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An action is considered altruistic if it benefits others while harming oneself. Altruistic acts are considered acts of self-sacrifice, and therefore, they are generally regarded as the opposite of self-interested acts. The doctrine of altruism (sometimes called The Principle of Beneficence) states that people have a moral duty to aid others, even at the sacrifice of individual self-interests. Generally, this doctrine is considered morally unacceptable because it mandates actions which are supererogatory (i.e., morally praiseworthy but not morally required). However, milder forms of altruism are often employed as components of ethical theories. For example, utilitarianism sometimes requires an individual to make personal sacrifices to promote the greatest overall good for everyone involved.

One of the best contemporary examples of an altruistic moral principle originates from Peter Singer’s stance on world poverty. Singer argues that those with excess income are morally obligated to donate significant portions of their income to organizations like Oxfam to save the lives of starving individuals across the world. The basis for his argument is a clearly altruistic principle: “[I]f it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.”1 Although many have criticized Singer’s position as being too demanding or impractical, his arguments raise some intriguing questions about when altruistic actions may be morally required rather than merely serving as a moral ideal.

Defenders of psychological egoism contend that there is no such thing as altruism (although this notion seems implausible), and adherents to ethical egoism consider altruism an undesirable, morally backward doctrine. Nevertheless, most moral philosophers regard altruistic actions as admirable and think these actions have a role to play in morality. However, those who endorse mildly altruistic moral principles may reject altruistic principles that mandate extreme personal sacrifices.

  1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999), 229.


To be autonomous is to be one’s own person, that is, to be directed by preferences, motivations, and characteristics that are a part of or ‘internal’ to one’s self.  It may also refer to the capacity of a rational individual to make informed, self-determined decisions – to ‘self-rule.’

Some moral theories – Immanuel Kant’s, for instance – ground our obligations to ourselves and others in our (and their) autonomy.  Thus, treating another person as a means rather than an end is wrong because it fails to respect that person’s autonomous will.   Likewise, killing is wrong because it violates the autonomy of the victim.

On this Kantian view, we owe ourselves (and each other) moral respect in virtue of our autonomy.

John Stuart Mill, a classical utilitarian, also held autonomy to be an important consideration – and value – in utilitarian thought, claiming that autonomy is an element of well-being.  Holding this view allows the utilitarian to consistently view morality through a utilitarian framework while still allowing for the importance of autonomy and self-determination in life.

Buddhist Ethics

Buddhism is a spiritual tradition founded in India around 500 BCE by Prince Siddartha Gautama, later to become Gautama Buddha (‘Buddha’ meaning “awakened one” in Sanskrit). Most Buddhist traditions (the main two being Theravada and Mahayana) share a common ethical code for lay followers, while monastic codes tend to vary by region and tradition.

The common ethical principles of Buddhism were articulated by Gautama Buddha. They include the Five Precepts (or virtues) and three of the eight points on the Noble Eightfold path to enlightenment. These imperatives are not to be construed as commandments as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but more as guidelines for attaining enlightenment. Enlightenment, or Nirvana in Sanskrit, is a state of mind or being in which one simultaneously realizes one’s true identity (which is infinite and eternal), the illusory nature of the world, and perfect bliss and equanimity. In mainstream Buddhism there is no separate “God” who is the judge or arbiter of ethical action. Rather, it is a general psycho-spiritual “law” that certain behaviors promote enlightenment and abate suffering while others impede enlightenment and bring about suffering. It is in these terms that an act or series of acts is generally deemed ethical or unethical. Ethical behavior both leads to and flows from an enlightened mind.

In the Five Precepts Buddha advises abstinence from: (1) harming living beings, (2) taking things not freely given, (3) sexual misconduct, (4) false speech, and (5) intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness (Knierim). While there are up to ten precepts for lay practitioners and sometimes hundreds for ordained monks, these five are the most basic and important.

The Noble Eightfold path to enlightenment consists of cultivating the following : (1) Right View, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Concentration. These virtues generally fall into three categories. The first two tend toward cultivation of wisdom, the middle three toward ethical conduct, and the latter three toward mental development.

Buddha viewed Right Speech as abstinence from lying, deception, slander, and idle chatter. Said in a positive way, he advocated speaking only when necessary, and with honesty, mindfulness, and loving kindness. Right Action generally entails the first three points of the Five Precepts listed above. The emphasis is to behave so as not to harm any sentient being physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Right Livelihood follows from Right Action in that one ought to make their living in a peaceful way. Buddha listed four occupations which ought be avoided for their promotion or condonance of harmful behavior. These are (1) weapons dealing, (2) dealing in living beings (including slavery, prostitution, and raising animals for slaughter), (3) meat production such as butchery, and (4) dealing in intoxicants and poisons.


Knierim, Thomas. thebigview.com. 1995 – 2010


Easwaran, Eknath (translator and editor). The Dhammapada. Nilgiri Press.

Care, Ethics of

Unlike deontological and utilitarian normative ethical theories, which emphasize impartial principles, the ‘ethics of care’ approach to normative ethics emphasizes our relationships, and our interdependence, with other people.

Proponents of this approach to ethics, first developed by feminist philosophers of the late 20th century, claim that the dominant normative ethical theories – namely deontology and utilitarianism – overlook, and fail to account for, the basic structure of our relationships to others.  Included in this structure are partial commitments to other people founded on caring, which involves emotional responsiveness to particular circumstances and situations and a desire to thoughtfully maintain human relationships.

The ethics of care seeks to highlight the importance of sensitivity, concern for others, and emotional responsiveness in shaping moral life.

Not unlike virtue ethics, the ethics of care view stresses the importance of moral education.  This education includes nurturing the disposition to care for others and developing attentiveness to the needs of others and an awareness of our inevitable interdependence with others (a basic assumption of the ethics of care view).

In a corporate financial context, the ethics of care might find expression in a corporation’s policies – and the formulation of policies – towards its employees and stakeholders.  A corporation might, for example, demonstrate responsiveness to the needs of its employees by involving them in policies that regulate their place in the daily operations of the company.

Categorical Imperative

This is a requirement in Kantian deontological theory that we should act only according to the maxims that can be regarded as universal laws, that is, we should act only according to the maxims that all people will follow.

Caveat Emptor

Latin term meaning “Let the Buyer beware”. This term adheres to the basic premise that when it comes to a transaction, the buyer is the one held entirely responsible for the transaction, as well as the product(s) that come with it. In other words, it is the buyer’s responsibility to choose well when making a transaction, and this can be done in the form of testing a product, making sure that the product being purchased has no defects, etc. Currently, the United States rejects such a philosophy as ‘Caveat emptor’, and does so by way of implied warranties and consumer protection laws.


Acts done as a result of coercion are acts done against one’s desires or against one’s will.  Coercion limits a person’s or group’s freedom to act, often by threat of force or other forms of pressure (incentives, rewards, threats of penalty, etc.).  To put it another way, when a person is coerced into acting in a particular way the autonomy of that person has been infringed upon.

Often, when a person is found to be the victim of coercion his or her actions are judged differently.  The rationale behind this difference is as follows: a person can only be held responsible for his or her actions when the person chooses those actions freely, that is, of his or her own free will.  Since a coerced individual does not choose his or her actions freely, the coerced individual cannot be held (fully) responsible for his or her actions.

In some cases, the coerced individual may be completely absolved of responsibility for the acts that he or she committed against his or her will.  In others, the coerced person may still be found guilty of wrongdoing to some degree, however limited.

Coercion may be apparent or it may be inconspicuous.  Blackmail, for instance, is a case in which the coercive threats at play are apparent.  In other cases, coercion may be subtler, occurring undetected by the people whose freedom is being limited.

Common Good, The

Most basically, the common good is a ‘good’ that benefits the community at large.  The common good is often contrasted with private, or self-interested goods, such as the accumulation of personal wealth; conflicts between the common good and private goods sometimes arise.

Philosophically, the common good is often associated with the utilitarian phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  For utilitarians, the ‘good’ here refers to pleasure or the satisfaction of preferences.  A utilitarian conception of the common good can thus be summarized as ‘the greatest amount of pleasure (or preferences satisfied) for the greatest number of people.’

The common good is often said to be the aim of politics, or the state, and the term often arises in political contexts.   In this context, “the greatest number” to which the utilitarian conception refers is typically limited to the citizens of a particular nation-state.  Politicians in the U.K. who are committed to the common good, for example, are committed to satisfying the preferences and interests of the citizens of the United Kingdom.

In some instances, the conflict between the common good and self interested goods arise in political contexts.  In the United States, for example, some have voiced concern over the influence of special interests groups in Washington, which seek to advance their own interests even at the expense of the common good.

Critics of this political arrangement often point to the financial sector, which contributes more money annually to politicians than any other industry or private interest group (see http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=c), to illustrate their point.  These critics claim that the lack of accountability and oversight which lead to the 2008 financial crisis – a significant detriment to the common good – was largely a result of financial deregulation that the financial sector lobbied to attain.

Defenders of financial deregulation claim that the generation of wealth that results from deregulation benefits the community at large, that is, it contributes to the common good.  The impact of the recent financial crisis, however, poses serious problems to this argument, and with new regulations in place (and on the horizon), it seems that the equivocation of unchecked creation of wealth with the common good has fallen out of favor.

Conflict of Interest

When a clash between a professional or public obligation and one’s private interests occurs, the situation is referred to as a conflict of interest.

Conflicts of interest jeopardize an individual’s ability to act ethically by interfering with his or her capacity to exercise good judgment. This interference may lead to willful negligence of the individual’s professional or public obligation for the sake of private interest, or to bias (both conscious and unconscious bias).

A distinction can be made between actual conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest, though it is often difficult to know whether a potential conflict of interest will actually influence a decision. For this reason, many companies and institutions have policies that aim to minimize the possibility of conflicts of interest and require full disclose of potential conflicts of interest from their employees


One’s personal sense of right and wrong is sometimes referred to as one’s conscience.  It has also been described as a kind of moral sense, faculty, or awareness.

Having a conscience involves evaluating, from a moral perspective, the situations, persons, actions, and decisions that one faces.  It also involves dispositions to act in accordance with what one judges to be right on the basis of that moral evaluation, and, finally, involves feelings such as guilt, shame, or satisfaction depending on one’s success or failure in acting rightly.

To see how each of these aspects of one’s conscience interact, consider the following example.

A trader at a hedge fund, Samantha, is told by her superior that in order for the firm to remain competitive it must adopt a new business strategy – one that aims to aggressively obtain insider information on the dealings, successes, and failures of the corporations whose stock they trade.  Samantha quickly evaluates this newly proposed business model and judges it to be immoral.  She knows that what her superior is describing is a practice known as insider trading, she knows that it is an unfair and immoral practice, and she knows that it is illegal.

Thus far, we have seen that Samantha has morally evaluated the situation and the decision that she faces, which is – should she or should she not participate in insider trading?  If Samantha is disposed to act, and indeed chooses to act, morally, by refusing, resigning, or otherwise avoiding involvement in the insider trading scheme, we would say that Samantha has followed her conscience and has done what is right.  As a result, Samantha may feel a sense of satisfaction in her moral resilience and courage.

If, however, Samantha agrees to participate in the scheme, in spite of her knowledge of its immorality, Samantha may feel some sense of guilt or shame, suggesting that she recognizes that what she is doing is wrong.  This, too, would be evidence of Samantha having a conscience, even though in this instance she chooses not to follow it.

The historical writings on the concept are primarily theological, coming from Christian thinkers such as St. Jerome, St. Bonaventure, and St. Thomas Aquinas.  In more recent times, the concept has received attention from notably non-religious thinkers, including David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.

Consent of the Governed

The consent of the governed is the concept that a government must have the consent of the population to exercise its authority. According to this principle, the government has no legal or moral right to perform actions which have not been approved (typically through legal documentation) by the citizens of the society. Essentially, requiring the consent of the governed is a means of controlling governmental power. However, once a government’s authority has been established and approved by the citizens, the government is free to act in accordance with this agreement. Typically, achieving the consent of the governed does not require unanimous consent among the citizens; consent of a significant majority of the citizens is usually sufficient.


Consequentialist theories, unlike virtue and deontological theories, hold that only the consequences, or outcomes, of actions matter morally.  According to this view, acts are deemed to be morally right solely on the basis of their consequences.  The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism.

Corporations, Moral Status of

Do corporations, like people, have moral responsibility?  What, to put it more broadly, is the moral status of a corporation?  These questions have received various responses from a variety of thinkers, some of which will be discussed here.

Corporations are a special kind of entity.  Although they are not persons, they have the same legal rights as persons in the United States, and these rights are protected under the 14th Amendment.  This fact is uncontroversial.  There is, however, some controversy and disagreement as to what follows from this peculiar legal arrangement – particularly with respect to ethical considerations such as moral responsibility.

Some hold that corporations – like individuals – have moral responsibilities, since they – like individuals – act and affect others with their actions.  This position is known as the moral person view of the corporation.  Proponents of this view take corporations to be full moral agents, with rights as well as moral responsibilities.  The argument for this view is fairly straightforward.  Philosopher Richard T. De George offers a concise account:

“Morality governs the actions of rational beings insofar as they affect other rational beings.  Formal organizations – for instance, corporations – act. Ford Motor Company produces cars; it also builds factories, hires and fires people, pays them wages, pays taxes, recalls defective models, and so on. Not only do businesses act, they also act rationally according to a rational decision-making procedure. Because their rational actions affect people, these actions can be evaluated from a moral point of view. If it is immoral for an individual to discriminate, it is also immoral for a corporation to discriminate.  If it is praiseworthy for an individual to give to charity, it is praiseworthy for a business to give to charity…Actions can be morally evaluated whether done by an individual or by an entity such as a company, corporation, or a nation.”[1]

This view is compelling to many, but the debate does not begin and end here.  Critics of the moral person view of the corporation point out that although formal organizations, such as companies or corporations, may have some legal rights, they are not persons with moral rights.  They do not, for example, have a right to life, as a person does.  In fact, corporations – unlike persons – have only limited rights, and – again, unlike persons – they are organized only for limited purposes.

On the basis of this observation, proponents of the moral actor view of the corporation seek to establish a special moral status for corporations, which identifies a number of moral responsibilities that pertain to corporations, but limits the range of responsibilities that a corporation can have.

Again, De George offers helpful insight:

“Because the moral status of corporations is different from the moral status of human beings, the moral obligations of corporations are different from the moral obligations of human beings. The difference hinges on the fact that corporations are limited and organized only for certain purposes. The fact that a corporation does exist and has been established for certain purposes is no guarantee that it should exist or that its purposes are morally justifiable. But although we can morally evaluate the ends for which corporations are formed and the means by which those ends are pursued, corporations are not bound by a large range of moral rules that bind natural persons.

“As is true of all other moral actors, corporations are bound not to harm others. This negative injunction is a major restraint on corporations. But the positive obligations of corporations depend on their ends, their particular situations, their legal status, and the sociopolitical environment in which they are organized and operate. Because corporations are not human persons, the injunction to produce the greatest amount of good applies differently to individual persons with a full range of activities open to them and to a corporation with very great restrictions on its purpose and its appropriate activities…what we can expect is that they not do what is morally prohibited.  We can praise them for doing what is in accord with the moral law, and we can blame them for what is a violation of it.”[2]

The next, and final, view of the corporation to be considered here is what might be called the legal compliance, or Friedmanite view, of the corporation.  This view of the corporation restricts the range of the corporation’s moral obligations even further, claiming that a corporation’s legal obligations are its only true obligations.

According to the legal compliance view, famously argued by Milton Friedman, corporations have no obligations to society, including moral obligations, outside of their legal obligations. Here the distinction between morality and the law is important.  After all, there may be a difference between what morality requires and what the law requires.  Although it is true that these categories often overlap, they do not necessarily do so in all cases.

Thus, according to the moral compliance view, corporations are not bound by a moral law unless that moral law is expressed in the law of the land.  A corporation, for example, has no obligation to refrain from stealing, cheating, or lying unless they are legally required to refrain from doing so.

This view tends to be embraced by so-called ‘Free Market Fundamentalists.’  There are, however, several deficiencies with the view, as De George notes:

“…there are three deficiencies with the position, if taken to be the end of the discussion of corporate responsibility.  The first is that obeying the letter of the law is not the same as obeying the spirit of the law, and it is not clear that the former marks the end of society’s demands.  Many argue that the legalistic approach to compliance often results in corporations trying to come as close as possible to infringing the law without actually doing so, if that is to the corporation’s benefit…This legalistic approach to law is not what most people usually have in mind when they speak of a socially responsible company.  The second deficiency is that a corporation may have additional social and moral responsibilities beyond those mandated by law.  The third is that…morality begins before the law does, and goes beyond what the law may require.  This is both because of the lag of law behind morality and because laws may themselves be immoral or inadequate to protect people’s rights and legitimate welfare.”[3]

Although not the only views on the moral status of the corporation, each of the three views outlined here – the moral person view, the moral actor view, and the legal compliance view – are perhaps the most common and most plausible of their kind.

[1] Richard T. De George. Business Ethics (sixth edition).  Princeton, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.  pp. 184-185.

[2] Richard T. De George. Business Ethics (sixth edition).  Princeton, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.  pp. 188.

[3] Richard T. De George.  Business Ethics (sixth edition).  Princeton, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.  pp. 198.

Demandingness Objection

The demandingness objection refers to an argument against varieties of consequentialism. Tim Mulgan presents the argument in the following form:

  1. Consequentialism makes demand D.
  2. D is an unreasonable demand for a moral theory to make.
  3. Therefore, consequentialism makes unreasonable demands.1

The demandingness objection derives much of its strength from cases in which adherence to consequentialism appears to require extraordinary sacrifices of moral agents, sacrifices which plausibly appear supererogatory. When confronted with a form of the demandingness objection, consequentialists must either deny that consequentialism requires the specified demand or deny that the demand made upon moral agents is unreasonable.

  1. Tim Mulgan, The Demands of Consequentialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 25.


Deontological theories (derived from the Greek word for duty, deon) base morality on certain duties, or obligations, and claim that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong, that is, right or wrong in themselves, regardless of the consequences that may follow from those actions.  What makes a choice or an action right is its conformity with a moral norm.  Thus, an agent has a duty to act in accordance with a moral norm, irrespective of the (potentially beneficial) effects of acting otherwise.

We might say that parents, for example, have an obligation to take care of their children.  On a deontological view, parents must fulfill this obligation, even if breaking the obligation were to result, for the parents, in some great benefit (increased financial savings, for example).

The deontological view holds that some actions cannot be justified by their consequences. In short, for the deontologist, the ends do not justify the means.

Indeed, Immanuel Kant, whose formulation of deontological ethics is perhaps the most well known, wrote that one must “act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.”  As with other deontologists (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for example), Kant held that the basis of our moral requirements is a standard of rationality.  In the case of Kant, the standard is a categorical imperative. This single principle of rationality comprehensively includes all of our particular duties.

Objections to Kantian deontology:

(1)   Kant’s claim is that the moral status of our actions is determined solely on the basis of the rightness or wrongness of the action itself.  This means that it is categorically wrong to, for example, lie, in any circumstances, regardless of the consequences.  It seems implausible, however, to hold that lying is categorically wrong in all circumstances.  Imagine, for example, a situation in which a serial killer is on the hunt for your daughter.  While searching for her, the killer, whom you know to be the killer, encounters you and asks for information regarding your daughter’s whereabouts.  According to Kant’s deontological theory, you would be required to tell the truth.  Does this seem reasonable?


The idea that a person is deserving of something, whether good or bad, captures the philosophical meaning of desert.  It is importantly associated with other concepts in philosophy, including punishment, justice, praise, blame, and goodness.   The following illustrates how desert relates to some of these concepts.

To ‘get what one deserves,’ for example, embodies the everyday notion of justice.  Conversely, we tend to think that when a person does not get what he or she deserves, the outcome is unjust.

When a person bears a particular responsibility, and a person meets or exceeds the requirements entailed by that responsibility, we typically think that such a person is deserving of praise.  When the responsibilities are not met, we generally think of the individual as deserving of blame or, in some cases, punishment.

We also tend to think that it is good to treat a person as they deserve and bad, or wrong, to treat them better or worse than they deserve.  It is wrong, for example, to incarcerate a person when he or she is undeserving (when he or she has not committed a crime), or to issue capital punishment for a crime – for example, jaywalking – that does not merit such harsh punishment.

The concept of desert is also closely related to the concept of entitlement.  When, for example, people profit by making shrewd (and legitimate) investments in the stock market, or a corporation profits through the ingenuity and innovation of its own employees, we generally think that the people, or the corporation, is deserving of their success.   Moreover, they are entitled to the profits that they have earned.

If, however, the profits were gained illegitimately – through insider trading, for example, or fraud – we judge the individuals, or corporations, to not be entitled to the profits.  Furthermore, people or corporations who have engaged in wrongdoing (i.e. fraud, deceit, insider trading) are often held to be deserving of punishment.

Double (Moral) Standard

An ethical or moral code which allows for greater freedom to one person or group than to another. In other words, a double standard is a set of principles which apply more strictly to one group than to another.


The term duty is used interchangeably with the term obligation.  The concept identifies something (an action) that we are required, or bound, to do.  An individual may have a variety of duties, including professional, familial, civic, and/or religious duties.

In ethics, discussions of duty center on moral duties, or obligations.  Many people feel that morality is fundamentally a matter of duties (a Christian, for example, may feel that living a moral life amounts to dutiful adherence to the ten commandments, or dutifully living according to God’s will).

Duty-based, or deontological (derived from the Greek word for duty, deon), accounts of ethics also place moral duties at the center of ethical life.

In deontological theories, duties describe the rules by which we must live, if we are to live a life that is morally good.  They include actions that we must do and actions that we must refrain from doing.  Thus, we may be morally required (that is, we may have a duty) to provide assistance to a person who has been injured or who is in harm’s way (provided that it does not put oneself in harm’s way in the process), or we may have a duty to refrain from harming others.

Duties also have an important relationship with rights.  Rights imply and impose certain duties to others.  Thus, a person’s right to free speech imposes on others a duty to not violate that right by censuring or otherwise interfering with that person’s ability to speak freely.  Likewise, one’s right to life implies a duty to others – namely, a duty to not kill.

Some duty-based accounts of ethics also identify duty as the appropriate motivation for moral action.  According to this view, an act is moral only if the performance of that act is motivated by a sense of duty.  Thus, if an act is motivated by a person’s self interest, it does not count as a moral act.  This stipulation, however, is not a feature of all duty-based accounts.