A new semester, a new business ethics class. Although the students are self-selected—my course is an elective, I motivate them in various ways. For example, I explain how understanding moral principles and applying them make decision making easier.

Most of people recognize that we are fallible and make mistakes. Moral principles don’t make us infallible, but they are the tools that make achieving values—from food and shelter to a successful career or business, good relationships with family and friends, enjoyable hobbies, a happy life—possible in the long term, over a life span.

Objective moral principles, such as rationality, honesty, and justice, help project the long-term consequences of our decisions and actions. Seeing the consequences of following principles or not clearly, make decisions effective and much easier, as opposed to following gut feelings or what everyone else is doing.

Although moral principles save both agonizing over decisions and time because they provide confidence in one’s moral convictions, they are not dogmatic rules, such as “Never lie” or “Always put others’ needs above your own,” that can be applied mechanistically. Moral principles, to guide us in achieving values in the long term, must be objective. They must be based on facts and are applied to each decision by thinking.

Instead of rushing to conclusions … the principle  of rationality guides us to dig deeper for the relevant facts.

Not many philosophers have proposed objective morality. In fact, most hold that ethics are subjective. Ayn Rand was unique in that she developed a consistently objective moral code: she derived moral principles from the factual requirements of human survival and flourishing. She asked: What does long-term human survival and flourishing require?  Or, paraphrasing the  Greek philosophers such as Aristotle: What does living a good life require?

Ayn Rand (and Aristotle) observed reality and concluded: we primarily survive and flourish by using reason. Achieving values that our lives depend on, from food, shelter, medicine, other material products, and freedom, requires that we first figure out, by observation and thinking: how to grow and prepare food, to build a shelter, to treat illnesses, to design and manufacture products, to achieve and defend freedom. We then must act on that thinking to achieve the values.

From the observation of those facts, Rand derived the primary moral principle of her moral code of egoism: rationality, which means adherence to facts in all choices and actions, through observation of logic. Applying rationality requires that in our thinking, we focus on reality, learn continually (versus be content with outdated knowledge), and trust only reason as the means of knowledge (versus accept blind faith or majority opinion as the truth). Being rational in action requires acting on our rational conclusions (as opposed to on emotions or whims).

Rationality serves as an indispensable guiding principle in decision making. Instead of rushing to conclusions with partial or false information, or an instantaneous emotional response, this principle guides us to dig deeper for the relevant facts.

When emotional pressure tempts to evade an uncomfortable fact (such as skipping physical exercise has caused us to get out of shape), the principle of rationality urges us to ask: Is this true, and what is the evidence for it? What are the long-term consequences of ignoring the fact? This principle helps project the future (all the bad consequences of not exercising) and change our choices.

Honesty, another objective moral principle, guards against faking reality in order to gain a value. It guides us as rationality does. Values cannot be gained by faking. So for example, there is no point of giving overly optimistic pep talks in an attempt to motivate others. An honest assessment of the risks of a project as well as its potential benefits, achievable through everyone’s committed effort, is far more credible, and motivating, than predictions of unrealistic achievements. Honesty helps us achieve our values, such a successful project.

The principle of justice is my last example.  It advocates rationality in evaluating people and giving everyone what they objectively deserve, based on character and conduct. Justice requires trading value for value, for win-win outcomes—as opposed to playing favorites or manipulating or bullying people to get them to do what we want. Others’ contribution or input is often crucial to achieve our values; therefore, we must evaluate people objectively and choose who to interact with. Dealing with others in a just manner gains their co-operation and trust, and makes relationships with them straightforward and mutually beneficial.

Thanks to Ayn Rand and the objective moral principles she identified, we can make moral decisions more easily—and achieve our values in the long term.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad.Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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