5.1 What is Ethics?

The word “ethics,” or when someone is described as “ethical” follows the idea of doing what is good or right. Ethics is the code of moral principles that set standards of good or bad, right or wrong, in a person’s conduct[1]. In addition, ethics and morality help people make the right decisions in a variety of different, sometimes difficult, circumstances. The idea of moral principles connecting what is right and what is wrong reflects how an individual should act. The field of ethics, in relation to how one ought and should act, is called normative ethics[2]. Normative ethics, in many ways, relates to objectivity.  For example, normative ethics teaches the objective truth that human beings have absolute natural rights (i.e. to exist), along with freedom and autonomy. Within learning organizations common ethical ideals are formed with maintaining a balance of ethical mindfulness. Balancing the amoral leadership with the moral leadership holds the leadership impact of ethical mindfulness.

With this information, the study of ethics may not be as black and white as it seems. Ethics is very much a grey area given the amount of ethical concepts that are available. For the benefit of the understanding ethics within a learning organization, there are four ethical concepts that find their place within organizations. The concepts are: justice, utilitarianism, deontology, and human rights.


Ethical justice relates to what is fair according to the prevailing standards in society[3]. For example, in a just society, using just standards a business deal of $1000  for  incomplete work would stipulate a $1000 refund. Something unjust would be having to pay more money, or that the person who initially took $1000 for the job would now spend the rest of her or his life in prison. Essentially, justice finds the middle ground, moving away from the extremes of what is right and wrong in society.


Similar to justice, utilitarianism has a strong hold in society’s prevailing standards. Utilitarianism is the concept that people should act, and decisions should be made, to reflect the greater good for the greatest number of people[3]. This is where ethics can be cloudy, given that the greater good, in some cases can be completely objective. For example, a university with a highly-successful football program approves funding for a new multi-purpose field. With this, some funding is now taken away from academic departments.

The pros for the greater number would be seen in the football team, other sports teams who benefit from the new field being built (i.e. soccer, track and field, and field hockey), students who go to the games, and the community outside of the learning organization who watch the sports.  In addition, some academic departments would also benefit (faculty of human kinetics, and to an extent, faculty of business) but most academic departments would be upset that money is going to a new field that does not offer them any advantages. The departments who do not profit would say that this is unjust. A utilitarian would counter that while it might not fit the best interest of the academic departments, it is in the interest of the students who are both members of the academic departments and patrons of football games and other sports. Also, it helps the community, because the university is a public institution. Utilitarianism can be viewed as a pros-and-cons checklist to decide what is in the best interest for the greater good.

Utilitarianism. Has a list of 3 points with green checkmarks which are Good for me; Good for Society; Good for the Organization. Has Bad for a specific individual with a red x beside it.


As humans, we do not carry a list around of specific rules to make sure and that we are doing well. Deontology states that ethical individuals will meet their duties as it is obligated by society[3]. How do we keep this checklist in tact? For example, as a student your duty is to show up for class on time. However, on one specific day at the same time as your class, you have jury duty. On one hand, you have a duty to your professor, and your classmates to be in class on time.  On the other hand, you have a duty to society to be a peer on a jury. This presents a dilemma in the check mark on our list should we decide it is more important. It can be argued being a good student, although not producing immediate benefits for society like jury duty, produces long-term benefits for society, in being a well-educated community member.

Human Rights

In society, humans have rights that surpass many external situations. The concept of human rights follows that the human race has rights to live, to freedom, and the pursuit of happiness[3]. Again, this can be a grey area considering that the human race is not the only race on the planet. Using another example, say all people feel a balanced diet of meat, vegetables, and water are paramount to their rights to live, be free, and pursue happiness. Of course, humans need to eat to survive, but what about animal rights? What about the laws of other living organisms? What about the effect of water loss for other living organisms or the environment? Day-to-day, we essentially do not think about these things as we are the main beneficiaries of the human rights’ ethic. Essentially, that idea substantiates us, as we have the cognitive ability to think or not to think about ethics. A head of lettuce does not philosophically synthesize its place in the universe.

Head of lettuce with a thought cloud coming out of it that says Do I exist?

Ultimately, most ethical concepts produce a thesis and antithesis to their understandings.  This brings the objective into the subjective, and produces an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma is a situation that requires an ethical choice for personal, organizational, or societal benefit. In this situation, after hearing the two sides, you may conclude that one side is more ethical, both sides are ethical, or neither side is ethical. The main idea is that the situation or dilemma is presented and worked through a thoughtful conclusion. One way to develop a guide to manage ethical dilemmas is to use the six pillars of character.

  1. Trustworthiness
  2. Respect
  3. Responsibility
  4. Fairness
  5. Caring
  6. Citizenship

Review Questions:

  1. What are the four ethical concepts presented?
  2. What are the key aspects of utilitarianism?
  3. What are some challenges presented when faced with an ethical dilemma?


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Leadership and Management in Learning Organizations Copyright © by Clayton Smith; Carson Babich; and Mark Lubrick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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