GPM First
Chapter 5 of Project Ethics (978-1-4094-1096-6) by Haukur Ingi Jonasson and Helgi Thor Ingason

Process-Oriented Project Ethics: Rights Ethics

Chapter 5

Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.

Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Fully informed and with a clear conscience, are you sure that the project process (everything that happens within the project) fully values/respects all the essential rights of key agents/stakeholders/interested parties?

Project Management Privileges

Project, programme and portfolio management is a privilege. It is a privilege to be able, capable and enabled to realise your own aspirations – or the aspirations of a team, organisation, business or society – through the defining, planning, organising and implementing of exciting projects, programmes or portfolios. It can, therefore, be a rewarding experience to have the professional competence and the rights to see fascinating ideas turned into reality through project management accomplishments. It is, further, a privilege to be able to work as a professional in a professional setting and within a competent group of people. And, still further, it is a great opportunity to be encouraged by society to build enterprises with licensed legal statutes and rights. All such endeavours touch upon the notion of rights.

We asked professional project leaders in Iceland about their understanding of rights by having them to respond to the statement ‘Many projects impact people’s rights in a constraining way.’ The results were that 14 per cent strongly disagreed, 32 per cent disagreed, 24 per cent were neutral, 19 per cent agreed, 3 per cent strongly agreed, and 8 per cent said it did not apply.

Iceland might be a positive example in this regard – despite its infamous recent reputation in banking – as it is a relatively just society that is grounded on human rights, legal principles and procedures. In many other places, however, especially in the developing world, corruption, crime, lack of transparency and injustice are often encountered. All too frequently, project leaders are at the forefront of decision-making and actualisation attempts in such circumstances. Ethically, this is both a curse and a blessing for the project leader. It is a curse, as injustice is often tied in with the profit-making interest that the project leader is hired to protect and actualise. It is a blessing, as the project leader might be the right person at the right place to do something about it and bring about change and development.

The last ethical principle to be explored has to do with professional privileges and rights. In the past, rights ethics – or justice ethics – was mainly concerned with the principle of human rights and justice, but in recent decades its notions have expanded to include the animal kingdom and nature. This development illustrates what can be said to be the gradual expansion of the ethical realm from the middle and higher-class white males towards women, children, other ethnicities, other classes, animals and nature. The project ethics of rights, like duty-based project ethics, is not concerned with virtue or utility and, therefore, not based on, or concerned with, the outcome or consequences of actions, nor the outcome of our projects. It has a much stronger link with duty ethics since it is built on the notion that once we have identified the rights of others, then it becomes our duty to respect them.

In the Project Ethics Matrix (PEM), rights-based ethics is focused, just like utility ethics, on the rights of all – in other words of each person within society. Rights-based ethics looks, as duty ethics, to the consequences of actions to the outcome of a project, programme or portfolio for the justification of an action, but at the process and the principle that guide the decision-making. In the PEM the rights ethics is illustrated as is shown in Figure 5.1.

Figure 5.1 Rights-based ethics regards the rights of all as fundamentally equal


The diagram (Figure 5.1) illustrates how the decisive point of departure in decision-making, if the decision is grounded on rights, is the here and now, and not the future consequences of the action. It also illustrates how the moral agent needs to look to all other people on whom his conduct might impact and to see their rights as fundamentally equal. Unlike utility ethics, there is no cost-benefit analysis to be carried out in order to protect the rights of the many rather than the few. To do justice is to see the rights of all as equal, no matter the consequences for either the individual or the many. The just thing to do is what matters.

The justification for classifying rights ethics on the collective side of the PEM, rather than on the side of individual-based ethics, is that its foundation is the so-called social contract theory. This demands equal rights be given to all, focusing on the many rather than on the individual.

Project Rights

Rights can be defined as the social, legal or ethical principles of entitlement, or in terms of having the ability to act and think independently. It is the principle that enables someone to do something or refrain from doing something. In project management it can, for instance, be said to be the right to design a project, plan it, execute it and receive the just compensation for doing so. Rights are, therefore, normative rules about what is owed to someone/something, or what is allowed to happen according to specific principles that can be defined by law, social convention or ethical theory. The concept is the basis of what defines a civilised society and is, hence, of vital importance for project management as a professional discipline.

The word right derives from the proto-Germanic word ‘rekth’ meaning ‘right’ or ‘direct’, and the proto Indo-European term reg- meaning ‘to move in a straight line’ or ‘to straighten or direct.’ Historically, it has been used in many different ways and in many different contexts, but in project management it could be used as the right to plan, implement, execute and finalise a project.

But how far do our individual rights extend? John Stuart Mill, whom we met in the chapter on utilitarianism (Chapter 3), said that our rights extend all the way to the nose of the next person; therefore, we can conclude the other has the right to have us respect their space, freedom, and so on. There are likewise diverse possible ways to categorise rights, such as:

  • Who has rights?

  • What are we entitled to?

  • What are others entitled to?


In consideration of rights, the project leader might consider:

  • Who is alleged to have the right?

  • Who has the right to express what?

  • Who has the right to pass judgement?

  • Who has the rights of privacy and when?

  • Who has the right to remain silent and when?

  • Who has the right to own what property?

  • Who has bodily rights?

  • What rights do right-holders have, and why?


If we see rights as universal, we can claim that all our entitlements can be said to be derived from nature – or from a more Christian worldview, from God – and hence totally applicable to all. If there is such an entitlement, then it does not depend on law, ethical theory or the custom or customs of any society. Rights necessarily exist and cannot be taken away.

Universal Rights

Universal laws can be called moral rights, natural laws, inalienable rights, such as the right to live, the right to have a home, the right to express one’s opinions, the right to earn a living, the right to receive basic education. Legal rights, which are often also called civil rights, in contrast, are based on customs and laws of a specific society, such as the right to vote, the right to drive a car, and the right to build a house. The 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas claimed that all rights should be grounded on natural laws, and should only be supported by laws and legislation. The utilitarian legal expert Jeremy Bentham (whom we met in Chapter 3) claimed that legal rights were the essence of all rights and he denied the existence of naturally given rights. If there are such things as universal moral laws then they are, naturally, something that the project leader would have to respect. The same holds true for all legal rights given by the legislative authorities in each society.

The most common notion of rights in project management is probably in the form of what is often named claim rights. These state that a person, team, organisation or society has a right against someone else as the right-holder. If someone has such a status, then someone else is not allowed to act in certain ways, or interfere in any way, and the laws of a particular jurisdiction will be invoked if an infringement is recorded. Such claim rights are something that every project leader knows and recognises as his or her duty to protect and safeguard, especially the rights of the project owner.

But there are other rights too, such as the so-called liberty rights or liberty privileges, which are permissions for the agent to do something without any obligations of other parties to do or not do anything. A classic example, which has been much debated historically within the western ethical and political tradition, is the right to free speech. The notion of free speech does not mean that anyone has to help another person to carry out their speech, or to listen to their speech, or even to refrain from stopping them from speaking, even though other rights, such as the right to be free from assault, may severely limit what others can do to stop them.

It can be seen from this that claim rights and liberty rights are opposites: a person might have a liberty right that permits him or her to do something only if there is no other person who has a claim right forbidding them from doing so; if, however, someone has a claim right against someone else, then the other person’s liberty is limited. For example, we can have the liberty right to actualise a project or decide whether or not to do so, since there is no obligation either to do so or to refrain from doing so. But we may have an obligation not to do certain things, such as invade other people’s private property, to which their owners have a claim right. So our liberty right to do a project extends up to the point where another’s claim right limits our freedom.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do you understand the notion of universality?

  • How do you understand the notion of moral laws?

  • How do you understand the notion of natural laws?

  • How do you understand the notion of inalienable laws?

  • How do you understand the notion of civil laws?

  • How do you understand the notion of legal rights?

  • Who gives us the rights?

  • What are claim rights?

  • How do you come across claim rights in your role as a project leader?

  • What are liberty rights?

  • How do you understand the notion of liberty privileges?

  • How does the notion of liberty privileges apply to you professionally?


It is also possible to speak of positive rights and negative rights. Positive rights are entitlements to something or to do something, such as to offer a specific service or treatment when sufficiently qualified, or give permission to do something or give the rights to have something done to us. An example of a positive right is the purported right to welfare services or the right to a police back-up in emergency situations. Negative rights, on the other hand, can allow for or require inaction. They are permission not to do things, or entitlements to be left alone. This might further be translated into active rights that encompass ‘privileges’ and ‘powers’, and passive rights that encompass ‘claims’ and ‘immunities’.

Questions for reflection:

  • How do you understand the notion of positive rights?

  • How do you understand the notion of negative rights?

  • How do you understand the notion of active rights?


Rights are usually possessed by individuals, in the sense that they are permissions and entitlements to do things, which others, such as persons, governments or authorities, cannot infringe. The Russian-American philosopher Ayan Rand (1905–1982) argued that only individuals have rights, a philosophy she called objectivism. Individual rights are entitlements held by individuals regardless of the groups they belong to. However, there can also be group rights, where certain entitlements are given to a collection of individuals, which is collectively seen as having its own rights, in and of itself. In such a case, the group becomes an enlarged agent, having a distinct will and power of action, and can be thought of as having rights. For example, in most countries, people that have reached a certain age threshold are considered to have distinct rights as a group, be it in the form of state pensions, special consideration for transport, or medical costs. In this case, being the required age entitles one to claim these rights. Another example is where business corporations are given similar rights to those of an individual that allows them to do things, or not have to do things, on the basis of these rights. Furthermore, members of a labour union might have certain additional rights because they belong to the union, including rights to specific working conditions or wages.

Sometimes, there is tension between the rights of individuals operating within groups. For instance, individual members of a project team may wish to have a wage higher than the union-negotiated wage, but are prevented from asking for more; other individuals might react negatively to restrictive work practices that can be a feature where unionised labour is strongly established. The question then becomes: ‘Who decides how a grouping is going to define and act upon their collective interests?’ Clearly, this can be a source of tension. Therefore, democratic structures need to be put in place and political decisions need to be made. Distributing, maintaining and safeguarding the rights of citizens can be said to be the essence of government and political life. Often, the development of these socio-political institutions has formed a dialectical relationship with rights.

Project leaders have to deal with issues of rights when their project infringes on legal or moral precepts, or when rights conflict. Issues of concern might, for instance, have to do with labour rights, disability rights, reproductive rights, patient rights, prisoner rights, animal rights, and the rights of nature, to name but a few. With the increasing demand for transparency and monitoring in our information society, we could also add the right to informed consent, information and the right to privacy. Modern professional project leaders also need to consider the rights of groups that have been or are discriminated against or marginalised, such as women, children, youth, parents, the elderly, those who have non-heterosexual orientation, disabled, and so on.

Practically speaking, the issues involving the rights of minority groups can surface on all levels and in subtle ways, such as in jokes or disrespectful remarks in conversations, and a lack of respect for special needs. The professional project leader has a key role in defining and enforcing awareness and cultivation of respect for everyone’s rights. Even though rights-based ethics does not base its vindication upon such a premise, maintaining respect for other people’s rights can ensure long-term respect for the project leader.

In this regard, a guiding principle could be the principle of equality. This can be portrayed as either equality in participation, such as the opportunity to take part in decision-making processes, or as equality in outcome, where fairness is achieved when more people have a more equal amount of goods and services from the project’s outcome or processes (Roemer, 2005). Rights can also be authoritarian, meaning that an agent of authority is granted more rights than others, or hierarchical, where there is a change of command and a person of higher authority is granted more rights, or is asked to function as a protector of the rights of his or her subordinates.

  • How do you understand equality?


More modern managerial notions of rights might emphasise liberty, equality and a flat management structure, where everybody has a realistic chance of being listened to and providing their own input into the overall direction of an entity. The newest indication of project rights ethics is the emphasis on sustainability and the intrinsic rights of nature and natural phenomena. Projects can be political, and all political endeavours can play a role in defining and recognising the above rights, and developing compatible solutions, so that projects can succeed without being cancelled due to the objections of some.

In order to understand the development of rights ethics, it is important to refer to the works of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632–1704), who established the foundations for our modern understanding of the subject. Hobbes was an English philosopher and is mainly remembered today for his work on political philosophy. He presented his social contract theory or natural rights theory in his book Leviathan (Hobbes, 1651), in which he set out his doctrine of the foundation of state and civil society. The book demonstrates the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evils of civil war. It was no coincidence that the book was published after the bloody civil war in England had ended.

The Social Contract

Hobbes starts with a rather mechanistic notion of humans and their passions, as he speculates on what life would look like in what he called ‘The state of nature’, where there is no government. In such an environment, one could say that each individual has a right to grab everything in the world, inevitably leading to a ‘war of all against all’ (Latin: bellum omnium contra omnes). This would, thus, be the natural state of affairs if there is no political orchestration, as Hobbes illustrates in the following paragraph:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes, 1651)


In a natural state, people live under constant fear, and their lives are a constant struggle in an attempt to make a reasonable living. In order to avoid this scenario, people accede to a social contract and establish a civilised society. Civil society is a society under a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society give up some rights for the sake of protection. Hobbes’ ideas gave rise to the social contract theory. Hobbes argued that it is human nature to love oneself best and to act with self-interest, but if we are to develop as a society, with mutual benefits for all, then we need to look beyond ourselves and to agree to work together. The core of the social contract is the notion that ‘morality is embedded in rules which dictate how people should treat each other, rules that sensible people agree to obey for mutual benefits, provided others obey them as well’ (Rachels, 1997).

Around the same time, the English philosopher John Locke also presented his ideas about the contract theory in his book, Second Treatise of Government (1689). Locke is the founder of classical liberal politics and believed that morality could be deployed scientifically through an exact analysis of the terms used in moral discourse, clarification of moral statements and systematic moral decision-making. According to Locke, humans do not have any innate moral ideas. Consequently, the criterion of what constitutes an ethically sound action is only based on our sense of well-being. Individual rights, and therefore the rights of all human beings, are, according to Locke, determined and given by nature or by God. They are comprehended by humans, who are both capable of being rational and dependent upon each other. Moral norms and values are the expression of our rights that are taken as a given, being rational and identified with both divine law and natural law. Moral laws must have due sanctions (rewards and punishments), which are imposed on the will in such a manner as to restrain us from acting in the wrong way. It is, according to Locke, impossible to speak of free will with pleasure as the sole foundation of morality, as there would be no liberty of choice between two different goods; the greater good would impose itself upon the will. There exists, however, a liberty in the execution of our projects, insofar as the will can deliberate and operate, or not, after such a deliberation.

Locke believed that society was ascending from a natural ’state’ towards a new state of society through a social contract. In nature, we did not live only in wild conditions, as rights were based on physical strength and brute force. Even at this time, however, Locke argued, we were somewhat rational, having the notion of the fundamental rights of life, such as liberty and property. To better guarantee such rights we have entered, through means of a contract, into society, and, because it serves our purpose, have conceded some of our natural rights to the sovereign, such as the power to defend ourselves.

Based on this, a project leader who fails in her/his obligation to defend the rights of all stakeholders is no longer justified in her/his leadership role and should be dismissed. The good increases pleasure and diminishes pain within us. But not all good projects are morally good: both morally good and morally evil projects can be based on our voluntary conformity too, or disagreement in our project undertaking with law and regulations, where either good or evil is pushed upon on us, from the will and power of the law-maker or the regulatory authority. To safeguard against evil laws, good law, according to Locke, rests on God’s will, which Locke claimed to be the ‘the true ground of morality.’

  • Main principle: make sure to pursue projects respectful of the given rights of all stakeholders (widely defined).

  • Project choice: only choose projects that can be pursued by taking full notice of the rights of all involved.

  • Project execution: only execute projects in such a way that the project takes full notice of the rights of all involved.


Project professionals who are interested in some of the background to human rights might want to examine the following documents for a more detailed notion of rights: the Constitution of Medina (AD 622, Arabia), the Magna Carta (1215, England), the Henrician Articles (1573, Poland-Lithuania), the Bill of Rights (1689, England), the Claim of Right (1689, Scotland), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789, France), the United States Bill of Rights (1789–91), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (2000).

Claim to Property and Profit

John Locke was an advocate of property rights. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) he states that every human being has property in his personhood and nobody beside the individual has a right to this, only himself. Extending this argument, he states that the labour of the individual is also the property of the individual, and this leads to the idea that property ownership derives from one’s labour. Locke, however, was, despite his brilliance, stuck with the notion of rights in his times. Therefore, he granted more rights to those who had more property, claiming that people who only had their labour to sell should not be given the same political power as those who owned property. Civil and political rights should be in proportion to the property owned. The right to property and the right to life were, for Locke, absolute rights, and it was the duty of the state to secure these rights for individuals. Locke argued that safeguarding natural rights, such as the right to property, along with the separation of powers and other check and balances, would help to curtail political abuses by the state.

Locke’s arguments had a major impact on both the French and American Revolution, as the entitlement to civil and political rights, such as the right to vote, was tied to the notion of property in both cases. On the American side, the debate appears in the arguments of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), who both opposed universal voting rights only for those who owned a ’stake’ in society. This put them on the opposite side of the debate to one of the American ‘Founding Fathers’, John Adams (1735–1826), who felt that allowing universal voting rights would eventually ‘prostrate all ranks to one common level’. In addition, James Madison (1751–1836) argued that extending the right to vote to all could lead to the rights to property and justice being ‘overruled by a majority without property’. Even though the original idea had been to establish the right to vote for all males, eventually the right to vote was extended to white men who owned a considerable personal estate and real estate. This might surprise the reader. Would not a modern notion of rights entail there was a lot at ’stake’ for all people of society? Perhaps, but that was not the notion in former times; it might conceivably not even be so in practice in modern times. The notion of stake is, namely, at the interface of the delicate balance between the notion of stakeholders as people who own something that needs to be protected from others, and the stake of the common person whose well-being depends on a just society and the rights to claim a ’stake’ in it.

In France, Article 7 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) states that no one ‘may be deprived of property rights unless a legally established public necessity’ requires it and upon condition of a just and previous indemnity’. Article 3 and Article 6 declare that ‘all citizens have the right to contribute personally or through their representatives’ to the political system, and that ‘all citizens being equal before [the law], are equally admissible to all public offices, positions and employment according to their capacity, and without other distinction than that of virtues and talents’.

In practice, however, the French Revolution did not extend political and civil rights to all, although the property qualification required for such rights was lower than that established by the American revolutionaries. The French revolutionary Abbé Sieyés (1748–1836) said that:

All the inhabitants of a country should enjoy the right of a passive citizen … but those alone who contribute to the public establishment are the true shareholders in the great social enterprise. They alone are the true active citizens, the true members of the association.


The Declaration regarded domestic servants, women, and those who did not pay taxes equal to three days of labour, to be ‘passive citizens’. The rights given to those with ’stakes’ points to an interest in encouraging business activities and accumulation of property. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), however, believed that accumulation of wealth should to be restricted and that the right to property should not violate the rights of poorer citizens. Robespierre’s views were eventually excluded from the French Constitution of 1793 and the property qualification for civil and political rights was maintained.

Most developed societies encourage business activities, and people in free societies are permitted to aim for profit. The message is this: do it, earn from it, make profit from it, be admired for it, but do not violate the rights of others in the process.

Justice and Opportunity

Being allowed to pursue one’s goals and to hold onto a significant part of what we have gained gives us a great sense of freedom, it is rewarding to see what we have worked on and created in our lifetime. If the patenting process had not been conceived, for example, it is doubtful that we would have been able to experience a lot of the wonders and convenience of modern technology. Scientists, developers and engineers would not have been personally incentivised to work on solving problems or creating new designs since their work could easily have been stolen, with no gain to themselves after all the time and effort they had applied. On the other hand, there are many stories of genuinely brilliant researchers whose ideas were misappropriated by others using their knowledge of the patenting system to gain advantage. So it should be borne in mind that sometimes opportunities can mean opportunities to exploit the work of others.

Of modern relevance to the field of rights-based project ethics is the work of the American philosopher John Rawls. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971, 1975, 1999), Rawls tries to solve the problem of distributive justice, which, for our purpose, is the field of normative ethics that aims to guide the practitioner in decision-making that has to do with the allocation of both the benefits and the burdens of any activity. Rawls tries to create a concept that builds on the social contract theory. He calls this the theory of ‘Justice as Fairness’. Included in the theory are Rawls’s two principles ofjustice: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

In trying to translate Rawls’ theory into normative project ethics, we could say that liberty and equality are two principles of justice that can guide the conduct of the project leader. The project leader is naturally faced with scarcity and has to advance through cooperation with others in, hopefully, just terms. Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition and offers a model of a fair choice situation that the project leader could use to base his decisions on. This model contains an artificial concept that he terms the original position, where everyone defines justice from behind a veil of ignorance which blinds them to all the facts about themselves that might cloud their notion of justice. In this position:

No-one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. (Rawls, 1971: 54)


Ignorance of these details about oneself inevitably leads, according to Rawls, to principles that are fair to all. If project leaders would not know how they will end up in society, they will not privilege anyone but develop a mutually accepted principle of justice. Rawls might claim that a project leader in the original position would adopt an optimal strategy, which maximises the prospects of those who are least well off:

They are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association. (Rawls, p. 11)


The notion of initial position is hypothetical and non-historical in that the principles are what the project leader would agree to, not what they have necessarily agreed to in the past. Rawls, therefore, would persuade the project leader through a process-oriented argument where one would have to agree upon if in the hypothetical situation of the original position.

Based on this, a project leader in the original position would take on two decision-making principles which would govern the assignment of rights and duties, and regulate distribution of social and economic advantages and disadvantages. Due to their mutuality, the principles would permit inequalities in the distribution of goods if and only if those inequalities benefited those who are worst off within society. This principle would be a rational choice for the project leader in the original position because he would agree to the fundamental idea that each member of society has an equal claim on the goods of the society. The project leader, behind the veil of ignorance, would also agree that natural traits should not affect this claim. Rawls argues that the inevitable conclusion is that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst off.

  • The first principle of justice states that: ‘Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.’ (Rawls, 1971: 53)


The basic liberties of citizens are the political liberty to vote and run for office, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience, freedom of personal property, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. However, Rawls says:

… liberties not on the list, for example, the right to own certain kinds of property, for example the means of production, and freedom of contract, as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire, are not basic; and so they are not protected by the priority of the first principle. (Rawls, 1971: 54)


The first principle aims at protecting everyone’s universal rights, and, as such, it cannot be violated. In other words, the first principle is, under most conditions, prior to the second principle. However, because various basic liberties may conflict, it may be necessary to trade them off against each other for the sake of obtaining the largest possible system of rights. There is thus some uncertainty as to exactly what is mandated by the principle, and it is possible that a plurality of sets of liberties satisfies its requirements.

  • The second principle of justice states that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that: (a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle); (b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Rawls, 1971: 303).


Rawls’s claim in (a) refers to a list of what he calls primary goods. Primary goods are the things which a rational man wants, irrespective of what else he might want and are justified only to the extent that they improve the lot of those who are worst off under that distribution, in comparison with the previous, equal, distribution.

The claim that equality is not to be achieved by worsening the position of the least advantaged also means that inequalities can actually exist just as long as they benefit the least well off. Morally arbitrary factors should not determine one’s life chances or opportunities; and the project leader does not morally deserve his inborn talents and is thus not entitled to all the benefits he could possibly receive from them. The reference to fair equality of opportunity requires not only that positions are distributed according to merit, but that all have the rights to a reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills needed for the position.

Appropriate Conduct

The idea of ‘doing the right thing and doing the right things right’ is a well-known cliché in project management circles. It requires appropriate conduct in project management, it might point to a level of respect for ourselves and others and, in order to reflect on their approach in this regard, the professional project leader should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do you think everyone has essentially the same rights?

  • Do you go about your project management so that everyone included is respected as having essentially the same rights?

  • Do you understand your privileges to work as a project leader as a right that is given to you by society?

  • Do you define and protect the rights of those individual who work in your project team?

  • Do you define and protect the rights of all stakeholders?

  • Do you define and protect the rights of the organisation you are working for?

  • Do you define the rights and protect the rights of the society you are working in?

  • Which comes first for you? The rights of the organisation you are working for or the rights of society?


This comes back to our discussion in Chapter 2 on virtue ethics and professionalism, and the question whether we, as professionals, are first and foremost in the service of project owners and immediate stakeholders, or whether we evaluate our actions from a wider profession-based and society-based perspective.

Stakeholders and the Project Contract

Let us now take a more concise look at how the project leader should deal with rights by asking ourselves:

  • Who gives the project owner the rights to actualise, accomplish, flourish, gain and lose?

  • Who has given the project leader the right to profit?


The short answer is: others. It is society that gives project leaders the right to perform and gain from their undertaking. In principle, however, this right is not unlimited, but is restricted to, mutually, respecting the rights of society in our endeavours. It would be a vague notion of social responsibility to allow project leaders to gain at the obvious expense of society. The notion of mutuality comes across in both regulations and laws set by the lawmakers who, in democratic society, are the representatives of the people within that society. In modern societies, individuals, teams and organisations are encouraged through, for instance tax benefits, to create businesses and to self-actualise through different kinds of projects to earn income and foster development. The message is clear: ‘Bring it on … but respect society in the process.’ The fundamental questions in this case are:

  • Who has rights?

  • Does everyone have the same rights?

  • What/who gives us rights?


In our survey, the following results were obtained with respect to questions about how Icelandic project leaders view the rights of others:

  • 58 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that everyone has the same rights; 21 per cent disagreed (or strongly agreed).

  • 67 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that they execute their projects with the idea that everyone has the same rights; 13 per cent disagreed (or strongly agreed).

  • 73 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that it is the project team’s right that they (as project leaders) protect the team’s rights; 4 per cent disagreed.

  • 64 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that it is the organisation’s right that they (as project leaders) protect the organisation’s rights; 4 per cent disagreed.

  • 72 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that it is the customer’s right that they (as project leaders) protect the customer’s rights; 1 per cent disagreed.

  • 62 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that it is the society’s right that they (as project leaders) protect the society’s rights; 4 per cent disagreed.

  • 16 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that the organisation’s rights come before the customer’s rights; 45 per cent disagreed (or strongly agreed) and 39 per cent were neutral or said that this question didn’t apply to them.

  • 7 per cent agreed (or strongly agreed) that the organisation’s rights come before the society’s rights; 55 per cent disagreed (or strongly agreed); 38 per cent were neutral or said that this question didn’t apply to them (Sigurðarson, 2009).


It is a traditional notion in management that the shareholders of a company are the basic stakeholders; they are the owners and it is the primary duty of the firm to increase their value. A traditional model assumes that a firm runs a process where inputs from investors, suppliers and employees are transformed into outputs and shipped to markets where customers buy them. This returns capital benefits to the firm and its owners. When this model is applied for the purpose of identifying stakeholders, four basic parties are observed: investors, employees, suppliers and customers. From a modern viewpoint, this is a rather limited perspective, as stakeholder theory argues that there are other interested parties who must be taken into account. This is the theory of organisational management and business ethics which addresses morals and values in managing an organisation (Phillips, 2003). Stakeholder theory is useful for understanding a broader scope of stakeholders. It integrates a resource-based view, as well as a market-based and a socio-political view of the organisation. On this basis, the specific stakeholders of a firm, and the conditions under which they should be treated as stakeholders, are identified. As an example it can be argued that a broad range of parties can fall under the definition of stakeholders. These can be political groups, trade unions, governmental institutions, prospective customers and society in general.

In the more defined context of projects and project stakeholders, it can easily be argued that all projects in modern and historic times have had the purpose of satisfying the requirements of key stakeholders in order to achieve a successful outcome. Project success or failure has a strong link to the perceptions of stakeholders of the project value, as well as the relationship between the stakeholders and the project team and the project leader. The key to understanding the objectives in projects, and forming successful relationships in projects, is the awareness that different stakeholders see the project through different lenses and they have different expectations of the project and its outcomes. Understanding the expectations of stakeholders is thus a critical issue to address during the initial stages and throughout the project. In this way, the expectations and perceptions of stakeholders can be influenced by a project leader and project team that is/are experienced and skilled in communication.

Case 8 – Satyak and MoreMast

A mobile phone company has recently completed a project that expanded its services into a new market. The company hired Satyak, a PMP-certified project leader, as external project leader to manage the installation of a number of mobile phone masts in a built-up area to meet desired performance standards. This project has the working title ‘MoreMast’. A number of sites have been investigated initially and seen as ideal by the company, but the contractor, based on basis of experience, believes that the local residents at a number of these proposed sites would object strongly on the amount of cosmetic and radiation health concerns. In addition, they might organise themselves into an effective opposition.


  • What are the competing values in this case?

  • What are the ethical issues at stake?

  • How would you define rights in this case?

  • What can Satyak do?


A detailed knowledge of stakeholders’ needs and desires is central to project planning. This consists of identifying, categorising and defining actions regarding stakeholders. Identifying stakeholders includes finding persons or groups of persons or organisations that are likely to influence or be influenced by the project. They are then categorised according to the degree to which they are influenced by the project and how they may influence the project. Finally, this information is compiled into the project plan. The strategy for execution is thus based on an assessment of the stakeholders, which will be seen in the work breakdown structure, the organisational chart and communication processes that are put into action for the project.

We can now see that this way of approaching the concept of stakes and stakeholders is closely related to the concept of rights; stakeholder theory is concurrently closely linked to schools of ethical thinking in management. Instead of talking about stakes, it is possible to talk about rights. The rights that a project leader must take into consideration when planning and executing a project can be addressed from a broad perspective. From the perspective of a project-driven organisation such as an engineering consultancy, a few basic categories of individuals, groups and organisations can be identified. These are basic stakeholders who have rights of which the project leader needs to be aware. The client is typically in the forefront when discussing stakeholders and rights. If the client of an engineering consultancy has hired the consultancy to do engineering work, then the consultancy should have the skills and experience to complete the project. This is the right of the client. It is furthermore their right to get technically and professionally solid solutions that are financially feasible, to be informed about the project progress and to receive timely information about any obstacles and problems in the project. The project leader must avoid all conflicts of interest. If they see such conflicts, for instance a relationship with competitors, contractors or suppliers, they should notify the client in time at the very least.

The project management profession and, in this case, the engineering profession, also have rights. The image of the profession should be preserved by using professional methods and working according to good practices and standards. Colleagues and competitors also have the right to be shown dignity and courtesy. In addition, society has clear rights that are often above other rights in the context of projects. They are concerned with safety, health and well-being, law and regulations of the society, and are always put in first place.

Let us take an example. You are the project leader of a technical project to build a geothermal power plant close to a road with heavy traffic. Based on your experience and expert knowledge, it is your conclusion that the chosen solution does not satisfy normal safety requirements regarding traffic on the road. You are afraid that in certain weather conditions, damp from the power station may concentrate on the road, creating hazardous driving conditions. You contact the designer and express your concerns. He does not agree with you. What do you do? The first alternative is to respect the judgement and contribution of the designer and do nothing. The second alternative is to put the safety of the public in first place and direct your concerns to the organisation that hired the designer to see how or if the design addresses this issue.

Sustainability and the Rights of Nature

Then there is the question of the ‘rights’ of the natural environment where some large engineering projects can have profound effects, some of which are direct and others which are indirect. This can put a lot of responsibility on the project leader to be aware of, and preserve the rights of the environment. To a large extent, these rights are stipulated in law and regulations, and the professions of project leader and engineering consultant all relevant regulations to be followed. People may have different opinions regarding sustainability of engineering solutions. This is a factor that can be calculated and taken into account when comparing solutions. However, in the end, the final solution is chosen based on a number of variables.

An example might be a controversial construction project, for instance a new motorway that traverses an area of undisturbed forest in an area already under threat from other developments. The public has rights to participate in a discussion regarding decisions to go forward with such a project, the environment has rights (sometimes considered as our grandchildren’s rights) that decisions are made responsibly and aspects of sustainability maintained. If a decision is taken to move forward with such a project, then other rights come into play. The public has, for instance, a right to be informed about progress and that aspects of public safety are maintained and every precaution taken to ensure that the risk of casualties or accidents is minimised. This means that there can be obvious conflicts between the viewpoints of different interested parties and the project leader may be in a position where he needs to take a stand between the rights and expectations of the client on the one hand and the general public on the other. In the case above, he needs to assess future scenarios accurately and make a good professional judgement based on his background and experience.

Questions for reflection:

  • What does it mean that everyone has the same rights?

  • What would it entail to execute all your projects based on the idea that everyone has the same rights?

  • What does it mean to have accepted one’s rights as a project leader from society?

  • What are the rights of the project leader?

  • What are the rights of the project team?

  • What are the rights or the organisation?

  • What are the rights of society?

  • How can the project leader protect the rights of society?

  • What are the rights of the customer?

  • How can you protect the rights of the customer?

  • What would it mean if the organisation’s rights come before the customer’s rights?


Case 9 – You and WindPikes

You are working on behalf of an engineering consultancy on the planning of a new hydropower plant called the ‘WindPikes’ project, doing environmental assessment. There is some discussion in society with concerns being put forward and interest groups fighting against this project. You are participating in one of these groups as you are by heart against this project due to its environmental impact. You are asked by your friends in the group to participate in the public discussion by writing an article, expressing your professional concerns. The first alternative is to be truthful and honest to the organisation that hired you to do the work. In this case, you could have said no to this project in the first place. A second alternative is to write the article regardless of your obligations towards your employer and client. A third alternative might be to resign from your duties in the project and participate in public discussion with the full force of your beliefs.

  • What do you do?

  • What are the competing values at stake?

  • Are there other alternatives?

  • What is loyalty in this situation?


Submit your own content for publication

Submit content