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K-State Today

September 14, 2017



Mudrack's research on utilitarianism accepted for publication in the Journal of Business Ethics

By Brent Fritzemeier

Peter Mudrack, Kansas State University associate professor of management, and co-author Sharon Mason, Brock University, recently had their research accepted for publication in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The paper is titled "Utilitarian Traits and the Janus-Headed Model: Origins, Meaning, and Interpretation." Diane Swanson, K-State professor of management, also provided valuable thoughts and encouragement in the early stages of the writing.

John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873, developed the famous and influential ethical principle known as "utilitarianism," a concept that most business students will encounter in their studies. When deciding whether a course of action is right or wrong, Mill's focus was on outcomes — does an action create the greatest good for the greatest number? If so, that action is ethical even though it might violate laws or social conventions, or even not be in the decision-makers' personal best interest. Utilitarianism is essentially a tool or a technique that people can use when faced with a difficult decision that can help them decide the ethical thing to do.

Some researchers, however, have taken a different approach and have thought of utilitarianism as a set of traits to which individuals might be predisposed. The specific traits labeled as "utilitarian" are innovative, resourceful, effective, influential, results-oriented, productive and a winner. If such traits had importance to someone, then they would essentially be utilitarian. Here, utilitarianism is not a tool that people can use in the context of ethics, but rather something that they are, and that describes them. Resourceful and innovative winners essentially are utilitarian.

The phrase "Janus-headed model" appears in the title of the paper written by Mudrack and Mason. Ancient Romans pictured the god Janus as having two faces. One looked forward and the other looked behind. So-called utilitarian individuals are inclined to look forward toward the future, whereas other people tend to look behind them toward the past. It is unlikely that business ethics students have ever encountered this interpretation of utilitarianism.

There now seem to be two distinct ways of thinking about utilitarianism. It may not be difficult to imagine that this could cause massive confusion and could get in the way of clear understanding. After all, when we use the word "utilitarianism," what exactly do we mean? Are we talking about a technique that anyone can use, or are we talking about the people themselves?

An additional source of confusion is that some researchers have imagined that so-called utilitarian people might be inclined to have questionable ethics. Resourceful and results-oriented winners, after all, might be willing to do almost anything in order to win. On the other hand, if utilitarianism is a tool that people can use to help them decide right from wrong, then questionable ethics seem unlikely. Self-interest and winning are not especially important in utilitarianism, at least as described by John Stuart Mill.

The paper authored by Mudrack and Mason attempts to clarify the meaning and implications of these traits. The essential argument is that these have no connection to Mill's version of utilitarianism. The authors reviewed research into utilitarian traits and concluded that the results of this research are puzzling and unusually difficult to interpret. People who assign importance to the traits of innovative and a winner may believe only that these things are important, and such traits have no apparent relevance to ethics. The subject of ethics is too important for researchers to waste time exploring dead-ends and to investigate areas that aren't really worthwhile. Sometimes it may be helpful to learn what not to do.