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Ethics for the 21st Century – Part 1

Why Do We Need Ethics?

You have no need of ethics if you are living alone in the wilderness. The animals there will not heed anything you say, and the trees will not mind anything you do. As soon as you enter into the company of other human beings, however, ethics are required to help us determine the difference between right and wrong, often under the most demanding and complex of circumstances. Ethics become the means by which we can explain and predict the behavior of our leaders and those who follow them. It is ethics that enable us to make the difficult decisions that we hope will lead us to the outcomes we desire.


Today, the modernist worldview with its utilitarian focus on reality, knowledge, and science dominate our academic, business, and political thought generating a humanistic morality that derives its legitimacy from science, human reasoning and objective evidence.

The Age of Enlightenment, which ushered in the modern era with its ethics of humanistic morality, generated massive (and arguably positive) societal change. However, the problem with science and human reasoning is that they are often contingent on cultural norms, and tend to change with popular opinion.

Post Modernism

With the emergence of the postmodernist worldview, the construction of an ethical formula that enables organizations to create a better workplace for both leaders and followers has become even more nebulous. How can there be concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, contained within a system of philosophy that considers the nature of reality as self-defined and self-referential, and questions whether we can know anything with certainty?

Postmodernism may not dominate our social institutions, but its mere existence indicates that there are issues the modern worldview has failed to address. The postmodern worldview argues that all worldviews are fraught with contradictions that inevitably render them meaningless. The danger of the postmodernist worldview is that it reduces the sphere of concern of the decision-maker down to the individual level; it allows only the recognition of the self, or the ego, as the prime consideration. However, postmodernism is also open to a critique that challenges its central premises. The critique becomes apparent with a working knowledge of ethical approaches which can be understood as broadly divided into two categories; behavior-based and virtue ethics.

Behavior-Based Ethics

When faced with a difficult decision, the postmodernist may simply consider taking any action that most benefits him or her. Mere consideration of the self, or egoism, is deemed to be the lowest form of ethical decision making and frequently leads to outcomes that benefit one individual at the expense of another.

To prevent damage to the social fabric that results from egoistic (or immature) decisions, societies develop rules that they expect their members to follow. The deontological adherence of members to the standards or duties imposed by society is considered a marked improvement over mere egoism, yet taken to extremes this form of ethical reasoning may often lead to outcomes that are irrational with and possibly even tragic consequences. Sometimes the right thing to do is to break the rules.

As a counter to deontology, the utilitarian view of ethics places the highest value on ultimate outcomes, rather than codes of conduct. The idea is to do what is best for the greatest number of people. The danger from this approach is that atrocities may be committed and even justified in the often unrestrained effort to achieve the greatest good; especially considering that the people who make the determination are nearly always in the groups that benefit the most.

Virtue Ethics

Each of these behavior-based approaches to ethics, with their focus on self, rules or outcomes, ultimately fails if followed to their logical limits; and those individuals who practice any of them in exclusion of other forms of ethical reasoning can be considered morally impoverished.

Virtue ethics addresses this problem through the development of a moral character.

The western tradition of virtue ethics derives from concepts of ancient Greek philosophy including arête (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (flourishing). A virtue is considered to be a trait of an individual's character, lying deeper than the level of shifting social values and organizational norms. Virtue ethics frees the individual from both the dogged obedience to a set of (often arbitrary) rules because virtuous decisions emerge from within a person, and the behaviors and actions that follow are a consequence of who that person is. Virtue ethics also mitigates the potential for atrocities committed in the name of finding the “common good” because both the outcomes and the means to reach them are considered to be important.

It would appear that virtue ethics ought to play the central role in 21st Century organizations, but even here there are fundamental inconsistencies that will make a virtuous system unworkable. The problem is that virtues themselves are culturally relative. Throughout the centuries, philosophers around the world have debated what constitutes a virtue in all manner of areas of human activity; from slavery to killing, to the role of women in society and a countless myriad of other topics, there has been no successful attempt to define virtues that have universal applicability. Indeed, despite the long history of consideration of virtue ethics, in the modern era virtue ethics have been subsumed by deontological and utilitarian ethics; and so we return to our original start point; and in fact have reinforced the postmodernist worldview that we cannot know anything with certainty.


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