One component of the change to a concern with social responsibility and accountability has been the recognition (or reinstatement) of the importance of ethics in organisational activity and behaviour. In part this can be considered to be a recognition of the changing societal environment of the present time and in part a recognition of the problems brought about through corporate activity taken without any account of ethical implications. Among such activity can be seen the many examples of pollution (for example Union Carbide at Bhopal. India or the Exxon Valdiz oil spill or BP in the Mexican Gulf) and greed such as the Enron incident. These have caused a rethinking of the role of ethics in organisation theory.
Ethics is however a problematical area as there is no absolute agreement as to what constitutes ethical (or unethical) behaviour. For each of us there is a need to consider our own ethical position as a starting point because that will affect our own view of ethical behaviour. The opposition provided by deontological ethics and teleological ethics (regarding the link between actions and outcomes) (see below), and by ethical relativism and ethical objectivism (regarding the universality of a given set of ethical principles) represent key areas of debate and contention in the philosophy of ethics. This provides a starting point for our consideration of ethics.
According to deontologists certain actions are right or wrong in themselves and so there are absolute ethical standards which need to be upheld. The problems with this position are concerned with how we know which acts are wrong and how we distinguish between a wrong act and an omission. Philosophers such as Nagel argue that there is an underlying notion of right which constrains our actions, although this might be overridden in certain circumstances. Thus, there may be an absolute moral constraint against killing someone, which in time of war can be overridden.
Teleological theory distinguishes between 'the right' and 'the good', with 'the right' encompassing those actions which maximise 'the good'. Thus it is outcomes which determine what is right, rather than the inputs (i.e. our actions), in terms of ethical standards. This is the viewpoint which is promoted by Rawls in his 'A Theory of Justice'. Under this perspective, one's duty is to promote certain ends, and the principles of right and wrong organize and direct our efforts towards these ends.
Utilitarianism is based upon the premise that outcomes are all that matter in determining what is good and that the way in which a society achieves its ultimate good is through each person pursuing his / her own self interest. The philosophy states that the aggregation of all these self interests will automatically lead to the maximum good for society at large. Some Utilitarians have amended this theory to suggest that there is a role for government in mediating between these individual actions to allow for the fact that some needs can best be met communally.
Relativism is the denial that there are certain universal truths. Thus, ethical relativism posits that there are no universally valid moral principles. Ethical relativism may be further subdivided into: 'conventionalism', which argues that a given set of ethics or moral principles are only valid within a given culture at a particular time; and 'subjectivism', that sees individual choice as the key determinant of the validity of moral principles.
According to the 'conventional' ethical relativism it is the mores and standards of a society which define what is moral behaviour and ethical standards are set, not absolutely, but according to the dictates of a given society at a given time. Thus if we conform to the standards of our society then we are behaving ethically. We can see however that ethical standards change over time within one society and vary from one society to another; thus the attitudes and practices of the 19th century are different to our own as are the standards of other countries.
A further problem with this view of ethics is that of how we decide upon the societal ethics which we seek to conform to. Thus there are the standards of society at large, the standards of our chosen profession and the standards of the peer group to which we belong. For example, the standards of society at large tend to be enshrined within the laws of that society. But how many of us rigorously abide by the speed limits and traffic laws of our country?
Different grouping within society tend to have different moral standards of acceptable behaviour and we have a tendency to behave differently at different times and when we are with different groups of people. Equally when we travel to a foreign country we tend to take with us the ethical standards of our own country rather than changing to the different standards of the country which we are visiting. Thus it becomes very difficult to hold to a position of ethical relativism because of the difficulty of determining the grouping to which we are seeking to conform.
This philosophical position is in direct opposition to ethical relativism; it asserts that although moral principles may differ between cultures, some moral principles have universal validity whether or not they are universally recognised. There are two key variants of ethical objectivism: 'strong' and 'weak'. Strong ethical objectivism or 'absolutism' argues that there is one true moral system. Weak ethical objectivism holds that there is a 'core morality' of universally valid moral principles, but also accepts an indeterminate area where relativism is accepted.
We can see that each of these theories of ethics is problematical and that there is no overarching principle which determines either what is ethical or what is not. Nevertheless a concern with ethics has been introduced explicitly into organisation theory and strategy in recent years. This has led to an increased interest in Corporate Social Responsibility.