One notable characteristic of utilitarianism is that only the consequences of actions matter. In other words, one’s intentions in making decisions do not matter according to utilitarian proponents, but only the actual consequences of such decisions matter. Another notable characteristic of utilitarianism is that everyone matters equally. Preference for one individual over another is not a characteristic of utilitarianism. Thus, when making ethical decisions based on utilitarianism, one cannot put oneself above others.
A notable characteristic of virtue ethics is that virtuous actions are only those and only those that fall within the virtuous means. On each end of a virtue is a vice. For example, the virtue of courage has two vices: rashness and cowardice, which represent a deficiency and an excess of courage. Another notable characteristic of virtue ethics is that there must be a list of virtues. Different cultures may have different lists of virtues.

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One notable characteristic of deontology is that it is rule-based. In other words, only well-formed rules of behavior matter to deontologist. Deciding which rules should be given preference over other rules is a requirement of deontology. Another notable characteristic of deontology is the notion that the actual consequences of the actions do not matter, as long as specific rules are followed. While at some point, when enough instances of a particular action leading to negative consequences occur, then perhaps the rules will be changed.

Starbucks appears to have adopted a utilitarianism approach to ethical decision-making at the corporate level. One ethical problem that Starbucks has faced in its ascension to the top fresh coffee product distributor in the United States is the rapid growth of the coffee industry worldwide which has led to decreases in the prices of coffee beans worldwide. Specifically, this problem has put many coffee bean growers out of business because the market price of coffee beans is at or below the price that it costs to operate a coffee bean growing business. This is effectively a race to the bottom problem for coffee bean growers worldwide. Starbucks appears to have approached this problem by considering how best they can help the coffee growers while maintaining their own operations. In taking this approach, Starbucks is effectively applying the utilitarian ethical approach.

Starbucks has considered which of their many possible choices would bring about the most amount of good, or utility, to the greatest number of people. Because Starbucks specializes in coffee, they are in a position to help coffee growers by offering them above market prices for their coffee beans. Starbucks could seek the best-tasting coffee from the lowest cost sources which would continue to reinforce the race to the bottom problem faced by many coffee bean growers. Yet, Starbucks would rather help out a number of coffee growers by offering them above market prices for their beans, allowing such growers to remain in business for years to come.

The utilitarianism characteristic that only the consequences matter is important here. After all, what matters is that the coffee growers remain in business. It appears that this has been the case for at least most of the long-term coffee-growing partnerships that Starbucks offers above market prices for coffee beans. The utilitarian characteristic that everyone matters equally is also very important in this case. Starbucks executives could be greedy and maximize profits, but instead choose to recognize the ethical importance of the coffee growers. Likewise, Starbucks could be nationalistic and protectionist by choosing to use only coffee beans growth in Hawaii, the only U.S. state that can effectively grow coffee beans. Thus, Starbucks certainly has taken a utilitarian approach to ethical decision-making.

  • Fieser, J. (2015). Introduction to business ethics [Electronic version]. Retrieved from
  • Starbucks. (2002). Social Responsibility Video. Accessed from: