beneficence is a principle of long standing in the traditions of democratic societies. The principle of beneficence can be stated in the following way: One should render positive assistance to others (and abstain from harm) by helping them to further their important and legitimate interests. Earlier versions of the principle of beneficence in libertarian theories that focused on respecting autonomy [There is no intrinsic opposition between the principles of beneficence and autonomy; on the contrary, they are often complementary.] generally took the form of the principle of nonmaleficence. Today, however, the concept of harm is much more complex. We can identify physical harms, psychological harms, social harms, and moral harms. In order to apply even the principle of nonmaleficence properly a detailed account of the possible harms is required.
[8] Why is it difficult to practice beneficence in its positive form?
When promoting benefit to the patient is the focus, the matter becomes even more complex. There is an enormous variety of possibilities for benefiting individuals. Added to the variety is the fact that individuals may have their own ideas about what benefits them; ideas which may be at variance with those of others. This principle requires individuals to be clear about what they will consider to be beneficial and enter into a dialogue with others about what they consider to be of significant benefit.

[9] What is the principle of fidelity and how is it a special form of beneficence?

A special form of the principle of beneficence captures the quality of the commitment that exists between professionals and others. It has been called the principle of fidelity that can be formulated in the following manner: One should keep his/her promises to others and maintain the trust necessary to retain the relationships that bind them together. This principle captures in a special way the element of trust that must exist between persons who are mutually bound to each other by circumstances or choice.
[10] What special obligation does the principle of fidelity place upon the business professional?
In an environment that is permeated with a wide variety of interactions, the element of trust is often overlooked to promote that which is expedient. Individuals become vulnerable to professionals who may put profit above all else. The principle of fidelity reminds individuals of the importance of loyalty and keeping one's promises in all interactions if human values are to be fostered.

[11] What is the principle of justice?

If there is a candidate for an overriding principle of business ethics it may very well be the principle of justice. This principle cuts a broad path across ethical situations and the other principles are often applied within the context of justice. The principle is a complex one and its brief statement requires elaboration. One should give to persons what they are owed, what they deserve, or what they can legitimately claim according to a proper allocation of benefits and burdens where equals are treated equally unless there is a morally relevant difference which constitutes a reason for treating persons unequally.
[12] How can we determine what individuals are owed when we are attempting to exercise the principle of justice?
What individuals are owed or deserve can be determined in a variety of ways. (1) Some might say that this arises from the nature of the person. (2) It may be revealed by the individual's condition. (3) Finally, it may be determined by decisions made by social institutions. In the first instance, the fundamental dignity of the person may require a measure of respect calling for certain actions. For example, to be able to exercise moral agency requires that the individual have certain information available to her. Thus, the dispensing of accurate information becomes a matter of justice in business ethics. In the second instance, the individual may be in a situation where she may not be able to make decisions immediately. Justice requires that more or sufficient information be provided in such a way that she can come to a proper decision. In the last instance, public policy decisions may be made to promote actions that protect individuals from business practices that create environmental threats
[13] What is the distributive version of the principle of justice?
The allocation of benefits and burdens is the heart of the distributive version of the principle of justice. In distributive justice there is an identification of the goods or benefits that should be available to individuals in society. The principle requires that the benefits be available to all in some equitable way. This principle also requires that the burdens, e.g., cost, for providing these benefits should also be distributed in an equitable manner across the population. No one person or group of persons should bear a substantially greater burden than another. The application of this principle lies at the heart of the practice of graduated taxation.

The debate about distributive justice in society is an ongoing one. Once something becomes a commodity in the free market distributive justice becomes the central issue.

[14] What issue lies at the heart of the principle of justice?
Treating equals as equals and unequals as unequals lies at the heart of the principle of justice. In a democratic society we begin with the assumption that there is a basic equality which runs through the population. The ethical mandate based upon this assumption is that equals are to be treated equally. Thus, if a right is recognized, e.g., the right to self-determination, then each person should be able to act on such a right. The right cannot be arbitrarily given to some and not to others. However, it is also recognized that individuals are not equal in every respect. Sometimes they are unequal. They are unequal because there is some characteristic that counts as a morally relevant difference between them. For example, individuals above age sixteen can obtain a driver's license, those below sixteen may not. So they are treated unequally because they are truly unequal in this respect.
[15] What does it mean to talk about morally relevant differences when attempting to apply the principle of justice?
In attempting to apply the principle of justice in any particular situation an investigation must be carried out regarding the equality of the individuals involved or whether there is a morally relevant difference which separates them. For example, gender at one time counted as a morally relevant difference. It was considered that women were unable to fill certain jobs or engage in certain professions because of their genera and gender roles. Close examination in recent years has demonstrated that the inequality with which they were treated was morally unjustified. For this reason gender no longer counts as a morally relevant difference. So what counts as a morally relevant difference is often open to debate. Society engages in an ongoing debate about what it considers morally relevant difference when it comes to treating individuals as equals or unequals. Society's values and political exigencies often color this debate.

Strictly speaking there can be no restrictions on the application of the principle of justice. However, there may be some modifications to it. One can go beyond the principle of justice. Compassion may prompt one to provide services to another even though justice does not require it. A corporation engaged in downsizing may take extra steps to find employment for its laid-off workers or retrain them to give them a competitive advantage in seeking future employment. An institution may have special mission considerations that go beyond the strict requirements of justice, e.g., the practice of going beyond minimal requirements to protect the environment when it is endangered by the practices of a corporation.

[16] In what way might the principle of justice be considered the overriding principle of business ethics?
Thus far we have seen three major principles: autonomy, beneficence (and its expression in fidelity), and justice. We have seen that sometimes the principles of autonomy and beneficence may conflict. We have also seen that a case can be made that respecting the principle of autonomy can fulfill the principle of beneficence. The three principles are often complementary. One is behaving justly toward another by respecting her autonomy. Autonomy counts as a morally relevant difference that requires equal treatment based upon self-determination. When one behaves beneficently toward another in cases where beneficence is required, one is also behaving justly because the individual is given what she deserves. On the other hand, if an individual is autonomous and is legitimately exercising her autonomy, a violation of the principle of autonomy also entails a violation of the principle of justice. In a similar way, a violation of the legitimate exercise of beneficence entails a violation of the principle of justice. We shall see this extended to the principle of paternalism in the next section.

[17] What is the principle of paternalism?

The principle of paternalism has been a strong guiding principle for governments and corporations since the beginnings of structured societies. It is only within the last two generations that the principle has been largely supplanted by the growing emphasis on the principle of autonomy. The principle can be stated in the following way: One should restrict an individual's action against his/her consent in order to prevent that individual from self-harm or to secure for that individual a good which he/she might not otherwise achieve.
[18] How does the notion of a privileged position figure in the principle of paternalism?
The principle of paternalism is based on one fundamental assumption, namely, that the person acting paternalistically has a privileged position allowing her to know what is best for the moral agent being restricted. The moral agent is presumed to be in such an inferior position that she cannot determine what is in her best interest. Sometimes the privileged position of the intervene is due to age and/or relationship. For example, parents intervene in the lives of their small children because the parents have a level of experience due to their age and they have special responsibilities due to their social roles as parents. For those who lack decisional capacity, guardians intervene because of their special social role. Throughout history governments have seen themselves as occupying a privileged position due to their special knowledge and experience. The principle of paternalism was employed to protect moral agents from their own errors in judgment.
[19] What are the basic forms of the principle of paternalism?
There are two basic forms of paternalism. Weak paternalism is exercised when individuals have severely and permanently diminished decisional capacity. Such individuals may still be able to make decisions but they have no way of calculating the consequences of the decisions. The application of paternalism to situations of this type is generally recognized as appropriate. Weak paternalism is also exercised through interventions that are undertaken when it is unclear whether the agent is autonomous or not. To be appropriate this intervention must be time-limited. If the agent is ultimately considered to lack decisional capacity, continuing paternalism is appropriate. If the agent is ultimately considered to possess decisional capacity then the paternalism should cease in deference to the principle of autonomy.

Strong paternalism occurs when the liberty of a moral agent who is functionally autonomous is restricted in order to prevent self-harm and to secure a benefit for them. Current ethical thinking judges paternalism to be inappropriate in this case. Most codes of ethics support this judgement and favor the principle of autonomy in this case.

[20] What is the basic restriction on the application of the principle of paternalism?
The major restriction on the principle of paternalism is the principle of autonomy. In any conflict that occurs between the two principles where a competent person is concerned, the principle of paternalism must yield. One can never act paternalistically and respect the principle of autonomy. On the other hand, one can act both beneficently and paternalistically at the same time, e.g., when looking out for the safety of workers who might be willing to endanger their lives for higher pay. For those for whom weak paternalism is appropriate, the principle of justice supports paternalistic interventions. Lack of decisional capacity or questionable decisional capacity counts as a morally relevant difference. On the other hand, to behave paternalistically toward an individual who is autonomous is a serious violation of the principle of justice.

The principle of paternalism has often served individuals well over the years particularly when information was too extensive, too inaccessible, or too complex to master. But as individuals have become empowered by increased knowledge, the ability to have it communicated effectively, and a more refined sense of their social role as responsible moral agents, the principle has become largely transcended. The result is a very positive one for all involved.


[21] What does the nature of human experience reveal about the employment of the ethical systems and principles?

Even this cursory examination of the ethical systems and principles underlying deliberations in business ethics reveals a staggering web of complexity. It would be easy to deal with the issues presented in business ethics if there were only one ethical system or a clearly defined hierarchy of principles to follow. But we are neither frozen in time nor conceptually confined. Throughout the history of human reflection a variety of approaches to addressing the moral life has developed. One way to view these developments is to see them as creating confusion. Another way is to see them as reflecting the richness and diversity of human experience and convictions. No one way seems to provide a totally satisfactory method to construct the moral life and resolve the problems that arise within it.

The ethical principles might seem to provide a way to cut through some of the indecisiveness of the individual systems. But even they often lapse into balancing abstract formulas and are employed as an easy escape from more extensive ethical reflections. Use of the principles is often accused of leading only to quandaries that can only be eliminated through the exploration of virtue ethics, which reflects the concrete circumstances, and priorities of individuals.

[22] Why is negotiation an integral part of decision-making?
The brutal fact remains that there are many approaches to the moral life and there are many ways to address the issues that arise in business ethics. For those who would approach the task of integrating ethical considerations and business practices, careful reflection is necessary and moral commitments are required. But from beginning to end negotiation is essential in order to maintain both the integrity and dignity of all parties involved in an interaction. Individuals and corporations do not always share the same moral perspectives, values, and goals. The challenge of business ethics is to recognize that no one occupies an absolutely privileged position in determining the goods of the moral life. For those who would serve individuals as they struggle with the issues of production, consumption, protection, and safety, compassion, tolerance, and prudence are key ingredients for a successful professional life. For those who would most successfully fulfill their roles as consumers and workers, active participation in decisions that affect their lives is indispensable to their well being. The challenge and the indispensable key to negotiating in the face of a variety of ethical pathways is to be open to possible interpretations, to explore them rigorously, and ultimately to develop a careful moral foundation for decision-making.
Lawrence P. Ulrich, Ph.D.
The University of Dayton