Deontology and Ethical Relativism in “The Founder” Film

Table of Contents


Business ethics is a complex subject that aims to use ethical theories and principles to guide the decision-making process in organizational settings. Business ethics considers all types of business relationships, including those between companies, between leaders and their employees, and between the company and the community (Mann and Roberts 16). Thus, applying business ethics to decision-making can help businesses to choose options that enhance these relationships, as well as to avoid undesired consequences, such as negative publicity or even legal action. This essay will aim to review the 2016 movie The Founder, starring Michael Keaton, from the perspective of two ethical theories: deontology and ethical relativism.

Deontology and ethical relativism

Deontology was mainly popularized by Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century (Mann and Roberts 18). In deontology, the morality of certain actions is judged based on a distinct set of rules that are universal for all human beings (Mann and Roberts 18).

For instance, some people might refer to the Bible or other religious texts for a list of rules to guide their decisions. The universal nature of deontology allows the drawing of a vivid example of its application: Mann and Roberts explain, “We apply Kantian reasoning when we challenge someone’s behavior by asking: what if everybody acted that way?” (18). Ethical relativism, on the other hand, is based on the absence of set rules and principles to guide moral decisions and actions.

According to Mann and Roberts, ethical relativism holds that morality is relative, and therefore, in an ethical dilemma, a person ought to do what feels right to him or her (17). Thus, ethical relativism promotes tolerance by helping people understand the decisions made by others. Two of the major ethics traps that businesses might face include profitability and accountability for any decisions made. For instance, ethical decisions might impair a business’s profitability and make the owner or manager accountable for any consequences.

One example of an ethically ambiguous decision seen in The Founder is the scheme invented by Ray Kroc to avoid the limitations imposed on franchises by his contract with the McDonald brothers. Initially, they allowed Ray to lead McDonald’s franchising plan only on the condition that no changes to the business would be made without their approval. Although Ray signs the contract, he soon finds that this condition affects the profitability of the franchise: for instance, replacing ice cream for milkshakes with powder would reduce the costs of storage and decrease production time by half, thus increasing income from the sale of milkshakes.

When the brothers refuse to make the change, stating that they want their milkshakes to have “real milk” (The Founder), he starts a new company that buys and leases land to the franchisees. This provides him with increased leverage, allowing him to make changes to the restaurants, products, and policies. This decision increases profitability, although it makes Ray accountable for any further decisions made by the company. It is also a decision that he considers to be correct, which is why it seems to be morally right when ethical relativism theory is applied to it. However, this decision does not follow Kantian examples of morally right actions.

Kant insists that individuals must act out of duty (Mann and Roberts 18). Ray’s decision, on the other hand, goes against his obligations to the McDonald brothers, essentially allowing him to remove them from the business. Ray views his obligations as obsolete and unnecessary, stating that “Contracts are like hearts: they are made to be broken” (The Founder), which is why his scheme is unethical by the deontological theory.


Overall, The Founder provides a useful example of how decisions that are right and profitable for a business can be unethical based on one or more ethical theories. However, if all business decisions in the film were made ethically, they would most likely lead to ethics traps, such as low profitability. Although the decisions made by Ray are in some ways unethical, they were also necessary and right for the business and allowed it to grow and develop.

Works Cited

Mann, Richard A., and Barry S. Roberts. Business Law and the Regulation of Business. 12th ed., Cengage Learning, 2017.

The Founder. Directed by John Lee Hancock, performances by Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carol Lynch, and Linda Cardellini, The Weinstein Company, 2016.

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