If you’re looking to get your employees to do the right thing and help make your business more successful, you might want to take a lesson from the ancient Greeks.

Many of today’s laws and business practices have quite a storied history rooted in the teachings of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle. Depending upon the way you translate what he had to say about ethics and the way business should be carried out, he’s onto something.

Aristotle’s Teachings

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived during the time period of 384-322 B.C. A student of Plato, he’s been referred to as “The Father of Western Philosophy.” He thought and wrote a lot about many different subjects such as physics, biology, logic, ethics, economics and politics, to name a few.

Many of the theories he came up with are still applied today, to many different schools of thought and business practices.

Perhaps the most lasting of his studies was that on character-based ethical theory, and more specifically his contributions to the formation of what is known as the “normative” ethical theories, or those that deal with the way a person should act morally.

His character theory of ethics, also known as virtue ethics, has to do with the idea that everything has a purpose. In Aristotle’s view, morality of the human being comes from the identity or character of the individual, rather than being a reflection of the actions or consequences of that person.

He says that people spend their lives trying to achieve happiness and well-being, and in order to do so they must strive to cultivate certain character traits that make them who they are being, and therefore will help them flourish.

In his views, Aristotle’s character-ethics philosophy looks at a person’s virtues on a spectrum, with two extremes at either end of the scale.

On one end, we have an excess of virtue, and on the other a deficiency. All of us fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and we make our decisions based on the amount of virtue that we possess.

A virtue ethics example in modern-day life might occur if you came upon a wallet full of money. Would you keep it or attempt to find the person it belongs to? If you saw someone in a fight that needed help, would you stop and help them out, or move along and let someone else take care of it?

If you subscribe to Aristotle’s character-ethics philosophy, you would look into yourself and believe that it is morally good to stand up for other people. As a result, you would either find the true owner of the wallet and get the money back to them, or you would help stop the fight - because those are the right things to do.

Getting back to Aristotle’s view of the ethical spectrum, everyone has different levels of morality. Too little virtue, and you are considered a coward. Too much of it, and rash decisions are made that can get you or other hurt.

If we look at the real-world virtue ethics example of the person in a fight, you may, for instance, want to help the person in the fight but you might not want to jump into the fray - because what if the bad guy has a knife? So, you call the police.

On the other hand, another person may have skills in karate and could choose to end the confrontation forcefully. Both approaches could end the situation in different ways, but as you can see a person’s choice of actions are based on the same ethics of wanting to do good - just from a different place on the spectrum.

Other Ethical Theories

Like many other schools of thought, there will be others who either completely disagree with someone’s theories or those who agree, but with other beliefs mixed in.

In order to completely understand Aristotle’s character ethics philosophy - which, again, focuses on the individual’s character, as opposed to their actions - one must look at the other three major ethical frameworks that have evolved over time.

Consequentialism. is a branch of character ethics philosophy that holds that the consequences of a person’s conduct are the ultimate basis for judgment about rightness (or wrongness) of that conduct.

This ethical philosophy, which rose to prominence in the late 19th century under philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, holds that a consequentialist would argue that it doesn’t matter what intrinsic morals are inside a person that motivate them to conduct themselves in a certain manner; if it turns out that their actions resulted in a positive turnout, it must be good and vice versa.

To use the virtue-ethics example of the confrontation on the street, it doesn’t matter why someone acted to stop the fight. What matters is the outcome; if the intervention of the person resulted in the end of the fight, no injuries and an arrest of the perpetrator, then the ultimate judgment is that the person’s conduct was ethically right.

Deontologicalism. the character-ethics philosophy, formed in the 17th-century by Immanuel Kant, holds that a person’s moral actions are governed by a “checklist” of duties or rules that one is held to. The word comes from the Greek word “deon,” which literally means “obligation” or “necessity.”

For instance, in modern society there is a rule that humans should not murder each other, and therefore are morally held to that rule when making actions; that’s why most people do not kill each other when engaged in an argument.

It’s not difficult to see how law enforcement, the medical profession and the rules of most civilized society is based on the deontological theory of ethics. The Hippocratic Oath in medicine, for instance, explicitly tells a physician to “Do No Harm.”

If there is a loophole in this way of ethical thinking, it’s that having a checklist of rules to follow can lead to people acting in ways that can still bring about bad consequences - which of course, goes against the consequentialists. In the virtue-ethics example of the fight on the street, if your moral “checklist” tells you that it’s not right to hit someone, but the person being attacked dies because you didn’t intervene, your morals could be questioned.

Teleological ethics., (coming from the Greek word “telos,” or end) was formed in ancient Greek philosophy, but also has evolved over the years by Kant, and most recently in the 19th Century by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. This character based ethical theory deals with reasons explanations about things as a function of its end, purpose or goal.

For instance, Aristotle argued that the “telos” of an acorn is to become a full-grown oak tree. This branch of ethical query is quite complicated, has many roots in the theological and has been used to deal with the questions of the cosmos, evolution and consciousness.

In the example of the street fight, a person using teleological ethics might argue that there is a reason the person’s wallet was being stolen; perhaps that person in an unethical businessperson who stole money from another and this is his “telos,” or end, and that’s the moral lesson to be learned.

In business, there are many ethical considerations that take into account teleology; many business decisions are made that take into account the stakeholders involved, which may include management, employees, customers and ultimately, the country, humanity and the environment, to name a few.

Perhaps there is a reason there isn’t a consumer nuclear weapon on the market, for instance, or toy guns sold to children that shoot real bullets. The “telos,” or goal, is to not end humanity as it’s known.

Virtue Ethics in Business

Whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not, ethics and moral character of a human being are at the heart of every business decision made in the modern world. Ethics and moral behavior at work are crucial, because without those virtues no supervisor or business owner could ever put his trust in an employee.

Employees are expected to follow certain ethical rules at work, ranging from trustworthiness, honesty dealing with money, courage in making the right choices and being respectful and empathetic towards their employees and fellow workers.

How can you apply these virtues to your own business, and become a better boss? For one, start by exploring your own sense of virtue, and where you stand. Are you trustful of your employees? If not, you should ask why. If your perception of an employee is that they are distrustful, should they be working for you? On the other hand, if you give them more responsibility and trust them, they may surprise you and turn out to be your best employee.

Look at the way you treat your employees. Are you empathetic toward them? Can they count on you as a thoughtful and courageous boss, someone who will do the right thing and have their back when they need it? These are the virtues that Aristotle would say everyone should strive to obtain as human beings (and as businesspeople) to help make their lives fuller. In turn, if your employees see you as a boss who possesses these virtues, they will (at least in theory) want to mimic your example.

There are many examples of character-based ethical theory that you use in your day-to-day activities as a business owner. If you have a cash register at your business and you allow an employee to handle money that comes in and out of your business, then you have faith in that person’s character ethics which drives them to do the right thing - which is not steal from you.

This could also apply as an example of teleological ethics, in which your rule - that is probably written in your employee manual, tells the employee that they are not to steal from your business, or they will be fired. You rely on their ability to follow that rule to ensure that business continues as normal, and your employee's adherence to that rule ensures his continued employment.

As a business owner, you no doubt use character-based ethical theory in your business dealings with clients and customers. You display trustworthiness, which is a reason that customers choose to do business with you. You are respectful to your employees, which in turn makes them want to be respectful to your customers and you are seen as a valuable part of the community.

You take responsibility if things don’t go right, or if there is a mistake in a customer’s order. Your belief in virtue ethics drives you to correct the mistake - and do the right thing. If you subscribe to teleological ethics, you may believe that the mark of success is that you helped someone reach their goal. The “telos,” of selling food, or cooking utensils, for instance, may help a person reach their end goal of feeding their family, and ultimately lead to a better community.