Chapter 4 'Think Theory' answers

Making Decisions in Business Ethics: Descriptive Ethical Theories



Think about the prevalence of consequentialist approaches to decision-making such as cost-benefit analysis in organizations that you’ve worked in. Is such reasoning as inevitable as Bakan and MacIntyre suggest or is it possible to invoke ethics of rights, duties, or justice, for example? Does it make any difference what type of organization you are considering – large or small, public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit?

Such thinking is not inevitable. Consider Johnson & Johnson’s 1982 recall of Tylenol, where the company is considered to have put customer safety before profit: this looks like evidence of a non-consequentialist ethic in a large multinational. Different types of organization should affect the approach to decision-making: for example, a not-for-profit organization has different goals from a corporation and its decision-making may start from different assumptions. Moreover, even cost-benefit analyses differ. For example, the GM decision that Bakan describes had been taken in the 1970s, and failed to take into account the potential risk to the company’s reputation. It is narrow by today’s standards, and GM would probably conduct a more thorough analysis now.


Think about Hofstede’s ‘mental programming’ theory of culture in terms of its relevance for ethical decision-making. In the text, we have explained how the dimensions individualism/collectivism and power distance might influence decision-making. What are the likely influences of masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation? Is this a helpful way of exploring the cultural influences on ethical decision-making?

Students answering this question need to decide (and justify) for themselves whether Hofstede’s theory is helpful. Examples of likely influences:

  • Uncertainty avoidance.
    • A clear, unambiguous company code of conduct would likely be of value in promoting ethical decisions from someone from a culture with a high preference for uncertainty avoidance.
  • Masculinity/femininity.
    • Someone from a culture closer to the masculinity end of the spectrum may be more likely to choose to engage in unethical behaviour when large bonuses are at stake. Someone closer to the femininity end of the spectrum may by contrast be more likely to engage in unethical behaviour if encouraged to do so by peers.
  • Long-term/short-term orientation.  
    • An individual with a short-term orientation may be more likely to seek ‘quick-fix’ solutions to problems even if they are ethically questionable, while someone with a long-term preference may be in danger of acting unethically now in an attempt to generate long-term benefits.


Think about the theory proposed here – that bureaucracy suppresses morality. Consider a bureaucratic organization that you have had personal experience of and try to relate the four effects highlighted here to that organization. Does the theory seem to have much validity in this instance? Are there positive moral perspectives that you can identify that bureaucracy enables?

Here is a hypothetical example. Warm Front is a privately-run, government-funded initiative designed to help people on certain social benefits in England heat and insulate their homes: it involves carrying out work of up to a certain value, with the household paying any excess cost in advance. Mrs M spent one entire winter without central heating after moving house early that autumn and applying for a Warm Front grant. There had been very quick initial service (evaluation plus invoice for the excess), but nothing happened after she paid. There were many phone calls and letters, but it was only when her local MP became involved that she got her heating.
Suppression of moral autonomy was evident: whenever Mrs M called to ask about progress, the person answering would say that all they could do was ‘pass the query along’. Instrumental morality was present: at least one organizational goal – receive payment – was achieved very efficiently and Mrs M was told several times that the correct procedures were being followed. Distancing was evident, as nearly all communication was by telephone or letter and nobody from the company visited the house during winter. Denial of moral status can also be identified: the steps in the company process leading to installation of the central heating had been divided into several tasks, each carried out by a separate office, each being concerned to complete its own task efficiently.

The positive moral perspectives on bureaucracy tend to focus on the extent to which bureaucracy facilitates equality. Due to the rationality and efficiency of the system, for example, rules applying equally to everyone and performance being equally measured there are those that argue that bureaucratic organisations reduce inequality and treat employees homogenously and therefore fairly.