by Cornelius von Baeyer


Ethics practitioners know a great deal about what is likely to succeed in a given work situation.  But some of us are less clear on precisely why a particular approach is the right thing to do.  What follows is a brief outline of a personal quest for some ‘whys’.

Business ethics texts

My first step was to examine a stack of business ethics texts.  These presented all manner of approaches to ethics.  There was the virtue ethics of the golden mean, the utilitarian ethics of the greatest good for the greatest number, and the duty ethics of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.  I was led through teleological theories (based on consequences) versus deontological theories (based on duties and motives).

The authors admitted that no one approach has been shown to be the best.  To deal with the variety, some of the texts did little more than encourage me to pick a theory and apply it to the problems set out in the rest of the text.  Slightly more sophisticated texts told me to apply several approaches to the same problem and examine the different results.

Even more sophisticated texts told me that the process of applying theories to practical issues only gave me deeper awareness of moral issues and ethical reasoning — its purpose was not really to give me answers.  The solutions to real organizational dilemmas require good common sense.  This is, of course, where I had begun my quest.

What’s ‘common sense’?

So I tried again to dig deeper — could anyone help me to figure out what good common sense in ethics was based on?  I knew from personal experience that this precious commodity improves when differing points of view are brought to bear on a dilemma.  Doing the right thing, particularly in organizational settings, requires people to seek solutions together.  Imagine my delight when I discovered an approach that gives this truth a central place.

The approach does not try to set out the conditions that make an act ethical (because it is virtuous, utilitarian or whatever); rather, this approach sets out a procedure for arriving at ethical conclusions based on reasoned agreement among concerned participants.  The approach is called discourse ethics (championed by Jürgen Habermas in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, MIT Press, 1990).

Discourse ethics

Conversations on moral issues allow understandings of ethical norms to be developed and shared, whether in organizations or in society generally.  Ethics is not about meeting an external criterion, but about people learning from one another.  Such conversations have obvious characteristics — participants must be sincere, respect each other’s views, be fair in examining each other’s positions, and be accountable in seeking to question and be questioned.

Notice that these characteristics of good conversations are also frequently cited as traits of good solutions to workplace dilemmas, and of course as values of ethical organizations — sincerity, respect, fairness and accountability.

The cynical response

Isn’t all this a bit utopian though?  People have prejudices, and employees may be cynical.  Advocates of discourse ethics are not disheartened.  In fact, if a person is interested in understanding (and that is true of most of us most of the time), then prejudices serve to get discussions going and to show alternate views of a situation.  Employee cynicism also has a positive side — it challenges managers to trust their employees more, not less, in describing and solving practical workplace problems and the attendant ethical dilemmas.


What are the practical implications of this approach for organizations?  One good way to stimulate discussion on moral questions is to do case studies, especially on dilemmas selected by the employees themselves.  (See the short article on Benefits of Case Discussions.)

Other provocative suggestions to stimulate dialogue have been made by Frederick Bird (in The Muted Conscience, Quorum Books, 1996): speaking up should be part of managers’ job descriptions, not just to do trouble-shooting but to improve quality;  the auditing function should be transformed from one-way policing to two-way interactive activities;  there should be regular discussions of ethics in each work unit;  employees should have access to multiple media to voice their concerns;  and there should be training in conflict resolution.


Adapted from an article that appeared in the Newsletter of the Ethics Practitioners’ Association of Canada (vol. 2, issue 4, winter 1999).  The author is EPAC Membership Secretary.


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What’s Workplace Ethics? | Benefits of Case Discussions | Codes of Conduct: Panacea or Bunk? | Interpreting Your Code | Index of articles


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This page updated 13 May 99.