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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics in Organizations

Marvin Brown

From debates over drug-testing to analyses of scandals on Wall Street, attention to ethics in business organizations has never been greater. Yet, much of the attention given to ethics in the workplace overlooks some critical aspects of organizational ethics.

When talking about ethics in organizations, one has to be aware that there are two ways of approaching the subject--the "individualistic approach" and what might be called the "communal approach." Each approach incorporates a different view of moral responsibility and a different view of the kinds of ethical principles that should be used to resolve ethical problems.

More often than not, discussions about ethics in organizations reflect only the "individualistic approach" to moral responsibility. According to this approach, every person in an organization is morally responsible for his or her own behavior, and any efforts to change that behavior should focus on the individual.

But there is another way of understanding responsibility, which is reflected in the "communal approach." Here individuals are viewed not in isolation, but as members of communities that are partially responsible for the behavior of their members. So, to understand and change an individual's behavior we need to understand and try to change the communities to which they belong.

Any adequate understanding of, and effective solutions to, ethical problems arising in organizations requires that we take both approaches into account. Recent changes in the way we approach the "problem of the alcoholic" serve as a good example of the interdependence of individual and communal approaches to problems. Not so long ago, many people viewed an alcoholic as an individual with problems. Treatment focused on helping the individual deal with his or her problem. Today, however, the alcoholic is often seen as part of a dysfunctional family system that reinforces alcoholic behavior. In many cases, the behavior of the alcoholic requires that we change the entire family situation.

These two approaches also lead to different ways of evaluating moral behavior. Once again, most discussions of ethical issues in the workplace take an individualistic approach. They focus on promoting the good of the individual: individual rights, such as the right to freedom of expression or the right to privacy, are held paramount. The communal approach, on the other hand, would have us focus on the common good, enjoining us to consider ways in which actions or policies promote or prohibit social justice or ways in which they bring harm or benefits to the entire community.

When we draw upon the insights of both approaches we increase our understanding of the ethical values at stake in moral issues and increase the options available to us for resolving these issues. The debate over drug-testing, for example, is often confined to an approach that focuses on individual rights. Advocates of drug-testing argue that every employer has a right to run the workplace as he or she so chooses, while opponents of drug-testing argue that drug-testing violates the employee's right to privacy and due process. By ignoring the communal aspects of drug abuse, both sides neglect some possible solutions to the problem of drug use in the workplace. The communal approach would ask us to consider questions which look beyond the interests of the individual to the interests of the community: What kinds of drug policies will promote the good of the community, the good of both the employer and the employee?

Using the two approaches to dealing with ethical problems in organizations will often result in a greater understanding of these problems. There are times, however, when our willingness to consider both the good of the individual and the good of the community leaves us in a dilemma, and we are forced to choose between competing moral claims. Affirmative Action Programs, for example, bring concerns over individual justice into conflict with concerns over social justice. When women and minorities are given preferential treatment over white males, individuals are not treated equally, which is unjust. On the other hand, when we consider what these programs are trying to accomplish, a more just society, and also acknowledge that minorities and women continue to be shut out of positions, (especially in top management), then these programs are, in fact, indispensable for achieving social justice. Dropping preferential treatment programs might put an end to the injustice of treating individuals unequally, but to do so would maintain an unjust society. In this case, many argue that a communal approach, which stresses the common good, should take moral priority over the good of the individual.

When facing such dilemmas, the weights we assign to certain values will sometimes lead us to choose those organizational policies or actions that will promote the common good. At other times, our values will lead us to choose those policies or actions that will protect the interests and rights of the individual. But perhaps the greatest challenge in discussions of ethics in organizations is to find ways in which organizations can be designed to promote the interests of both.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 2, N. 1 Winter 1989

Nov 21, 2015