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Business Ethics at the Millennium

  • R. Edward Freeman

Business ethics, as a discipline, appears to be at a crossroads. Down one avenue lies more of the same: mostly philosophers taking what they know of ethics and ethical theory and applying it to business. There is a long tradition of scholars working in the area known as “business and society” or “social issues in management.” Most of these scholars are trained as social scientists and teach in business schools. Their raison d’etre has been admirable: trying to get executives and students of business to understand the social impacts of business and to see business in broad, societal terms.

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1 See Norman Bowie, Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999); Patricia Werhane, Persons, Rights and Corporations (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985); Thomas Donaldson, The Ethics of International Business (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Richard DeGeorge, Competing With Integrity in International Business (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); and Thomas Donaldson and Thomas Dunfee, Ties That Bind: A Social Contracts Approach to Business (Boston: Harvard Business School Press,

2 By this I mean that there are few articles in the popular discussions of business that mention the work of these scholars. There are few articles about ethics at all in these journals and magazines. There are no ethics best-sellers in business. Most executive programs have ethics sessions as an afterthought or an after-dinner speech. There is, however, an increasing number of articles by business, ethics, and society scholars in more mainstream management journals such as Academy of Management Review.

3 See G. Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, Competing for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1994) and J. Collins and J. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Business, 1994).

4 For a history of this idea see R. Edward Freeman, Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach (Boston: Pitman Publishing Inc., 1984); T. Donaldson and L. Preston, “The Stakeholder Theory of the Corporation: Concepts, Evidence and Implications,” Academy of Management Review 20, No. 1 (1995): 65–91, reprinted in M. Clarkson, ed., The Corporation and its Stakeholders: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998); and Giles Slinger, “Spanning the Gap: The Theoretical Principles Connecting Stakeholder Policies to Business Performance,” Center for Business Research, Department of Applied Economics, University of Cambridge.

5 See Donaldson and Preston in Clarkson, The Corporation and its Stakeholders, p. 182.

6 See Donaldson and Dunfee, Ties That Bind.

7 See R. Mitchell, B. Agle, and D. Wood, “Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts,” Academy of Management Review 22, no. 4 (1997): 853–886, reprinted in Clarkson, The Corporation and its Stakeholders, pp. 275–314.

8 Ibid., p. 307.

9 R. Edward Freeman, “The Politics of Stakeholder Theory,” Business Ethics Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1994): 409–422.

10 Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); and “Does Business Ethics Make Economic Sense,” Business Ethics Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1993): 45–54.

11 There are many dualities in the mainstream conversation of business and capitalism that bear some relationship to the Separation Thesis. I have in mind “business—ethics,” “social science—humanities,” “fact-based—opinion and feeling,” “empirical—normative,” “descriptive—prescriptive,” “business—society,” and others. A full accounting of the Separation Thesis is beyond the scope of the present paper. Suffice it to say that I believe it runs to the core of the mainstream conversation.

12 Donaldson and Preston, pp. 175–176.

13 See Thomas Jones, “Instrumental Stakeholder Theory: A Synthesis of Ethics and Economics,” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 1 (1995): 92–117; Jones and A. Wicks, “Convergent Stakeholder Theory,” Academy of Management Review 24 (1999).

14 This doesn’t imply that normative cores or even empirical categorization schemes are not sometimes useful. It does imply that their usefulness to a managerial stakeholder theory is the proper criterion for their evaluation.

15 That it has always been at least intended (if not executed) as such a managerial revising of the mainstream conversation about value creation and trade, at least in my own view, is the subject of a joint paper with Robert A. Phillips, “Stakeholder Theory: A Libertarian Argument,” Society for Business Ethics Meeting, Chicago, August 1999.

16 The following sections contain some paragraphs from R. Edward Freeman, “Stakeholder Capitalism,” Financial Times, July 26, 1996. I am grateful to the editors and publisher for permission to use this material here.

17 For an account of how this can come about see R. Edward Freeman and Daniel R. Gilbert, Jr., Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1987) chapter 7.

18 That there are many ways to run a business is the insight behind the often-ignored idea of “enterprise strategy” and its theoretical analog “normative core.” It is a separate story whether or not “being an ethical person” makes any sense in isolation from the ideas of value creation and trade. If value creation and trade are fundamental to the human experience, then separating out “ethical person,” as the above sentence does, is also illegitimate. Another way to say this is that our analysis points out the need for a political philosophy or a conception of ethics where value creation and trade, rather than the state, play a central role.

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Business Ethics Quarterly
  • ISSN: 1052-150X
  • EISSN: 2153-3326
  • URL: /core/journals/business-ethics-quarterly
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