How to Be Ethical in the Workplace, According to 3 Philosophers

Whether it's at your summer internship or your first job, one day you'll have to make an ethically difficult decision. When that time comes, how will you determine what's right?
August 17, 2017
9 mins read

Whether you’re a journalist, banker, salesman, chef—whatever your career path may be—you’re obviously going to want to be a good professional. A key factor in being “good” in any profession is to be ethical, because one unethical action could earn you a bad reputation and quite possibly cost you your job.

Oftentimes, the best way to help your career or your business grow is through connections, and nobody wants to make a business deal or hire someone who has been known to practice unethically. I mean, you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor who uses old equipment on their patients just so they can save money, right?

So, in order to avoid being an unethical professional yourself, here are a few popular philosophers and ethicists who have created different ethical approaches to help you be the most successful and ethical worker you can be.

1. Nicomachean Ethics

The first approach is Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics, where Aristotle proposes the proper way that men (and women!) should live out their lives. He created a moral code of sorts using various virtues that should be considered when making any decision. Aristotle preached a concept called eudaimonia, which loosely means happiness, content and progressing. The philosopher believed that virtue is not an isolated act, but rather a habit of acting well for the purpose of being a noble individual. In other words, you should be virtuous because you want to be a good person, not because you wish to impress others or obtain any type of personal, superficial gain.

Aristotle came up with various different traits that are associated with being a virtuous human being including: bravery, temperance, generosity, munificence, magnanimity, honor, friendliness, truthfulness, wit, friendship and justice. Virtues are associated with pleasure and pain and finding the balance between the two, because neither too much pleasure nor too much pain are considered beneficial. Essentially, this means that we should strive to find a balance, or the golden mean, between the excessive and the depleted.

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As a professional, you need to be aware of not only your actions, but how your actions affect others. Be friendly, be generous, be honorable, be truthful; it will aid you in forming long-lasting business relationships. But, make sure to find that balance; being too truthful might lead to feelings being hurt, or being too friendly might wear you out so much so that you can no longer perform at your best. In the professional world, if you develop a habit of being a virtuous individual, it will not only be a benefit to your own work, but to the company as a whole.

2. Care Ethics

The second ethical approach that can be positively applied to professionalism is care ethics. Nel Noddings wrote “Why Care About Caring?” in order to convey her ideas about what it means to be a caring and moral individual in society. Noddings believes it is unrealistic to approach ethics and moral decision making in such a black and white, mathematical way without considering the aspect of feelings and emotions. The idea of care ethics is also an intrinsically feminine one. She was not implying that men cannot be caring individuals, but simply that it is a more innate emotion and reaction for woman. Noddings believed that women have a natural desire to care for others, and everyone wants to feel as though they are cared for.

Noddings advocated the idea that it is not enough to say that we care for someone or something, but we need actions to back up our claim. We need to show, not just tell, that we care. No one wants to feel like they are unloved or uncared for, and Noddings knew this, and used this knowledge to create her own ethical approach. In the professional world, many hard decisions need to be made, and sometimes those decisions can have negative consequences on people.

So, if you really care about your company, then show it in your work and your effort. Be kind to your co-workers, learn their coffee orders and their birthdays. If you own your own business, take care of the people who work for you, pay them and treat them fairly, show them that you care about them as people and not just as employees. You want your workers to respect you and to care about the company that you have built, so show them that same care and respect and you shall receive it in return.

3. Utilitarianism

The final ethical approach you may choose to use is John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism (note: slightly different than Jeremy Bentham’s view of utilitarianism), which deals with a set of ethics that is focused around morality and happiness. In its most basic form, utilitarianism is calculating the balance of pleasure over the least amount of pain and suffering, and whichever brings the greatest amount of pleasure is supposedly the morally correct answer.

However, outside of utilitarianism, we must still ask ourselves: Does the end justify the means? Utilitarian theory tends to focus strictly on the end result, and how you got to that point is not really the main concern. Instead, it is supposed to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This approach has its fair share of critics, seeing that people believed utilitarianism would promote selfishness, because people would be more focused on their own personal pleasure. In contrast, Mill said that it was not solely about the happiness of one person, but rather about the happiness of the whole, or happiness for all.

In the professional realm, you’re clearly going to want the positives to outweigh the negatives. Utilitarianism can be used like a mathematical equation; make a list of “pleasures” and a list of “pains” and let them cancel each other out; if there are more pleasures left over, then it is considered to be an ethical decision. Now, it is important to remember that pain and pleasure are subjective and personal, so what is considered “moral” can be highly dependent on the person. Essentially, before making a business decision, weigh your options. What is going to have the best outcome? What do I need to do in order to get where I want to go? And how can I do this in the least harmful way possible?

So, next time you need to make a decision in your professional life, look to whichever approach resonated the most with you and your intended career path and apply it. It might not always be obvious what the “right” decision is, but by looking to different ethical teachings, you can help yourself be the best and most ethical professional you can be.

Alison McCarthy, University of New Haven

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Alison McCarthy

University of New Haven

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