Utilitarianism, a philosophy of ethical behaviour, holds that an action is “right” to the degree that it benefits individuals or society, either by promoting pleasure, improving well-being or reducing suffering. Workplace utilitarianism focuses on ethics, equality, rights, and obligations within the business setting.
Working in the workplace of the 21st century is no longer merely a means to an end; it is meaningful and demands the ambitions, beliefs, and passions of the people. The traditional concept of work has been more individualistic than the contemporary model, which sees work as something done individually and collaboratively in order to achieve the common good.
Basics of Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism relies upon what is known as the corporate ethics “golden rule.” According to this rule, an individual is responsible for the well-being and happiness of others and is concerned with it. The golden rule holds that good people are the ones who prevent harm and try ways to help others. Therefore, utilitarianism is concerned with actions that bring profit and avoid harm. The ideals of the utilitarian workplace include integrity, promise-keeping, responsibility, compassion for others, transparency and preventing conflicts of interest.
Types of Utilitarianism
Negative Utilitarianism: this is probably the rarest form of utilitarianism. Unlike other forms that promote the greatest good, this form focuses on promoting the least amount of harm to the largest amount of people. In the business world, this variation centers on the idea that even small harm can hold severe consequences for employees, bystanders, or the company as a whole.
Act Utilitarianism: this is the simplest, most straightforward variation of the utility theory. Business owners who employ this principle tend to judge the outcome of each action individually. The fatal flaw of act utilitarianism is a failure to comprehend the bigger picture which serves as a vital aspect for any business.
Rule Utilitarianism: none of the aforementioned variations manage to resolve the moral loop-hole. Rule utilitarianism attempts to assess the utility of a course of action without taking into consideration individual acts. In other words, if the end result lies beyond expectations (examples: great profitability, employee satisfaction, increased productivity), everyone should respect the rule set in place. Rule utilitarianism is without a doubt the most criticized variation of the theory. This form employs methods that affect the happiness of those involved.
Preference Utilitarianism is the variation which considers that the greater good should also satisfy personal preferences. Simply put, a business that uses the principles of preference utilitarianism will not strive to achieve the greatest good if it affects others in the process.
Examples of Utilitarian Ethics
One example of utilitarianism in business is the practice of having tiered pricing for a product or service to different types of customers. For example, the airline industry offers first-class, business class and economy class seats on many of their airplanes.
Customers who fly in first or business class pay a much higher rate than those in economy seats, but they also get more amenities. However, the higher prices paid for business or first class seats help to ease the airline’s financial burden created by making room for economy class seats. This would be an example of Rule Utilitarianism.
An example of Act Utilitarianism is a pharmaceutical company releasing a drug that has been governmentally approved with known side effects because the drug is able to help more people than are bothered by the minor side effects. Act utilitarianism often shows “the end justifies the means” mentality.
Let’s say a company runs low on its funds but wants to go on with its deadlines to continue operating. There are two choices here. The first option requires employers to lay-off a number of employees to reduce costs (which will still not satisfy the deadline requirements). With the second option, the company employs foreign workers for low salaries to sustain levels of productivity.
In the end, the second option allows the company to maintain its market share, stop layoffs and even raise U.S. employees ‘ salaries (by supplementing and outsourcing work). If the company makes a profit it can spend on higher payrolls for its employees or recruit more skilled U.S. labor. The utilitarian approach results in the greater good for the greatest number of people.
You may have learned that the Ford Pinto went on sale despite serious design flaws in its key components which included the fuel tank. Notwithstanding these issues, this vehicle was still marketed (and sold very well) by the manufacturer. Engineers knew the car was in danger. They had not made any changes to health.
Ford estimated how many deaths would result from these issues, and concluded that doing nothing about it would be more profitable for them. In other words, attention has been given to the value of human life as an economic asset. The Ford Pinto case is a perfect example of misplaced business ethics and a misused utilitarianism (where profits outweigh moral values or human life). Not only was the company unable to measure and quantify any harms, but it also failed to draw the line at the end of the day. Ford failed to say that the end could justify the means.
Importance of Utilitarianism
In the workplace, utilitarianism sets strict ethical standards that influence the conduct of all its members. This forms the basis of an ethical program that defines actions in the workplace, training, and advice on ethical conduct, disciplinary action for ethical violations and the like. Workplace utilitarianism is correlated with numerous benefits including improved teamwork and efficiency, positive public image and an enriched community.
The main limitation of utilitarian ethics is that organizational accomplishment is challenging. People are taught to focus on themselves before others, making utilitarianism impossible to practice. Through hard work and perseverance, however, you will build the kind of work atmosphere you wish for yourself and those around you.
Using Utilitarianism will affect many companies positively; however, the organization must correctly measure variables that will determine the end results. Moreover, a desire for profit should never supersede utilitarian ethics.