The Harvard Program on Negotiation (PON) staff posted a blog on ethics in negotiation entitled “Ethics and Negotiation: 5 Principles of Negotiation to Boost Your Bargaining Skills in Business Situations” (April 21, 2022). Naturally, it caught my eye as I teach mediation ethics.

The blog post poses 5 questions to ask yourself to determine if you are acting ethically or going down that slippery slope of unethical behavior:

Principle 1. Reciprocity:

Would I want others to treat me or someone close to me this way?

Principle 2. Publicity:

Would I be comfortable if my actions were fully and fairly described in the newspaper?

Principle 3. Trusted friend:

Would I be comfortable telling my best friend, spouse, or children what I am doing?

Principle 4. Universality:

Would I advise anyone else in my situation to act this way?

Principle 5. Legacy:

Does this action reflect how I want to be known and remembered?

Reading this, I realized that the blog was advocating only one of the four approaches to ethical reasoning in negotiation: personalistic ethics.  In this approach, “… the rightness of the action is based on one’s own conscience and moral standards.” (Lewicki, Roy J., Saunders, David M. and Barry, Bruce, Essentials of Negotiation (7th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York, New York 2021) at 115-6). That is, it is a very personal decision, based on what the little person inside our head (aka your gut) is telling you to do. It is an approach first espoused by J. Martin Buber.

But there are three other approaches to be considered. The first (espoused by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham) is “end-result” ethics (aka Utilitarianism) in which the ends justify the means. “The rightness of the action is determined by evaluating the pros and cons of its consequences.” (Id.) What action will bring the most happiness and pleasure to the most people? (Id).

The next- duty ethics- espoused by Immanuel Kant- provides that “…the rightness of an action is determined by one’s obligation to adhere to consistent principles, laws, and social standards that define what is right and wrong and where the line is.” (Id.)  It is not the result that is important but the rule, law, social standard etc. that was applied to obtain the result. In sum, “it is the principle of the thing” that counts, not the result. (Id.)

The third approach is entitled “Social Contract ethics” in which “… the rightness of the action is determined by the customs and norms of a community.” (Id.) Espoused by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ultimate goal or standard is to determine “what is best for the common good” and to implement that course of action. “Duty and obligation bind the community and the individual to each other.” (Id.)

To apply ethical standards in your negotiation, you must first determine which of the four approaches are you most comfortable using. But even after you determine this, and as you may suspect, the negotiation may still be troublesome: you may be using one approach while the other party is using another.  Which could lead to a chaotic negotiation!

… Just something to think about.


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