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Business Ethics: Oxymoron or Good Business?

  • Ronald Duska

Abstract:

Given that so many people think business ethics is oxymoronic, it might be prudent to investigate why and to determine what if any truth or partial truth they see. Thus, as a hueristic device, I propose to seriously examine the claim that business ethics is a contradiction in terms, and see what follows if business ethics is oxymoronic.

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1 David C. Stolinsky, “Capitalism is Squandering its Inheritance,” The New Oxford Review, April 1999, p. 43.

2 I propose to use the words interchangeably in this paper, since I see no significant difference between them.

3 I take egoism to be the ethical theory that maintains “One ought always to pursue one’s own self-interest.” Anything short of demanding the always adopts an overriding principle that is not egoistic in some cases. For example, a theory such that everyone ought to pursue their own interest unless it hurts someone else qualifies the egoism, and utilizes some other ethical theoretical principle as a basis for its decision making.

4 Albert Carr, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?” The Harvard Business Review, January/ February 1968.

5 Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits,” New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1970.

6 Even if Friedman did not mean the strong phrase “one and only one” (which is a highly dubious assumption since he quotes it in an infamous article from his earlier book Capitalism and Freedom), most defenders of this neo-classical view of corporate responsibility seem to agree with the “one and only” qualification.

7 The Editors, The Journal of Commerce, April 22, 1999, p. 10A.

8 This scenario is part of a case written by Chuck Soule, former CEO of Paul Revere Insurance Co., and is used with his permission.

9 Thomas F. O’Boyle, “Profit at Any Cost,” Business Ethics, March/April 1999, p. 14.

10 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976; reprinted Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), I, ii, 2.

11 The Wealth of Nations, IV, ix, 51.

12 Cf. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1989).

13 How much the invisible hand depends of the social stability of an ethics-driven society remains a largely unexplored question, but analysis of the introduction of free market economics in Russia seems to show that it does not work well absent some basic ethical cohesion of the society.

14 There are similarities here to Kant’s ethics, which rests on the necessity of consistent behavior. Compare his use of the first Categorical Imperative, which shows that if dishonesty were universalized, trust would disappear. Cf. Bowie, Duska, Business Ethics, 2nd ed., (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1990), pp. 45ff.

15 Note the recent spate of articles on integrity, honesty and trust in the literature.

16 Andrew Stark, “What’s the Matter with Business Ethics?” Harvard Business Review, April 1993.

17 See the April 1999 edition of The Academy of Management Review.

18 Stanley Cavell, The Claims of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 245.

19 Such a notion of fairness and rational thinking is what underlies a principle like the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or Kant’s principle of respect for persons, “Act so as never to treat another rational being merely as a means.” These principles reinforce the notion that others are the same as you or I in most relevant respects.

20 This is the area where the type of concerns of John Rawls in Theory of Justice become crucial. I have critiqued the limitations of Rawls’s position in my article, “The Religious Roots of Business Ethics.”

21 Cicero, DE officiis, Bk. I, sec. 7, “Justice,” The Loeb translation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930).

22 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 66, art. 7.

23 I mean by soul a notion equivalent to form, in an Aristotelian sense, where the formal cause, the “what” the thing is, is determined by the final cause, its “for what” (raison d’etre). The purpose of anything (its final cause) defines what it is (its form), as well as the rules that tell us whether it is good or not.

24 O’Boyle, “Profit at Any Cost.”

25 Sadly, this even applies to nonprofits, which use the same bottom-line techniques. They just have larger margins for expenses. For example, in the competition for students, colleges have catered to students’ wants instead of to the primary purpose of colleges—the pursuit and transmission of truth. Birthrights are sold for a mess of porridge.

26 See my “The Why’s of Business Revisited,” Journal of Business Ethics16 (1997): 1401–1409.

27 James A. Autry, Life and Work: A Manager’s Search for Meaning (New York: Avon Books, 1995).

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