Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that proclaims that the morally right course of action in any given situation is the one that produces the greatest amount of pleasure over pain for everyone affected (Ferrell, Fraedrich &Ferrell 2008).
This is evident in business decision making processes done by analysts, legislators and managers, for instance on deciding to invest resources in public project, to minimize cost by using foreign labors and such. Thus, the argument on whether utilitarian principles should be applied in workplace practices is highly debated as it carries both pros and cons.
First and foremost, utilitarianism in an organizational context “provides a clear and straightforward basis (Shaw, Barry & Sansbury 2009, p67)” for developing and testing guidelines and protocols. Pain and pleasure is graded in a scale of continuum to measure intensity of the emotion (Burns 2005).
As such, organizations can utilize this to derive objective decisions, as the approach uses quantitative result oriented method, and calculates cost and benefit of the consequences of all possible alternatives. For instance, a departmental manager ordered to cut cost in his department may revise all employees’ salary in the interest of obtaining higher utility for all parties rather than lay off some staff.
Secondly, utilitarianism enables an unbiased approach of decision making, thus a way to resolve conflicts involving self-interest (Mill, 1863). This approach requires the decision maker to take the standpoint of an impartial third party and give equal weightage to everyone’s interest. As such, the outcome of the decision will not be influenced by self interest and chances of negative implication to all individual are minimized. This is advantages, as incidents such as Bhopal Disaster that killed 20000, as a result of poor maintenance to minimize cost for the shareholders, could be evaded.
Moreover, utilitarianism is a comprehensive and flexible method as it looks at the end results of actions and takes into consideration the complexity of
the circumstances (Burns 2005, p46). All ramifications, regardless whether they are direct, indirect, long term or short term, are taken into account especially in situations that may have long term environmental and health implication.
Thus using utilitarianism, organizations can reach “realistic and workable moral decisions (Shaw, Barry & Sansbury 2009, p67)”. Nonetheless, there are criticisms against the utilitarianism approach as it is difficult to determine and account for all foreseeable benefit and harm of every possible alternative (De George 2013, p48). This is because we cannot know the full implication of all actions in the long term, nor can we accurately estimate the pain and pleasure of future consequences resulting from these actions.
For example, a drug that was released into market after thorough research and careful consideration of benefit over harm, could have undiscovered lethal side effect that could manifest many years later. However, due to limited technological advancement when the research was conducted, this potential harm and its intensity may not be identified accurately during initial cost and benefit analysis.
Furthermore, utilitarianism is a teleological theory that looks at the end result itself rather than action. As such, it isn’t concerned with how the utility is achieved and even morally reprehensible actions such as theft and murder could be considered ethically right as long it produces more utility (Shaw, Barry & Sansbury 2009, p68)”.Moreover, the theory, though theoretically plausible, is not applicable in real life situations in which individuals are required to make decision within minutes and could not possibly consider all alternatives and their implications.
In conclusion, utilitarianism though highly applicable to workplace, should be practiced with caution as it also has weaknesses like any other theory. As such, the individuals in decision making position, should be aware of potential biases and shortcomings of practicing utilitarianism and attempt to diminish the negative implications.
Burns,J 2005, “Happiness and Utility: Jeremy Bentham’s Equation” Utilitarianism Resources. P46,accessed
27/08/2013, http://www.utilitarianism.com. De George, R 2013, Business Ethics, Pearson/Prentice Publication, New Jersey. Ferrell,O , Fraedrich, J& Ferrell,L 2008, Business Ethics : Ethical Decision Making and Cases ,South- Western Publication, Mason. Mill, J 1863, Utiilitarianism , Utilitarianism Resources. Accessed 27/08/2013, http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.html. Shaw,w, Barry,V & Sansbury,G 2009 Moral Issues in Business, Cengage Learning Australia, South Melbourne.