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Ethical Decision-Making and Its Impact on Employees' Rights

By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

In recent years, some employers have made news headlines for using their personal religious beliefs as justification for interfering in employees’ rights. This interference runs the gamut from a policy of refusing to hire LGBTQ applicants to a corporate-wide health insurance plan that denies coverage for procreative choices, including payments for contraceptives. It’s worth examining how these moral stances fail under scrutiny.

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Ethical Decision-Making Has Three Stages

To summarize the levels of moral reasoning, there are three stages that govern ethical decision-making: preconventional, conventional and principled.

In preconventional reasoning (the earliest stage), the choices that one makes center squarely around personal consequences. Examples of this behavior can be found in animals and young children. A dog will obey commands in order to receive praise or treats. A child will do chores to avoid punishment. These are self-centered decisions.

In conventional reasoning, choices are made based not only on personal consequences, but on conformity with social norms. For most adults, conventional reasoning is the limit of moral development. The way we think, dress and conduct ourselves in the presence of others is all guided by societal expectations. Indeed, any conduct outside social norms is labeled as nonconformist; this is essentially a kind of peer pressure.

Finally, in principled reasoning, truly learned moral thinkers are able to discern and advocate moral behavior even when it works against their own personal interests or runs contrary to societal expectations. Examples of principled moral thinkers would be Abraham Lincoln and his largely unpopular fight to abolish slavery, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose then-controversial advocacy for desegregation of the South grew into the national civil rights movement.

Should Employers Impose Their Personal Religious Views on Employees?

But at what level of moral reasoning are employers operating when they impose their personal religious views on their employees by prohibiting birth control insurance coverage?

Such a stance isn’t principled because there is no evidence of an intelligent analysis of the causes and conditions of human well-being in this regard. In fact, the position seems to ignore scientific research about the efficacy of contraceptives in preventing sexually transmitted diseases, infant mortality, unwanted pregnancies and unchecked population growth.

Such employment regulations are not conventional either because more than half of Americans identify as “pro-choice.” According to the poll, 57 percent of Americans surveyed believe individuals should have the right to manage their own reproductive decisions, including abortion.

In fact, such corporate decisions are pre-conventional in their reasoning, concealed behind a thin veil of purported benevolent intent.

The World’s Major Religions Teach and Practice the Golden Rule of Ethics

Many of the world’s major religions teach and practice the “golden rule,” the ethical standard which insists that in all cases you should treat others as you would like to be treated.

But religiously motivated policies are often contrary to any rational analysis of what a “golden rule” should require of its adherents. If you don’t want the personal beliefs of others forced upon you, then act accordingly.

One need only imagine how these same employers would react if members of a different religion attempted to impose their own beliefs on them. For example, suppose Muslim businesses in America demanded that their employees hold daily prayers, fast and avoid pork in conformity with their own beliefs. It would be hard to exaggerate the level of disdain and animus that would emerge in many non-Muslim observers.

Policies that govern people’s personal activities, including procreative choices, should be informed by a rational analysis of the factors that promote human well-being. For example, if taking prenatal vitamins are shown to promote fetal health, as indeed they are, then taking these vitamins should be encouraged. If drinking alcohol can be harmful to the development of babies in utero, as it can, this should be discouraged by physicians and perhaps even prohibited by social policy.

But the policies of religious employers denying their employees access to contraceptives do not come from a rational assessment of what promotes well-being. In fact, these policies actually have the opposite effect. They don’t promote well-being; they degrade it. Consequently, it is my sincere hope that more thoughtful perspectives will prevail in time.

Although humility is indeed a virtue, thoughtful individuals must be honest and courageous enough to condemn unwise or irrational behavior when and where it is observed to be detrimental to the lives of human beings. If we fail to defend the principles of reason and rationality in social discourse, we risk a moral collapse from which society might never recover.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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