Ethics and Virtue

The following is a series of notes taken from a class on Ethics I took from Dr. Ray Wheeler, back in January of 2009. The class took place at Daystar University, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ethics is central to leadership because of the nature of the process of influence.

Influence: Engages followers

Accomplishes mutual goals

Ethics is central to leadership because of the impact leaders have on establishing the organization’s values.


Different forms of ethics:






II. Intention for Ethical Dilemmas

Our intentions assume a right or wrong, against a universal law.

Our intention is based on self-examination.


Ethics is the process of making decisions based on moral assumptions.


How do I handle conflicting values? “On the one side, I value truthfulness; on the other side I value human life.”


III. What is Ethics?

Ethos; customs, conduct or character (what society finds desirable)



Consideration of others



Values: ideas, principles or beliefs that are held as special

Morals: authoritative statements or ideals of what is right or wrong

Virtue: operative habit that is essentially good

Kindness, discipline, honesty, hospitality, etc., are examples of virtue.

Motive: reasons from which an individual determines behavior.

Anger, love, temper, desire for glory, etc., are examples of motive.


IV. A short history of ethics

[Plato] Eudaemonistic ethics: human wellbeing is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct to which the virtues are requisite skills and character traits.


[Aristotle] Ethics as grounded on virtues, but he rejected Plato’s insistence that training in sciences and metaphysics was a prerequisite to understanding the good.



Ethical behavior exhibits virtues in the mean between:




Virtue is contrasted by vice in pursuit of the mean,

The behaviors may be:




ethical grid

We must examine what we drift into easily… We must drag ourselves off in the contrary direction…”


The definition of the mean is determined by society.


The mother tree grows new trees through its roots, rather than scattered seeds

Its roots form new trees, which when are cut at the right time, form new groves

All trees are connected to one another


V. The Moral Agent

Aristotle: the moral agent can fulfill his or her moral obligation.

Example: Someone points a gun at you and says to rob the bank.

Duty: I do not steal.

Prima Facie: I will preserve my life.

I cannot obey both. If fail my duty due to duress, I will not be held morally responsible.


VI. Approaches to ethics

Teleological: decision based on the consequence

Essentially, teleological ethics is based on what happens.

The good (the end) drives the decision.

The result determines the rule.

The result is the basis of the action.

The result is sometimes used to break the rules.

The rule is good because of the result.


Deontological: decision based on duty

Essentially, deontological ethics are based on your beliefs.

The duty drives the decision.

The rule determines the result.

The rule is the basis of the act.

The rule is good regardless of the result.

The result is calculated within the rules.


PRINCIPLE: The more facts you discover as a leader the better the decision.


VII. Northouse’s Foci of Ethical Reasoning

Conduct-based ethics

Consequences (teleological theories)

Ethical egoism: decision made to my greatest benefit

Utilitarianism: what is the greatest possible good for the greatest number of people; using pragmatism as a style of invention

Act utilitarianism: is what is best in a specific case

Rule utilitarianism: is what is generally best in most contexts

Altruism: decisions should be made in light of the best interests of others

Leaders intent on benefiting others will pursue organizational goals.

Conversely self-focused leaders focus on personal achievement and control.

Duty (deontological theories)


Character-based ethics

Virtue-based theories


Can Kant’s Categorical Imperative remain?


Velasquez (1992)









Northouse (2004)

Builds community

Respects others

Serves others

Shows justice

Manifests honesty

Goal: to exercise awareness of the impact of leadership decisions


VIII. Models of Virtue





Self control






Goal: Live well in community. 

What virtues anchor our ethics?


IX. Ethics in organizational leadership

Point: ethics has to do with a) what leaders do and b) who leaders are.

Importance: in any decision-making situation implicit or explicit ethical issues exist.


X. Reflection

A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live and move and have their being, conditions that can be either as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A leader must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside his or her own self, inside his or her conscience, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.” (Parker Palmer, “Leading from Within”)


What you are has a serious impact on what you do. A leader cannot separate himself from his responsibility. A leader has to accept the responsibilities of leadership. You have this impact whether or not you accept this responsibility. There is a direct teleological response that comes with every decision a leader makes.