Business ethical research paper

However, things have not worked out quite the way traditional advocates of corporate social responsibility had hoped. Largely because of their background in moral philosophy, a discipline that tends to place a high value on precisely those kinds of experiences and activities where self-interest does not rule, many business ethicists found the precepts of corporate social responsibility profoundly dissatisfying. As a result, they have spent a great deal of scholarly time and energy tearing down the social responsibility position in order to erect their own. Indeed, far from taking a step closer to the real-world moral problems of management, several prominent business ethicists have chosen to reopen the fundamental question: Why should managers be ethical?

Business ethicists have two basic problems with the enlightened self-interest answer to the question of why managers should be ethical. Moral philosophy tends to value altruism, the idea that an individual should do good because it is right or will benefit others, not because the individual will benefit from it. For many business ethicists, motivation can be either altruistic or self-interested, but not both. The ethical business must be ethical because it wants to be ethical. Each of these criticisms has its kernel of truth.

What’s the Matter with Business Ethics?

Clearly, ethics and interests can conflict. Take the example of a racially segregated company in the South during the s. Remaining racially segregated was ethically wrong.

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Yet active desegregation would have flown in the face of then-prevailing public norms and most likely would have been penalized severely by market forces over both the short and long terms. When ethics and interest do not conflict, business ethicists have a point too. However, the problem is that many business ethicists have pushed both these lines of reasoning to extremes. In the case of the potential conflict between ethics and interests, the fundamental issue for a manager is not whether such conflicts sometimes or even frequently occur, but rather how he or she handles them when they occur.

Business ethicists have offered too little help with this problem so far. Often, they advance a kind of ethical absolutism that avoids many of the difficult and most interesting questions. For example, in Business Ethics: The State of the Art, a recent volume of essays by leading business ethicists, edited by R. In some cases, absolutism leads business ethicists to devalue such traditional business interests as making a profit or succeeding in the marketplace in favor of supposedly more important ethical demands.

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Take the example of one of the major works in the field, published in Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics, by R. According to the authors, no corporation is truly ethical unless it has banished all forms of external motivation for employees. What do Freeman and Gilbert mean by external motivation? Nothing less than traditional managerial tools such as authority, power, incentives, and leadership.

Such views may resonate with some moral philosophers but are of little help to managers. Like it or not, corporations do exist, and most managers work in them. These managers still lack solutions for the basic problem of how to balance ethical demands and economic realities when they do in fact conflict.

Any business ethics worthy of the name should be an ethics of practice. But this means that business ethicists must get their hands dirty. This kind of sterile parsing of complex human motivation leads to the untenable position that managers are being genuinely ethical only when it costs them.


Put simply, ethics has to hurt. If, of course, enough other companies were to start sponsoring schools, it would be possible for them all to recoup their investment by hiring from a much larger pool of better educated students.


If there were no free riders, there would be no moral companies. An odd argument, to say the least. Some business ethicists used to caution that doing wrong is profitable only when most others are doing right. Now, apparently, they are arguing that doing right is demonstrably moral only when most others are doing wrong. Can a manager be truly good only in a bad corporation, as some scholars claim?

A few business ethicists have used a similar kind of reasoning to criticize companies that try to create incentives to encourage ethical behavior on the part of their employees. If a manager works in a corporate culture that rewards her for doing good, how can her behavior be considered ethical? The strong implication is that a manager can be truly good only in a bad corporation. If a hint of self-interest is present, in other words, then altruism—and hence ethical motivation—can no longer be assumed.

Ironically, neoclassical economists, who believe that all human behavior is essentially self-interested, share this view. There is, of course, an essential difference that underlies this similarity: neoclassical economists hold that self-interested motivation is not immoral; but, for many business ethicists, mixed motives deserve and receive no moral credit. Even when they do so, their work has tended to suffer from one or more of three typical tendencies.

First, it is too general—consumed with offering fundamental proposals for overhauling the capitalist system rather than ethics strategies to assist managers who must work within that system. These professions are, of course, monopolies and hence can more easily impose ethical strictures on their practitioners. Business, like government, is not just a profession. It is also a system in which everyone, managers and nonmanagers alike, must live. As a result, the classic moral analysts of business and government have tended to be grand philosophers like Karl Marx or Friedrich von Hayek.

Rather than focusing on professional norms and behavioral modes, such thinkers have advanced systemic critiques that often question the very premises of economic and political systems such as capitalism or socialism. Why do scholars tend toward abstract moral theory? Because business is not just a profession. It is also a system in which everyone must live. Medicine and law provide an instructive contrast. Because these fields are more traditional professions, their greatest moral analysts have tended to be practitioners like Hippocrates or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Such thinkers accepted and worked within the basic premises and norms of their professions. And that context has allowed them and others to come up with ethical precepts of practical value to actual doctors and lawyers. Although management increasingly has come to be viewed as a profession in this century, a heritage of systemic moral criticism tempts business ethicists to be grand philosophers.

If so, how?

What’s the Matter with Business Ethics?

If not, why not? Is socialism ethically…preferable? These are important questions. But to the considerable extent that business ethicists dwell on them, what they generate is more often high-flown social philosophy than ethics advice useful to professionals. In contrast, because government and law address the normative values of a particular political community, they are more receptive to the language of values found in moral philosophy.

Medical ethicists have gained credibility within their more scientific field by displaying an understanding of the relevant hard medical-science issues. Business ethicists, by contrast, have attempted to gain credibility within their professional field primarily by girding their work with abstract moral theory. To peruse recent issues of the Journal of Business Ethics is to get a strong sense of the kind of research that has resulted from this need to establish theoretical or scholarly bona fides.

Ethical theory can help illuminate the moral problems managers face.

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  • But no other field of professional ethics has felt the need to couch its analyses so in the language of pure moral philosophy. Even when business ethicists try to be practical, however, much of what they recommend is not particularly useful to managers. To understand why, a comparison with law is helpful. In business, as in law, ethicists are increasingly asking individual practitioners to modify their commitments to their traditional principals in order to satisfy the competing interests of nonprincipals.

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