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Theories of Duties and Rights: Traditional

Tools for Making Decisions in Business


The Means Justify the Ends versus the Ends Justify the Means

In business ethics, do the means justify the ends, or do the ends justify the means

Is it better to have rules telling you what to do in any situation

should you worry about how things are going to end and do whatever is necessary

Is it what you do that matters, or the consequences

No one can make the decision for you, but before anyone can make it, an understanding of how each works should be reached

This chapter will consider ethics as focusing on the specific act and not the consequences

Key Takeaways

When the means justify the ends, ethical consideration focuses on:

what you do

not the consequences of what you’ve done

Traditionally, focusing on means instead of ends leads to:

an ethics based on duties or rights

Historically Accumulated Duties to the Self

…. a limited number of duties that have recurred persistently

called perennial duties

These are basic obligations we have as human beings:

fundamental rules telling us how we should act

If we embrace them, we can be confident that in difficult situations we’ll make morally respectable decisions

Perennial duties falls into two sorts:

Duties to ourselves

Duties to others

Duties to the self begin with our responsibility to:

develop our abilities and talents.

The abilities we find within us aren’t just gifts. All these skills are also responsibilities. When we receive them:

they come with the duty to develop them

to not let them go to waste

The other duty to oneself: the duty to do ourselves no harm. At root, this means we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves healthily in the world

Historically Accumulated Duties to Others

The duties we have to ourselves are the most immediate, but the most commonly

referenced duties are those we have to others

Avoid wronging others is the guiding duty to those around us. It’s difficult, however, to know exactly what it means to wrong another in every particular case

Honesty is the duty to tell the truth and not leave anything important out

Respect others is the duty to treat others as equals in human terms. This doesn’t mean

treating everyone the same way

Beneficence is the duty to promote the welfare of others; it’s the Good Samaritan side of ethical duties

Gratitude is the duty to thank and remember those who help us

An important point about all ethics guided by basic duties:

duties don’t exist alone. They’re all part of a single fabric, and sometimes they pull against each other

Fidelity is the duty to keep our promises and hold up our end of agreements

Reparation is the duty to compensate others when we harm them

The final duty to be considered—fairness—requires more development than those already listed because of its complexity

The Concept of Fairness

The final duty—fairness—requires more development because of its complexity. Fairness is treating equals equally and unequals unequally.

The other side of fairness is the requirement to treat unequals unequally.

The important point is that fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same treatment; it means that rules for treating people must be applied equally.

One of the unique aspects of the idea of fairness as a duty is its hybrid status between duties to the self and duties to others. While it would seem strange to say that we have a duty of gratitude or fidelity to ourselves, it clearly makes sense to assert that we should be fair to ourselves.

Impartiality—the rule of no exceptions—means no exceptions

Balancing the Duties

Duties include those to:

• develop abilities and talents

• do ourselves no harm

• avoid wronging others

• honesty

• respect others

• beneficence

• gratitude

• fidelity

• reparation

• fairness

Taken on their own, each of these plugs into normal experience without significant problems. Real troubles come, though, when more than one duty seems applicable and they’re pulling in different directions.

Where Do Duties Come From?

The question about the origin of duties belongs to meta ethics, to purified discussions about the theory of ethics as opposed to its application

One standard explanation is that duties are written into the nature of the universe; they’re part of the way things are. In a sense, they’re a moral complement to the laws of physics

Another possible source for the duties is humanity in the sense that part of what it means to be human is to have this particular sense of right and wrong

What Are the Advantages and Drawbacks of an Ethics Based on Duties?

Principal advantages of working with an ethics of duties is simplicity:

duties are fairly easy to understand and work with

Duties are the first thing coming to mind when we hear the word ethics

Straightforward rules about honesty, gratitude, and keeping up our ends of agreements—these are the components of a common education in ethics

The problem:

Duties pull against each other: when one says yes and the other says no. There are no hard-­‐and-­‐fast rules for deciding which duties should take precedence over another

The Duties of the Categorical Imperative – Kant

Theory of duties—a set of rules telling us what we’re obligated to do in any particular situation—was the right approach to ethical problems

Kant set out to add a mechanism for the use of duties; to get all these duties to work together, to produce a unified recommendation. Kant set out to produce ethical certainty

……….His answer: categorical imperative

An imperative is something you need to do. A categorical imperative is something you need to do all the time: there are ethical rules that don’t depend on the circumstances

Think about doing something, Imagine that everyone did it all the time

What we need to do is imagine this act as universalized

everyone lies all the time

Conclusion. The act of a lie cannot be universalized to where everyone does it all the time.

The first expression of the categorical imperative— act in such a way that the rule for your action could be universalized—is a consistency principle. Like the golden rule (treat others as you’d like to be treated), it forces you to ask how things would work if everyone else did what you’re considering doing.

Think of this ……Telling the truth no matter what is almost impossible to actually live by.

The second expression of the categorical imperative is: Treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end. To treat people as ends, not means is to never use anyone to get something else. This is a dignity principle: treat others with respect and as holding value in themselves.

But think of this……using a person as part of a production line to generate an end product. The second expression doesn’t always work either


Ethics based on rights is similar to ethics based on duties. In both:

specific principles provide ethical guidance for your acts

principles are to be obeyed regardless of the consequences further down the line

The question isn’t so much What are you morally required to do. It’s more about defining exactly:

where and when you’re free to do whatever you want

deciding where you need to stop and make room for other people to be free too.

Duties tend to be ethics as what you can’t do, and rights tend to be about what you can do

What’s a Right?

A right is something you may do if you wish, and others are morally obligated to permit your action

Rights tend to:

centre on the individual

what he or she can do regardless of whether anyone else is around or not

Rights are about assuring that you’re as free as possible.

Duties tend to be:

protective in nature

about assuring that people aren’t mistreated.

Duties tend to be community oriented: they’re about how we get along with others

What Are the Characteristics of Rights?

Universal. The fundamental rights don’t transform as you move from place to place

or change with the years

Equal. They’re the same for all, men and women, young and old

Inalienable. They can’t be taken, they can’t be sold, and they can’t be given away. We can’t not have them

This leads to a curious paradox at the heart of rights theory…..Freedom is a bedrock right, but we’re not free to sell ourselves into slavery

We can’t because freedom is the way we are; part of my essence. It can’t go away without me disappearing too

What Rights Do I Have?

The right to life…..to live without worrying about someone terminating our existence

The right to freedom guarantees individuals may do as they please, assuming their

actions do not encroach on the freedom of others

Similarly, within a company, the right to freedom:

protects individuals against abuse

No boss can demand more from an employee than what that employee has freely agreed

As a general rule, the enabling side of a rights ethics is that you can do whatever you want, but

the limiting and controlling side is that the same goes for everyone else

The right to free speech…..

…..though, the right of free speech doesn’t guarantee a hearing

The right to religious expression

The right to pursue happiness

It doesn’t do much good to be alive if you’re not free, so freedom orients the right to life. It also doesn’t do much good if you can’t pursue happiness, so the right to pursue happiness orients freedom…….

…….the big question is

What is happiness and how far does one pursue it

In reality we are always confronted with a very basic conflict of rights……

…..the question is about which right takes precedence when right conflict:

For exle: an owners’ right to set up and run a company as they wish or an employees’ right to express their beliefs how and when they choose

From an ethical perspective—which doesn’t necessarily correlate with a legal one—the resolution to this dilemma and any clash about conflicting rights runs through the question:

whether there’s a way to protect the basic rights of both groups

Libertarianism rights

…..the right to dominion over what’s ours

This is the theory where most conflicts—and most stands in the name of:

personal rights

the pursuit of happiness

….often the fight between law and ethical reality

The Libertarian argument is that:

if one’s personal actions, on and with what they have dominion over, does not infringe on any one else’s rights….why can’t they continue those actions, regardless of the law

A strong libertarian says others will be harmed by an act……an ethics that begins with the freedom to have what’s mine doesn’t buckle before the demands of others

So…..what’s the answer?……

A duty-­‐oriented ethics leads toward a solution that is more favorable for the larger community……

……..a duty-­‐based orientation would generate concerns about gratitude and respect

A rights-­‐based perspective leaves more room for individuality but at the cost of the interests of others

Negative and Positive Rights

The ethics of rights can be categorized as:

negative rights

positive rights

Negative rights are fundamental. They require others to not interfere with me


The right to life is the requirement that others not harm me

The right to freedom is the requirement that others not interfere with me

the right to speech requires that others not silence me

the right to my possessions and the fruits of my labors requires that others let me keep and use what’s mine

Positive rights are closer to traditional duties. They are obligations others have to:

help protect and

preserve my basic negative rights

The right to life doesn’t only require (negatively) that people not harm me, but it also requires (positively) that they come to my aid in life-­‐threatening situations


I’m in a car wreck. My right to life requires bystanders to call an ambulance. So if an individual with a rights-­based philosophy and an individual with a duty-­based philosophy both arrive, they’ll do the same thing – just for different reasons. The rights person calls for help to protect the victim’s right to life; the duties person calls to fulfill the duty to look out for the welfare of others

The hard question with positive rights is:

where do you draw the line

At what point does my responsibility to promote the rights of others impinge on:

my own freedom

my own pursuit of happiness

my own life projects

Rights in Conflict

The deepest internal problems with rights ethics arise when rights conflict


Abortion. On one side (pro-­life), support comes from the initial principle: a human being, born or not, has a right to life, which may not be breached. On the other side (pro-­choice), every person’s original freedom over themselves and their bodies ends all discussion

Now, one of the reasons this debate is so intractable is that both sides find equally strong support within the same basic ethical framework

There’s no way to decide without infringing on one right or the other.

The conclusion is that, in general, problems with rights theory occur in one of two places:

I have negative rights to life, freedom, and my possessions but they infringe on your rights to the same

I have a right to freedom and to do what I want but that right clashes with larger, society-­level protections put into place to assure everyone a reasonable shot at pursuing their happiness

Rights and duties are closely related and cannot be separated from one another

Exle: If the state gives:

the right to life to a citizen it imposes an obligation on the person

to not expose one’s life to danger

to respect the life of others

Right implies duties because:

Every fundamental right has an implied duty

Claiming our rights implies that we have the duty to allow others to claim their rights

The doctrine of correlativity – that every right at least implies a correlating duty. This does not mean there is a correlating duty….just implies

What Justifies a Right?

1. One justification is comparable with idea about duties….. being part of the logic of the universe

Duties and rights exist because that’s the way things are in the moral world

2. Another justification is to derive them from the idea of duties……to treat others as ends and not as means to ends

If we possess basic dignity….. then that dignity must be reflected somehow:

…..it must have some content, some meaning

The case can be made that we possess certain autonomous rights

Key Takeaways:

Rights are universal and inalienable

Basic rights include those to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness

Rights theory divides negative from positive rights

Ethical rights provide for individual freedom…….. but

Allow few guidelines for individuals living and working together in a business or in society

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