The Advantages and Disadvantages of Generalism in Ethics

  Reviewed by: Michelle Seidel, B.Sc., LL.B., MBA
  Written by: Devra Gartenstein      Updated November 02, 2018
Generalism works best with identical beings in a stable environment.

Ethics is the quest for moral principles, but each ethical situation is unique, making it tricky to distill general rules. Generalism is the search for broader, deeper principles that can guide specific daily actions. In business, you need ethical guidelines as you make decisions about how to deal with customers, vendors and regulatory agencies. However, the complexity of real-world situations often makes it difficult to reduce ethical actions to general ideas that can be followed in every situation. Ethical generalism provides a valuable start based on broader ideas and societal norms. However, it is also important to take the additional step of looking at the unique particulars of each situation.

The Limits of Particular Morality

Particular morality looks at specifics without concerning itself much with broader principles. It tends to focus on relationships and sometimes on gut instinct. If your business works in partnership with another company, a particularist approach will look at whether the individual company with which you collaborate has behaved in ways that justify reciprocal trust and goodwill. For example, you may base your decision on whether or not to pay a certain vendor based on the quality of the products and services you received. This approach may help you navigate your relationship with this individual company, but it overlooks the broader ethical principle that a business should always pay vendors in a timely fashion for goods received, regardless if they were delivered on time, are of good quality or whether you have an ongoing working relationship with the vendor.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Ethical Generalism

Just as particularist ethics can miss the bigger picture and broader principle behind doing what's right, generalist ethics runs the risk of overlooking the nuances of a unique situation. If you run a food business, you are legally and ethically required to follow all health department regulations. However, like generalist ethical principles, health department regulations tend to treat all situations as identical, failing to take nuances into account. For example, it's safe to eat some foods after their expiration dates as long as they don't show obvious signs of spoilage. Ethical generalism might require you to discard all food once it has reached its expiration date if your local health department requires you to do so. In contrast, a particularist approach would look more closely at the specific risks associated with each type of food when determining whether to discard it or serve it.

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Medical Generalism and Whole Person Medicine

In the medical field, generalism takes on a different meaning than in a discussion of ethical principles. Medical generalism is an approach that looks at a human being as a whole, rather than at a specific condition affecting that person's well-being. In addition to treating individuals as integrated wholes, medical generalism also strives to integrate the many aspects of medical care, from the use of data to patient feedback and communication between a primary physician and relevant specialists.

About the Author

Devra Gartenstein founded her first food business in 1987. In 2013 she transformed her most recent venture, a farmers market concession and catering company, into a worker-owned cooperative. She does one-on-one mentoring and consulting focused on entrepreneurship and practical business skills.

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