Utilitarian philosophy (or utilitarianism) is an ethical framework and a school of moral philosophy that relies on the assumption that the best actions are the one that leads to maximum utility, which justifies the means applied to achieve it. Thus, according to proponents of this approach, classical morality is futile since it does not add value to human existence but only complicates it. That is why they would judge the activities of Massey Energy-based exclusively on the company’s success in multiplying the number of material amenities.
It may seem from first sight that utilitarianism would approve of the actions of the corporation. This idea is supported by the fact that Massey brought numerous benefits to the country in general and to the Appalachian region in particular. It managed to lessen the excessive US reliance on imported oil. It also provided comparatively well-paid jobs to thousands of people who otherwise could be unemployed. Furthermore, the organization improves the status of the region marked by abject poverty by donating a lot of money to scholarship programs, schools, emergency support (since natural disasters are not infrequent).
Nevertheless, when one looks closer at the essence of utilitarian ethics, it becomes evident that utility is not as simplistic as it may seem to be. In fact, it is a sum of all profits and pleasures caused by an action minus the sufferings of everyone who performs it. The point is that, unlike consequentialism, this approach regards the interests of all parties involved at an equal footing. There is a lot of disagreement found in different versions of utilitarianism. Its proponents argue whether it should increase total or average utility, conform to rules, or be based on the likely positive results. That is why there is no clear answer to the question, whether utilitarian logic would consider this or that action ethical and just. In most general terms, Massey Energy brings more profit than harm to the majority of the population. Yet, at the same time, since all the interests must be considered equally, the sufferings of its employees are not compensated, which makes the process of coal running not only unethical but also merely inhumane.
The rights approach to ethics is based on the importance of respecting personality and dignity. All choices that people make in their lives are considered to be free, rational, and equal. People have a moral right to respect them if they expect to be respected in the same way. Some of the main rights include life, happiness, liberty, freedom of religion and speech, privacy, ownership of property, etc. The approach calls for identifying the legitimacy of each action on the basis of how well all the rights are respected. Ethical action is the one that never ignores the interests of all the parties involved. If the rights are conflicting, it is required to decide which one should be prioritized since its violation could bring about deplorable consequences. This assumption of the theory allows claiming that Massey Energy is an unethical company from this perspective since it neglected the rights of its workers regardless of their significance. As the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster showed, even the most basic right for life was not important enough to make the company leader forget about profit-making.
The justice approach to ethics puts emphasis on the fairness of the action. Before making a decision, one must identify whether it results in any kind of discrimination or favoritism, giving benefits to one group of people while ignoring the needs of others. Since, in the case of Massey, the burden is imposed on those who are from other groups of the population (miners have to suffer to provide the region with electricity without receiving any adequate compensation for their labor), the company cannot be called ethical. The rights philosophy claims that all individuals must be treated the same unless there exist evident differences between them. There are none in the given case.
According to the virtue approach, humanity should strive to achieve ethical ideals that would benefit its development. Therefore, performing an action, one must think of what kind of person he/she has the potential to become to reveal the highest moral potential. The most commonly cited virtues include honesty, compassion, loyalty, generosity, prudence, self-control, patience, tolerance, courage, etc. Despite the fact that values and virtues may differ rather significantly across communities, there is no way to justify Massey’s actions since they do not develop the moral virtues of the population. Moreover, the company demonstrates how one can create rather a virtuous image (by helping schools and disaster victims) while being the cause of greater harm, elaborately concealed in order not to mar the image of the brand.