How Kantian Ethics can guide ethical decision making in business, resolve moral and ethical dilemmas, and provide a principled framework for entrepreneurs.

By Product Dragon—Nonprofit helping ethical product innovators

Ethics in business and entrepreneurship is a big topic that’s rarely discussed openly. But any entrepreneur who opens so much as a lemonade stand will immediately face ethical issues and moral dilemmas, whether they choose to consider them or not.

Immanuel Kant’s ethical theory, Kantian ethics, postulates that the highest moral principle is the unconditional respect for the dignity of all humans as rational beings. According to Kant, the moral worth of an action is determined not by its consequences or the motives behind it, but by the intrinsic nature of the action itself.

Kantian ethics addresses such questions as, “do the ends justify the means?” and “is it okay to bend the rules if there is no apparent harm done?”

Emmanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a German philospher who influenced many fields including ethics.

People are not means to an end

To understand Kantian business ethics, a few Kantian concepts must be introduced.

The categorical imperative is a moral law that dictates that we should always treat people as ends in themselves, never merely as means to an end. It is never morally justifiable to use people merely as a means, such as exploiting their labor or deceiving them for personal gain. Instead, people should always be respected and treated with dignity, regardless of their usefulness to others.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Immanuel Kant

One imperative is the universalizability principle, which essentially requires that if you are morally okay with an action, you must completely accept a world where everyone takes that same action, regardless of circumstance or intention.

The Kingdom of Ends refers to a hypothetical society in which all individuals follow the categorical imperative and treat each other as ends in themselves, acting according to universal moral laws.

Kantian ethics places great emphasis on the importance of moral autonomy: the ability of individuals to make their own moral decisions. This contrasts with consequentialist theories, which hold that the morality of an action is determined by its consequences.

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