Business Ethics: Theoretical Aspect And The Post Analysis

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1.1. Introduction

The question of ethics arises in all aspects of day-to-day life, raising hard sometimes insoluble quandaries about the morally correct way to act (McConnel, 2002). As almost all businesses exist to be profitable this almost always results in actions to which contradict the deemed morally right way to act. In this way, ethics and its compatibility and application to business have been a particular catalyst for debate raising some key questions. Such as, what has ethics to do with either business or profits? Should businesses be expected to be ethical? What factors influence decision-making when faced with moral quandaries within the business? And can businesses manage ethics to make it compatible with profit orientation?

This report will apply academic theory, modern-day academic literature, and ethical frameworks to the 2017 film The Post to analyse factors such as decision-making influences, ethical issues/moral quandaries and then use findings to develop and provide recommendations on how managers within modern-day enterprises can help prevent the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour.

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1.2. Decision-making Analysis

This section will be centred around the analysis of individual and situational factors that may have affected and influenced the decision-making of Kay Graham.

One of the major situational and individual influences to Kay Graham throughout the film is gender. The post is set in the era of the early 1970s, this time the movement for equal rights had just begun and with Kay Graham being one of the very few women in a corporate position the pressure on her shoulders to perform well, to be a role model to other women and to break down negative preconceptions and stereotypes, of course, had a huge influence on Kay’s every decision. A fantastic example of this is around 13 minutes into the film where Kay and Ben the chief editor joke about Kay being the only female going into the board meeting and how Kay felt it necessary to read everything before the meeting, with Ben joking ‘you’re probably the only one who has read any of that nonsense. This can be supported further by a recent paper published by Badesch (2018), the paper explored how women within the workplace often have to overcompensate to outperform male colleagues due to gender bias, the paper went on to reference a Catalyst (2010) survey found at the highest level of business within the US only 15.2% consist of women. Gender bias present throughout the 1970s era would have been even more intense and oppressive making it a detrimental influence on Kay’s every decision within the workplace daily, therefore, impacting Kay’s behaviour.

We will now consider another individual influence on Kay’s decision-making process, this influence being experienced. Jones (1991) supports the notion that ethical decision-making is issue-contingent, and that the moral intensity of the situation is key to an individual’s ethical decision-making and behavior. In this way, the experience can influence the intensity of a moral dilemma significantly. A fantastic example of this is when around the 1hour 8minute mark of the film when Kay confronts friend and former secretary of defense Robert McNamara on his questionable actions mentioning how her son went to the Vietnam war, this highlighting Kay’s moral intensity and passion for justice towards the moral questioning of those who continued to support a war which evidence revealed was not winnable and that lead to numerous deaths of innocent people who had families of their own would have been considerably higher than others. For example, someone who the war had not affected at all such as someone from another country would not have the moral intensity or passion that Kay had on the quandary.

An interesting concept centered around experience influencing the moral intensity of a quandary is whether having experience enhances the ability to act the right way. Experience of a situation can also inhibit your ability to act logically for example, similar to the way doctors cannot perform on patients they have experience with or how you cannot be on the jury of someone you know as it may influence your rational thinking process, does experience inhibit your ability to act rationally? LaMontagne (2016), conducted a survey observing the impact of moral intensity and experience of the individual decision-making process of human resource workers, findings suggested most of the managers could recall at least one moment that early on caused them to have a strong sense of right and wrong and fairness to others and that ethical decision making consists of a very complex interaction of personal, situational, and organizational factors. Kohlberg’s (1969) Theory of Cognitive Moral Development would indicate that these individuals have achieved higher levels of maturity. In this way, Kay’s experience would have provided her with a higher level of maturity, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of ethical duty and the concept of necessary evil. This allowing Kay to harness the intensity of a moral quandary and act justly. This research seems to be supported as based on a true story Kay deciding to publish papers was the right thing to do in a very intense moral dilemma.

The final factor to consider a huge influence on Kay’s decision-making processes is emotions. While the influence of emotion on individuals’ ethical decisions has been identified by numerous researchers, little is known about how emotions influence individuals’ ethical decisions processes (Gaudline and Thorne, 2001). For example, Kay’s understanding of questions surrounding the just nature of the Vietnam war would have provoked certain emotions however, little is known on how said emotions would have impacted her decision-making process. Recent studies however have aimed to address this issue with some scholars such as Orlando (1999) arguing emotion is often considered a non-essential aspect to the ethical decision process that is best ignored, if not controlled, as it interferes with a logical, rational ethical decision process. However, other scholars such as Gaudline and Thorne (2001) point towards the argument that emotions should not be ignored as “irrational biases” to a rational ethical decision process but attention to one’s emotions may result in better ethical decisions. Using the film as an example we can clearly see holistically throughout the build-up to Kay’s decision that emotions have impacted her decision-making process. Specifically, 22 minutes in Kay not being able to speak in board room meeting, 1hour 8 minutes in Kay saying her son was in Vietnam, and 1hour 18minutes the phone call debating whether to publish the paper with her colleagues. All these events would have provoked intense, involuntary, natural emotions within Kay such as a sense of justice, fear, anxiety and the concept of duty. Which of course would impact Kay’s decision to publish the paper. We again can see that the film proves academic theory to be correct as Kay’s emotions not being ignored didn’t result in them causing “irrational biases” to a rational ethical decision process but attention to one’s emotions actually resulted in a good ethical decision being made. Making it a great example to support the theory that attention to one’s emotions may actually result in better ethical decisions being made.

2.1. Analysis of Ethical Issues

Throughout this section I will consider the main ethical issues/dilemmas throughout the film, applying them to ethical theories.

Ethical issue one: The decision to publish the papers

As mentioned previously the main ethical dilemma throughout the film was the decision on whether or not to publish papers including top-secret US government files regarding the Vietnam war.

Utilitarianism is an absolutist, consequentialist theory centered around the principle ‘an action is morally right if it results in the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people affected by the action.’ (Crane & Matten, 2016, p.98). Utilitarianism was created by Jeremy Bentham, then later adapted by John Stuart Mill and further adapted and applied to modern-day ethical issues by Peter Singer. A utilitarian thinker would approach an ethical dilemma by considering all alternative options available and similar to a cost-benefit strategy would intrinsically consider which alternative is going to be the most beneficial to the largest number of people. The action deemed the most beneficial to the largest number of people is deemed the morally correct way to act (Regan, 1980). Applying this ethical theory to the film The Post we can clearly see Kay’s ethical decision would be supported by a utilitarian consequentialist thinker. This is due to Kay’s decision to publish being incredibly risky as the consequences of the decision not being successful would have been detrimental to Kay herself and a select number of friends and employees surrounding her within the paper, the potential huge retribution ranging from jail time, a potential setback for the equal rights movement and the demise of her businesses. This being portrayed excellently by Meryl Streep around 1hour 18minutes during a phone call discussing the risks associated with publishing the paper with colleagues. However, Kay considered the need for the paper to be a check of power for the government, the responsibility to hold them accountable, and the responsibility to enlighten the public on the unjust nature surrounding the war. In this way Kay intrinsically and impartially deemed the greatest good for the greatest number would be to publish the paper.

Kantian ethics (ethics of duties) is an absolutist consequentialist theory centered around the concept of duty. The concept of duty derived from Kant’s belief that as humans we are autonomous moral agents and that although the morally right thing to do does not always result in making us happy, it is our duty to act morally disregarding our own desires as it is that exact quality that separates us from other contingent beings (Carter, 2016). Kant proposed the categorical imperative consisting of three fundamental maxims which need to be fulfilled without contradiction for a proposed way to act to be deemed the morally correct solution. These maxims include, maxim 1 ‘Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’, maxim 2‘Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.’ And maxim 3 ‘Act only so that the will through its maxims could regard itself at the same time as universally law-giving.’ Applying Kantian ethics and the categorical imperative to the quandary of Kay deciding to publish the papers we can clearly see that Kay harnesses her emotions such as sympathy, that contrary to misconception Kant actually argued in later writings that Kantian ethics would allow for an account of moral emotional modulation allowing moral agents to perform their duty with more compassion (Carter, 2016). Kay’s decision also satisfies all three maxims without contradiction firstly Kay’s decision to publish in the desire to be a check of power to the government and the public’s right to information could become a universal law without contradiction. Also, Kay’s decision to publish was centered around exposing the US government for their questionable behavior regarding the Vietnam war and how they were in fact treating US soldiers as means rather than ends, disregarding their human dignity and therefore satisfying the second maxim. Finally, Kay’s decision to expose unjust actions could be considered universally law giving as it would be widely considered the right thing to do as universally being held responsible for one’s actions is deemed the right thing to do. Therefore, Kay’s decision to publish was in fact the right decision to make according to Kantian ethics.

Managerial Recommendations

Based on the research I have completed I will now aim to provide several simple recommendations in the aim to make the compatibility between ethical behaviour and profit orientation more fluid with minimal contradiction. Business ethics management can be defined as a direct attempt to formally or informally manage ethical issues in the workplace (Crane and Matten, 2016).

The first simple managerial recommendation would be to introduce both financial and non-financial incentives for employees who flourish as autonomous moral agents. As profit orientation often contradicts that which is morally right a huge question is why would employees decide to act morally? As that which is morally correct as well as profitable is usually considerably higher workload for employees with little or no benefit. A recent study from the 2005 journal of ethics highlighted that modern-day economic thought presumes that individuals in a society always act according to their self-interest or private economic incentives, while important ethical motivations for action, such as a concern for others and public interest, are largely ignored. The study went on to mention it is assumed that individuals seek to maximize their satisfaction from consumption of various commodities, while businesses and their managers seek to maximize economic profit. Little attention is paid in current economic thought to ethical motivations for action, such as a concern for others (altruism) and the public interest (Kulshreshtha, 2005). In this way managers often neglect the intrinsic ethical motivations of employees. Therefore, I would recommend managers introduce simple incentives such as praise and even financial incentives such as an increased financial bonus for those who act morally whilst still being financially beneficial towards the company. This will empower the workforce and increase motivation considerably by showing employees that their own intrinsic altruistic motivations are respected and a concern for the organization as a whole. This can further be supported by the work of Aristotle, who argued that when an individual is in a position where that individual can apply virtues to specific subjective ethical dilemmas and act just consistently, they are in a state of ‘Eudaimonia’ (Nagel, 1972), the state of eudaimonia is the highest form of life and is translated to flourishing. Applying this to the Washington Post, with the introduction of ethical incentives employees collectively would have been motivated to publish the papers as their ethical altruistic nature would have been enhanced by the company culture. Therefore, the company as a whole without contradiction would have been motivated to act virtuously and the company as a whole would flourish as both a profitable and morally sound organization. The Washington post would then be in a state of Eudaimonia.

Another managerial recommendation is to align the recruitment and selection process to the company culture and expected moral autonomy of employees. This can be supported by an article published in 1988 by Bergwerk, the article noted how selection often becomes centred on making sure that immediate operational difficulties are overcome. As a consequence, the key focus when recruiting managers are frequently not to make mistakes. This results in candidates being employed who are not aligned to company culture, it is then by chance that they adapt to the company culture therefore the long-term future and strength of the organisation is left to take care of itself; quality will rise to the surface and the selection procedure rarely tries to influence this consciously and actively. As a result of this, I would recommend managers to introduce stages throughout the selection process that are designed to test a candidate’s moral autonomy and mental robustness when faced with ethical dilemmas. This will result in candidates being successful who are aligned to company culture, autonomous moral agents, and internally motivated, meaning the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour can be overcome collectively daily. This can be further supported by a study present in the journal of business ethics 1998. Cleek and Leomard (1998) discuss the neglect of a code of ethics present within the company culture. It is highlighted that the nature of corporate ethics is often adapted due to the knowledge that unethical decisions and activities frequently undermine the performance and abilities of many organizations. However, the article continues to discuss the importance of cementing an ethical code in the company culture, reinforcing it, and applying it to different processes such as recruitment and selection. This method confronts the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour holistically making it more compatible. For example, applying this concept to the Washington post we can clearly see that by chance over multiple years employees in powerful positions such as head editor are autonomous moral agents leading other employees. However, this has come as a result of years of experience with Kay quoting at the end of the film ‘we don’t always get it right but we just keep on it that’s the job’, in this way the Washington post has a culture and implementing this code into the recruitment and selection process will result in young and upcoming employees holding desirable characteristics allowing them to gain experience and although not getting it right will keep on it, improving and striving towards eudaimonia as mentioned earlier. This resulting in the Washington post having an identity as an ethical and profitable business that can be a USP in its own right.


This report has applied academic theory, modern-day academic literature and ethical frameworks to the 2017 film The Post. It has then gone on to analyse factors such as decision-making influences, ethical issues/moral quandaries and then used findings to develop and provide recommendations on how managers within modern-day enterprises can help prevent the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour. Throughout the report, we can clearly see that the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour is still a huge issue not enough being done to support the notion of ethical business management. However, having read emerging academic literature surrounding the issue it seems more and more research is being published to make the compatibility between ethical behaviour and profit orientation more fluid with minimal contradiction. A further point I considered is the lack of modern-day ethical theories, with many ethical theories created centuries ago being applied to subjective modern-day ethical quandaries the room for error creates even more confusion. I would like to see more theories being adapted by modern-day scholars and then applied to modern day dilemmas such as the contradiction between profit orientation and ethical behaviour. A further learning curve gained from writing this assignment is the impact acting morally can have on society. Particularly exploring the impact of gender as a decision-making influence to Kay Graham throughout the film, exploring such influence enlightened me to the inequality present throughout the 1970s and has made me considerably more passionate about equal rights for women on issues such as gender pay gaps. I think everyone can gain some inspiration from Kay’s decision to publish the paper despite the intense pressure of the situation surrounding her.       


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