3. What Is Ethics?


Another way of thinking about ethics is based on thinking about the consequences to different people. Briefly, consequentialism encourages you to make decisions based on the consequences — both positive and negative — for those involved.

This category of thinking is the branch of ethics known as utilitarianism. This states that an action is right if it leads to the most good outcomes and the least bad outcomes for the greatest number of people.

One limitation of thinking about ethics in terms of consequences is that you have to agree on what sorts of consequences matter: for example, should you be trying to promote pleasure and avoid causing pain, or should you instead focus on promoting people’s actual well-being, regardless of whether doing so makes them happy?

A modern application of this point of view is the cost-benefit analysis, which involves assigning monetary values to the costs and benefits of an action and seeing how they add up. This practice is often used in evaluating new projects.

As an accounting example, an accountant thinking in terms of consequences would prepare ‘true and fair’ financial statements because doing so would bring the most benefit to the greatest number of people. In other words, stakeholders inside and outside the organisation would be able to make more informed decisions as a result.