Immanuel Kant’s deontological approach to business ethics focused on the humanity of those involved in business dealings. His approach to business ethics was such that it involved taking into consideration the effect that one’s actions would have on all people that decision might be affected by it. To Kant, the idea of putting money before people was immoral and unethical. His philosophy of ethics was deontology, which is a duty-based formulation for morality of actions.
His “categorical imperative,” which defined Kantian deontology, described the need to take an action in any given situation that could be universally applied, that the humanity of the party involved in the action must be taken into account; that is, the person should not be taken as the means to an end. In addition, the actor in the situation must treat him- or herself in the same manner as any other person (Bowie, 2003, pp. 3-4). This paper will be used to argue that in the case of Brian F. Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum the company management acted in an ethical and moral manner when they decided to implement the training and that no discrimination took place.
Kant’s categorical imperative states that an action should be universally applicable for it to be moral. In the case of this training program, it would appear that this aspect of the categorical imperative applies. The idea of a training program in and of itself is a positive thing that can benefit a wide range of people, any or all of whom would have their lives improved by greater earning power. It is possible to argue that all employers have a duty to allow their employers to improve their skills, for the benefit of both the employees and the employers.
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The question then becomes, since the company does benefit from the decision to train the employees, whether or not the company created the training program solely to benefit themselves, by the improvement of their image. If the training program had been created solely to benefit the black members of the workforce, then it could be argued that the Kaiser Aluminum had acted to benefit from the good will created by an act of restitution that would have an effect on only a very small portion of the company’s employees.
However, the company training program was developed to benefit both black and white employees. That policy created universality within the “universe” of the company, since at the time it was only black and white employees who were affected by training practices.
If the company training program was indeed universal, then did it treat the company employees as means to an end? In order to draw this conclusion, it would appear necessary to assume that either 1) the company alone benefited from this action or 2) the company used its employee’s need for better training to improve its public relations that had been damaged due to past practices.
Clearly, the company was not the only entity to benefit from the institution of a training program. However, given that the company image would benefit from the action of creating a training program, the second factor may be arguable. However, the case as laid out indicates that there was a need for the program, due to the insufficient number of trained black crafters. Although the program was instituted due to a collective-bargaining agreement, the need for the training existed outside of the terms of that agreement.
In addition, by dividing the training program to meet the needs of both black employees and white employees, all employees had the potential of benefiting through improving skills. Finally, when the skill level of the employees increased, the productivity of the plant would increase, ensuring job security and creating the potential for salary increases.
If Kaiser Aluminum’s actions were moral, then, how moral are the actions of Brian Weber? Can his actions be universal? Brian Weber argues that he believes that the employees who have seniority should be chosen for this training program, no matter the need shown by other employees that have been with the company for a shorter period of employment. Because the majority of the employees that would benefit using this method of selection are the white employees, then there would be only limited benefit, if any to the black employees. For this reason, Weber’s actions cannot be universal, because they exclude a portion of the workforce.
In addition, although Weber does not want black employees to be treated in the same manner as white employees that he feels have seniority and privilege, it is also true that Weber would not like to be treated in the same manner as the black employees have been treated. This conclusion is evident, given that although past discrimination has occurred on the part of the company, Weber objects to being treated in what he feels is a discriminatory fashion. In addition, it is possible to argue that he is using the people who benefit from this program as means to an end.
Not only does he wish to remove the benefit that they potentially receive from this training, but he also wishes to use their potential loss to benefit himself. Even if it can be argued that he wishes to “make a point” about reverse discrimination or that he wishes to benefit others like him, he is still doing so at the cost of other people. Regardless of whom he wishes to benefit, Weber’s aim is not to increase good will; rather, it is to increase financial gain for a select number of people. Because he uses those people to benefit himself, he is not behaving in a manner that is consistent with how he himself would choose to be treated.
In short, then, the benefits of Kaiser Aluminum creating the training program are universal. This training program has the potential to benefit all employees, not just a select few. The company is treating its employees as those who are in charge would choose to be treated. The company’s actions were indeed moral, in terms of the categorical imperative. Brian Weber, however, seeks to benefit only a few people at the cost of others. In addition, he is using those people as means to an end. While Kaiser Aluminum is behaving ethically, Brian Weber is not.
Bowie, Norman, E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” A Companion to Business Ethics, Robert E. Frederick, Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2002. 3-16.
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