Ethical Theories in Practice – Do Self Interest and Good Ethics Conflict?

Egoists would view our actions in any situation as being solely based on our own self interests. If exhibiting good ethics were the means to that end, then they are supported and encouraged. Egoists do not allow for motivations other than the self promotion of the individual or organization.

In the corporate world the general belief seems to be that the interests of the corporation take precedence over the application of ethical standards. Some believe that ethics are hostile to corporate self interests and those organizations that follow courses of action based on their own self interests will treat ethics as optional: Following those ethics that will benefit the organization the most, disregarding those that will not further their interests. There is even a commonly stated belief that business leaders encourage their subordinates to do “whatever it takes” regardless of ethical considerations.

Utilitarian theorists believe that our actions should be based on the minimization of harm and maximization. This would imply that we should only promote our self interest if the net effect of our actions will do more good than harm. If the ultimate goal is to provide the most benefit to the individual or organization, and following a standard of good ethical conduct will accomplish that goal, then that is the course of action that should be taken. If on the other hand the situation called for setting aside conducts of good ethics then that would be the choice to make.

Kantian theorists would argue that respect for the individual is of the highest priority and that any conduct should be in a manner that will maintain the dignity and respect that all individuals deserve. This would seem to preclude the area of self interest and turn our attention outwards, to those around us.

Many believe though, that it is still possible to have self interest in a given situation, if their actions follow in accordance with accepted ethical standards and allow those around them to freely make the choices they are presented with.

Overall it appears that the ethical theories as presented, both support, and refute, the principle that “self interest and good ethics generally coincide”. Support coincides with their stated theories: Egoist – if it serves the self interest of the individual/organization. Utilitarian – if it creates the most good and the least harm. Kantian – if the dignity and respect of the individual is maintained and/or the individual willfully accepts it. But, the theories are also refuted, in that they may be adapted, or, in many cases, ignored depending on the particular needs, wants, and situations that organizations face.

As opposed to following a strict set of guidelines that must be applied in all cases, it appears that conflict, and its resolution, will ultimately be determined by the goals and basis of philosophy of the organization, and applied on a case by case, situational, basis.

Pungky Dwiasmoro Hiswardhani

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