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As can clearly be seen, an exclusive focus on a

desired outcome of ones action, striven for at all cost,

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potentially negates the humanistic entitlement of

others and degrades them to a mere means for one’s

goal, thus violating the end-in-itself formula of the

Categorical Imperative. And with reference to the

basic tenet of the Categorical Imperative the ques-

tion: Could the maxim for Critical Path’s executives’

actions – accounting fraud in order to report that the

company had met revenue targets – serve as a

universal law? has clearly to be answered with a ‘No.’


While a deontological approach to ethical decision-

making is clearly life-affirming and does not at all

deny the transcendental right of every human being

to strive for happiness and well-being – in the world

of business: does not reject the notion of competi-

tion and profit – it leaves no doubt that there are

limits to the pursuit of happiness. Certainly, from an

ethical business perspective, not only are there limits

to how profits should be made, but equally impor-

tant, there is no place for misleading investors by

reporting non-existent revenues and profits.

Ethically speaking, these limits are self-imposed in

the sense that the ethical human being decides to

ought in the right way. At this juncture we also be-

come aware that true freedom means to own the

capacity for self-legislation. Only the one who

becomes ‘‘universalizable’’ in his/her actions in the

sense of acting upon a maxim that could serve as a

maxim for all human beings in comparable situa-

tions, is truly free. If grasped in this sense, making

appropriate use of freedom is identical with making

appropriate use of responsibility (2001).

More practically speaking, when the motivation is

self-interest, decision-making is likely to be reduced to

utilitarian risk–reward calculations. If the risks from

ethical behavior are high, such as loss of reputation and

value in the market for executive talent and the

associated loss of wealth – or the risks from unethical

behavior are low and the reward is high, such as low

probably of unethical activity being caught and if it is,

the consequences are minimal – the moral principles

succumb to expediency. This is no small problem in all

walks of life. People cheat, plagiarize, lie on resumes,

distort or falsify facts at work, commit accounting

fraud and much more, for exactly the reason of utili-

tarian convenience and suitability.

But the real test of our code of ethical conduct is

whether we are willing to do the right thing – the thing

that could serve as a maxim for everybody’s acting –

even when it is not exclusively in our self-interest.

Happiness, both individual and collective, is

legitimate; individual notions of profit and corporate

happiness are not immoral per se; ethics doesn’t de-

legitimize the major stakes of economy – gain,

profit, corporate success. Nonetheless, while not

denying self-interest, an ethics of business commands

respect for everything that could run under the

deontological title of ‘‘social justice.’’ Moral duties

have to transcend profit maximization. While suc-

cess cannot be guaranteed, crime and immorality can

be avoided (Barry, 1997). Personal responsibility,

fairness, trustworthiness need to translate into the

business world in the sense of keeping promises,

protecting justly acquired property, appropriately

administering company assets and ownership rights

and reporting financial results fairly and faithfully.

All of this can, of course, not mean constant rea-

soning and rational deliberation about the categorical

imperative or the universalization of justice and for-

titude; however, it demands the acquisition of a

habitual inclination of the will that need to be in-

stilled, formed, and cultured by way of socialization

and a customization of good business conduct. Not

the least, granting ethical studies an amplified position

Business Ethics – Deontologically Revisited 23



in the curricula of business schools and throughout

the careers of business executives will contribute to

ethical enlightenment and the development of an

appropriate moral consciousness and ethical sense of

responsibility among corporate executives.


1 Deontological ethics (from the Greek to deon, mean-

ing duty, obligation), is an ethical theory based on con-

cepts of duty and rights that can be demonstrated by

reason alone and exist independent of experience. This

set of unchanging formal and normative moral princi-

ples need to be applied in order to confer moral value

on any ethically relevant deed. 2 See, for example, SEC Accounting and Auditing

Enforcement Accounting and Auditing Enforcement

Release No. 2433, dated May 23, 2006. http://

www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2006/lr19710.htm 3 From the Greek ‘‘telos’’ meaning aim or goal. 4 For more on the analysis and critique of teleological

ethics compare W. K. Frankena, Ethics (Englewood

Cliffs: New Jersey 1963), 13. 5 It is worth noting that utilitarianism – particularly with

Bentham – starts out by describing human nature as

unquestionably hedonistic. On this anthropological pre-

mise, then, Bentham and his followers erect the system of

utilitarianism which argues that only such moral praxis can

be justified that not only serves the happiness of individu-

als but serves, at the same time, the happiness of the great-

est number of individuals. For utilitarianism thus diverts

and expands the natural desire for individual happiness

onto a collective level it could well be denoted as a form

of collective egotism. Although Mill will later on expand

the qualitative meaning of the notion of happiness by inte-

grating humanistic, cultural, emotional and not the least

social dimensions – in a conceivable critical analysis of the

social reality at the time – the claim of a moral principle

that roots in a subjective-ethical hedonism which is trans-

formed in a objective-hedonistic principle remains more

than problematic; particularly regarding issues such as jus-

tice, individual self-determination, conscious decisions,

and many more. 6 These stakeholders include shareholders, creditors,

employees, those living in the communities where the

business operates etc. 7 These situations are apart from ethical duties toward

oneself, such as not taking one’s own life, which is be-

yond the scope of our investigative equation. 8 This is a very decisive point of an ethical discourse

involving deontology and teleology. It appears to be one

of the more profound misunderstandings in the interpre-

tation of deontological ethics to assume that it would be

totally dissociated from results. The truth is that even the

deontological act is triggered by some empirical circum-

stance and desires some result, however, reaching the

result does not determine whether or not the act was

ethical or, in the least, of ethical relevance. 9 Crain’s New York Business on 11 May 1998.




ebe8f335126737102c9e67eac172f783. Accessed 2 Nove

mber 2005. 10 PR Newswire, 11 June 1998. http://web.lexisnexis.


76c37db9666c9020bee8836bbbc694&_docn um=1&


271e437b4d042 11 To be technically comprehensive, with few excep-

tions, revenue must be earned and received or earned

and receivable in order to be recorded as revenue on

the books of a company. 12 http://www.sec.gov/litigation/complaints/comp18464.

htm. Accessed 17 July 2006. 13 PR Newswire, 29 July 1998. http://www.web.lexis-




28b36ae8ac9f9. Accessed 2 November 2005. 14 PR Newswire, 21 December 1998. http://www.we-

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