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The Act and Rule Utilitarian Models in Business Ethics

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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Conducting oneself with integrity is important in everyday life, and even more so in business. Learn how act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism help guide ethical business decisions. Updated: 11/09/2021

Utilitarianism

Imagine that you work for the IT department at a company. You are working late at night on a project that your boss needs to see the next morning. To finish the project, you need some data, but you realize that the employee with the data, Tony, has forgotten to send it to you. Tony is gone for the evening and can't send you the information. You know that the information you need is on Tony's computer, and you're pretty sure you could guess Tony's password to log into his computer. Should you do it? Or is it unethical to break into someone else's computer?

Ethical dilemmas like this one occur every day in the business world. There are many different ways to approach ethics. One such way is utilitarianism, or the belief that the most ethical course of action is the one that provides the greatest benefit to the most number of people.

But not all utilitarian philosophers would answer your ethical dilemma the same way. Let's look at two approaches to utilitarianism - act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism - and how they would approach your situation with Tony.

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Act Utilitarianism

So, you're not sure whether to break into Tony's computer and get the data you need. On one hand, if you don't, then your project won't be done. This means that your boss won't be able to see it in the morning like he's asked to. It's bad enough that your boss might then be angry at you, but in addition, if your boss can't see your project in the morning, it could mess up the schedule of the entire department and your company could lose a lot of money. That could lead to lay-offs.

On the other hand, Tony's computer is his computer. If you break into it, you're violating his privacy. What should you do?

Utilitarian ethics says, in general, that the most ethical course of action is the one that provides the greatest benefit to the most people. The flip side of that is true, too: the most ethical course of action is one that causes the least harm to the least number of people.

Act utilitarianism looks at each situation independently and evaluates each dilemma according to utilitarian principles. For example, when you look at your ethical dilemma, it's clear that getting the project done on time will cause the least amount of harm compared with protecting Tony's privacy. His privacy compared to people's jobs? No contest!

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