A Pragmatic Approach to Business Ethics: Panel Discussion and Author's Response
I. Business Ethics in the (Theology) Classroom
We cannot help beginning our lives in a world made by others, but with some effort and good luck, we might make it better than we found it. From a moral point of view, the effort is required from each of us and all our communities. (Michalos, 7)
Early in his book Michalos affirms this quote by siding with American philosopher John Dewey's approach that there are no moral holidays.(1) If this is so, and I think it is, then none of us escapes the right and the duty to do what we can to bring about that better world - including those of us who are neither businesspeople nor professional ethicists.
I enter this discussion of Alex Michalos's recent book with a combination of theological background, professional and personal commitments to ecological and environmental issues, and my guest lectures on those issues to classes studying business ethics.
As a nonspecialist, it was important that Michalos defined what he means by pragmatic philosophy(2) and by the words moral, ethical, rational, and so on. I appreciated that Michalos - himself a classroom professor - alluded to the difficulties of teaching "business ethics," including the rhetorical question of whether that term might really be an oxymoron.
Defining "business ethics" as the "application of ordinary ethical or moral principles of human action in business operating in a free or mixed market economy," Michalos alludes to the split between how such a course looks on a student's resume and convincing the student that the course material "might be true."
I agree with Michalos's claim that his first five chapters provide the "basic building blocks" for his approach to business ethics; these were, indeed, the chapters which provided me with a more solid foundation from which to assess and deal with what I see as a major dilemma of our modern age. To state it plainly: in the face of our current environmental problems, I am concerned about business decisions which affect the health and well being of human beings and the planet itself. Because of this, I tend to pay strict attention to the decisions, practices, and products coming from the corporate and business communities. While some progress is being made, I remain unconvinced that the moral/ethical framework is a priority in business decisions.
Even if I have come to accept this, Michalos himself does not let businesspeople off the hook so easily; he refuses to acknowledge that moral behavior is a specialized field to be practiced by those aspiring to sainthood.
Business People as Businesspeople
Viewed from my perspective, it is noteworthy that Michalos's general thesis is that "businesspeople should be morally responsible agents as businesspeople." That is, that businesspeople ought to be morally responsible agents not merely in their role as citizens of a moral community, but in their role as people engaged in competitive enterprise. To that end, Michalos presents a number of "plausible arguments" which point up the defects in these arguments and show that these arguments are themselves defective.
Michalos rejects the argument that businesspeople should not be concerned about morally responsible action as businesspeople because they do have a fight to engage in such action. Instead, he insists upon the right of businesspeople as businesspeople to act rationally,(3) which means granting them the right to "estimate all the consequences of their actions," including the determination of the ratio of benefits to costs of any given action. Among the costs and benefits a person has a right to assess are all the moral and immoral consequences of actions. Michalos concludes by saying that "insofar as business people are interested in performing rational actions, they must also have a right to perform them. Moreover, this implies a right to consider and perform morally responsible actions because these also produce benefits and costs."
Michalos then considers whether moral decision making is "a specialized field with special interests, principles, and practitioners." Michalos denies this specialization after setting up the argument that even if businesspeople are granted the right to perform morally responsible actions as businesspeople, they will have "such low levels of competence" in moral actions that they would botch up even so worthy an endeavor. Refuting this, Michalos holds that morally responsible actions cut across all fields and disciplines.
Applying Business Ethics in the Classroom
During a guest lecture to a business ethics class at St. John's University where I teach theology, I walked the class through a discussion of how business decisions impact on environmental problems. The example I used that day was the redesigned packaging of Tropicana orange juice, which added a plastic pouring spout to its containers. At issue here was the question, when bottom-line business decisions come head to head with acknowledged social problems, what gives?
The breakthrough came when one student said that since corporations do all kinds of studies to determine marketing strategy and profitability, the decision to add a plastic pouring spout to the carton was obviously based on those kinds of studies and the corporation's responsibility to bottom line business objectives.(4)
At this point,(5) I raised the following questions: knowing what you know now, having taken, (and hopefully taken to heart), this course on business ethics, what do you think was left out of that discussion on product redesign; and, having taken this course on business ethics, what do you now think you could have added to the mix of that marketing strategy session which might have brought about a different result?
I saw flashes of light go off on their faces with the recognition that there might be more to business decisions than the obvious bottom line ones we normally think of when the words "business decisions" and "the bottom line," come into play: Those components are, it seems to me now, exactly those ethical or moral considerations inherent in the thesis that businesspeople should be morally responsible agents as businesspeople.
The Need for a Ethical/Moral Vision in Business
The challenge Michalos is addressing is brought out in the article, "The Environment Goes to Business School" which outlines an educational outreach program of the National Wildlife Federation's Corporate Conservation Council.(6) Its objective is to draw up an elective graduate school course which would make environmental management relevant to business students. The article acknowledges corporate America's understanding that all kinds of businesspeople, from purchasing people to marketer's, will need the expertise to make environmentally-sound decisions.
Although the rationale for the course, the components to be included, the goals to be met, and those who are targeted for the course are all addressed, there is no indication that the overall framework within which this ought to happen is a moral/ethical one. If, indeed, business ethics can be defined as the application of ordinary ethical or moral principles of human action in businesses operating in a free or mixed market economy, that certainly is not reflected in this ambitious, high-tech, approach for the environmental education of "corporate-managers-to-be." Seemingly, Michalos's basic assumption that "the moral point of view is not another specialized perspective, but is inherent in all major decisions," is not so basic an assumption.
If there is a weakness to the book it is in the case studies of the concluding chapters, which are intended to show that his pragmatic approach to business ethics has "significant merit." I did find the case study on advertising interesting and applicable to a wide range of ethical issues.(7) Another study, "A Case Against Tobacco Promotion," was also useful, especially since it was framed within the context of a classroom situation. I personally would have liked to see more of this kind of case study, somewhat expanded, and around other issues.
Lastly, to address what I think is missing. I would have liked more about the "community of potential buyers and sellers" necessary for business to exist. Michalos touches on this in presenting his best and worst arguments for business ethics, saying that Robinson Crusoe on his island with Friday is a story "quite generalizable." Is this the same "community" which sees businesspeople as exempt from morally responsible actions? If so, how did this community come to this understanding? I think what I am really asking here is what is the community's role in general when questions of moral/ethical actions are addressed. Have we become willing dupes not wanting to upset ourselves or the applecart by delving too deeply into what is coming out of corporations and business meetings? The case studies do address this question on one level. Perhaps other case studies could address these issues even more strongly.
1. In using the expression, "no moral holidays" Michalos is quoting Bertrand Russell's take on Dewey's ethical views. Alex C. Michalos, "A Pragmatic Approach To Business Ethics" (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 1995), 12.
2. According to Michalos, the "defining characteristic" of such a philosophy is that it calls for "evaluating actions and beliefs on the basis of their consequences." Ibid., 1.
3. Rational actions having been defined as those which produce benefits at least as great as their costs, being then, "at least self-sustaining or self-enhancing." Ibid., 15.
4. Interestingly, although only one student voiced this comment, it was clear from the sounds of agreement and nodding heads that many others in the class agreed with the logic of this assessment of how marketing decisions are made.
5. It should be noted that by this point in the lecture I had taken the students through a brief "state of the question" regarding problems of pollution, waste disposal, landfills, and the problems endemic to the manufacturing and disposing of plastic, a petroleum-based substance.
6. Keith Skillman, "The Environment Goes to Business School," One Earth Summer, 1990, pp. 6-8.
7. In this case study Michalos deals specifically with what he considers deceptive advertising in Canada's national lottery. But given the impact of advertising on our lives today, this case study is particularly important, it seems to me, for paying attention to what is being sold, by whom, and to whom, as well as the question of (in the selling of goods and services) why this, and not that? In this section also, I sympathized with Michalos as he presented, with growing frustration, his series of letters to various agencies regarding the lottery advertising problem. I have my own series of letters from Tropicana, including one which included several cents-off coupons for a product about which I was complaining! I don't think Tropicana got my message: do the benefits (whatever they are) outweigh the costs? Who benefits, who loses? What was considered (and what wasn't considered) in the decision to redesign packaging in the face of what we now know about environmental problems?
II. Business Ethics in Business
In "A Pragmatic Approach to Business Ethics," Dr. Alex Michalos has combined a number of previously published papers with some new material. Dr. Michalos has been an editor of the Journal of Business Ethics since 1980, and is quite candid about his left-leaning view. As a businessman asked to review his book, I had the same feeling that I might get if I learned that Catholic Bishops had rewritten the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church. While the Bishops are certainly bright and insightful, I would have to wonder about their commitment to making the Presbyterian Church work better. Similarly, I have to wonder about Dr. Michalos' commitment to free market capitalism.
Just before the turn of the century, William James gave a series of lectures to the public school teachers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The lectures were published in a little book called "Talks to Teachers." It's a wonderfully practical compilation of advice for public school teachers based on psychological theory. When I saw the title of Michalos's book, I hoped for a similarly practical "Talks to Business" from a current pragmatist. However, the book is written more with the intention of convincing scholars of a basis for business ethics.
Most business people like pragmatists. We tend to think of them as more predictable, in the sense that we know how to influence their behavior. Idealists, on the other hand, tend to be viewed as kamikaze pilots - admired for their courage, but seen as dangerous because of their willingness to risk self-immolation in an effort to influence behavior. Let me illustrate the business person's preference for pragmatism. If I had two performance appraisal forms that were similar in every way except that one person was described as pragmatic and the other idealistic, I would make the following predictions about how the two would be treated: The pragmatist would get a bigger salary increase, and be considered for a promotion over the idealist. And the reason is simple: predictability is an important part of the trust that is necessary for a business enterprise to function.
Michalos suggests that morality "rests on the adoption of a moral point of view." He proposes two principles:
* Principle of Beneficence - take actions to improve the quality of life
* No-harm Principle - avoiding trouble
He leans towards the first principle as a basis for business ethics. But, as a pragmatic businessman, I believe there is a great deal to be said for the second.
If I were to approach my boss and ask for a budget increase for our Corporate Office of Business Conduct (corporate ethics office) saying that it would improve the ethical climate in American business, I'm sure my boss would be impressed. Beneficence has a certain appeal, but I doubt it would get me the money. If, however, I told him that we could avoid problems, government regulators, and litigation by minimizing possible harm to our customers, I'd have a better chance at getting the funding. As a pragmatist, I like arguments that work. And avoiding evil resonates among business people more than just doing good.
In chapter 5, Michalos outlines what he considers the best and the worst arguments for business ethics. He describes the best argument in terms of community. For an optimally functioning business economy to exist, there must be an overriding morality. In other words, business people should support business ethics because it is necessary for the preservation of business. Well, the game of tennis is possible because we reasonably expect the players to abide by certain rules. I'd be very surprised if, as I was serving, my opponent rushed over the net and started hitting my racket. On the other hand, that's exactly what I'd expect of my opponent if we were playing lacrosse. I don't believe there is any inherent moral superiority in the rules of one game over another.
Michalos says that the worst argument for business ethics is that it is profitable. He objects to this argument, in part, because he does not see any moral praiseworthiness in actions motivated by self-interest. On the contrary, I feel the argument that business ethics is profitable is a great one - I just don't think that it's always true. Almost any business person can describe a situation where unethical behavior was indeed profitable. But that doesn't mean that ethical behavior is not, in general or in the long term, profitable. Therefore, in situations where profitability can be attributed to the adherence to sound ethics, I believe it can be a strong argument in persuading business people to be concerned with business ethics.
I think that Michalos's case against profitability is quite unpragmatic. A pragmatist is concerned with the consequences of behavior, not the motivations. Let's assume that we were able to talk to Michael Milken about his involvement with junk bonds in the 1980s. Let's also assume that he would answer our questions honestly, especially when we asked, "Why did you do it?" I bet his answer would be couched in terms of the improved access to capital markets that junk bonds provided. He'd also probably point to the fine, morally praiseworthy companies that got their start because of his efforts. And I think he would hones fly believe his own argument. As a pragmatist, I prefer to judge him on the consequences of his activities, namely, the banks and insurance companies that failed. Saint Peter may care about motivations; a pragmatist cares about the results.
In the chapter on the impact of trust, Michalos's discussion parallels some of the recent arguments of Frances Fukuyama in "Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity." They both stress the importance of trust for economic growth, and Michalos goes even further, arguing for the significance of trust in improving broader aspects of well-being. Michalos quotes from an argument from William James, which, in short, says that faith in a fact can create a fact. I'm willing to agree with that, in the sense that I believe good business ethics, in the long run, will prove profitable. And if we all hold this belief, the consequences for the business community will inevitably be favorable.
"Talks to Teachers" was published a little over a century ago. Although I hope that one day some philosopher or ethicist will write a similar book for those of us in business, we will still have problems in the area of business ethics education. My feeling is that the publication of any pragmatic guidance, regardless of its practicality, simply won't change the business world very much.
III. Another Pragmatist's Reaction
I generally agree with most of the substantive stands Alex Michalos's takes in his Pragmatic Approach to Business Ethics. I share his enthusiasm for a pragmatist approach to ethics generally. And I share his feminist and social democratic reading of the heritage of John Dewey's American Pragmatism. So there might seem little for me to criticize about Michalos's book.
But I do have some friendly criticisms to offer that would, I think, improve the pragmatism of what Michalos calls his "basic building blocks or foundation for a pragmatic approach to business ethics," that is, chapters 2-5 of his book. Before offering these friendly suggestions, I will summarize what I take Michalos to be doing in chapters 2-5 (with a brief look at chapter 6).
In chapter 2, Michalos defines morality as (among other things) a means for "the resolution of conflicts without resort to civil or criminal law" (p. 9). Michalos sees this as. occurring principally by appeal to fundamental principles of Beneficence and/or No-Harm, and he relates the two to most of the major ethical theories of the past and present. He expresses his preference for "universal beneficence" at least as an ideal (p. 11). He then relates this to "social indicators" measures, whether objective (e.g., employment rates, equitable wealth and income distribution) or subjective (reports of satisfaction, happiness, etc.), which are then tied to what practitioners of "evaluation analysis" do for managers, both public and private. After this, Michalos makes a somewhat controversial claim (see below) that moral evaluation and rational evaluation (of benefits) are roughly equivalent - though when conflict arises "between what is morally required and what is rationally required in the interest of a satisfied client [including oneself?] ... The Principle of Beneficence is ... the supreme moral principle, the absolute tie-breaker" (p. 19). (Again, more on this later.) Finally, Michalos concludes the chapter with a caveat, that evaluators (including professionals in the field but not only they) must generally presuppose that most people's aims are morally praiseworthy, "but that has not been proven here" (p. 21), and runs up against reports of people's general lack of trust (see discussion of chapter 6, below).
Chapter 3 considers, and refutes as "unsuccessful," fourteen ways people try to deny that business needs ethics. Chapter 4 takes up one of these, called the Loyal Agent Argument, in detail. Chapter 5 considers "the best and worst arguments for business ethics." The best argument is said to include:
1. In order for business or a market economy to exist, there must be some sort of community of potential buyers and sellers.
2. In order for a community of potential buyers and sellers to exist, there must be morality.
Thus, in order for business or a market economy to exist, there must be morality.
3. Anyone with an interest in preserving business or a market economy should help maintain those conditions, like morality, that are necessary for its preservation.
4. Business people have such an interest.
* Therefore, businesspeople should help maintain those conditions that are necessary for the preservation of business, including morality (pp. 54-55).
The "worst" (though common) argument is said to be that it is "profitable to conduct business in accordance with principles of morality" (p. 57). This is bad, in Michalos's view, because it dangerously combines "one's interest in sustaining a market economy" and "one's interest in increasing one's own profits," so that if profits in fact fall while one is trying to be moral, one may be tempted to abandon morality.
Chapter 6 is not listed by Michalos as part of his fundamental theory, but its focus on "the impact of trust on business" is surely relevant. In that chapter Michalos reviews a mountain of social science research that says people do not generally trust others, though they have no reasonable basis for their lack of trust. Michalos concludes by saying "that most of us will be better off if most of us can manage to be more trusting in spite of our doubts" (p. 86) though he does not seem very confident that this will happen.
Now for my friendly suggestions:
1. I am no expert on the sort of research Michalos reports in chapter 6, but common sense suggests that the results might be partially skewed by a failure to distinguish among the "others" who are not trusted. Does it mean all others, those outside one's circle of family and friends, those who are outside the groups with which one identifies, etc.? George Herbert Mead, another leading American Pragmatist (and friend and colleague of Dewey), emphasized how hard it is to avoid an in-group/out-group mentality, though he would agree with Michalos that avoiding it is a good thing. (See James Campbell, "George Herbert Mead on Social Fusion and the Social Critic," in R. Burch and H. Saatkamp, eds., "Frontiers in American Philosophy," vol. 1 .)
2. The opposition Michalos expresses with respect to the common (he calls it the worst) argument for including morality within business practice - because it is profitable - seems to me overstated. This does not mean I like the argument any better than Michalos does; I only want to suggest that his way of countering it may partially undercut his effort. Michalos concludes his discussion this way:
Because the most important aim of the institution of morality is to resolve conflicts of interest among people pursuing their own selfish interests, any argument in support of the institution that appealed to selfish interests would be self-defeating, if not literally self-contradictory. In effect, it would be an argument asserting that selfishness is both morally praiseworthy and blameworthy, which is logically absurd (p. 59).
There are several (minor) things wrong with this passage. (a) Michalos's rhetoric forecloses support from some economic defenders of morality who, denying that "selfishness" is immoral and basing their view on what they see as a universal, moral, and acceptable pursuit of self-interest, might otherwise side with him. (b) If Michalos does not want help from those claiming universal self-interest, his language about the most important aim of morality being to resolve conflicts among people pursuing selfish interests could be misleading. Dewey did not believe in the pursuit of selfish interests as the basis of morality, nor did Mead, who defines morality in terms of community action to solve social problems and bases this on altruism, not selfishness. And (c) Michalos's claim about a "logically absurd" implication of the view clearly overstates the case. Defenders of the view might be contradicting themselves, in some loose sense, and their view may even seem absurd to Michalos; but surely intelligent people do not consciously assert that selfishness is both praiseworthy and blameworthy at the same time and in the same respect. Charity of interpretation would suggest that they really mean something different (even if that is still something with which Michalos disagrees).
(This last point suggests a different son of difficulty with Michalos's text, where I might move beyond just friendly suggestion. This has to do with style, and Michalos's is. exceedingly sparse, sometimes reading like a logic textbook. This might well put off some readers, even if they would, like me, be otherwise friendly toward his views.)
3. Another passage that I would have phrased differently involves Michalos's only explicit treatment of moral relativism (a topic most applied-ethics textbook authors take up at much greater length), in his discussion of the fourteenth argument against linking business and ethics. There Michalos says:
The concept of particular moralities is logically incoherent, for it entails maxims of action that both include and exclude a supreme principle. In other words, it posits a set of maxims that are relatively equal in status but also not relatively equal to one supreme principle. If, for example, businesspeople, bandits, and baseball players all have equally important ethical codes to live by, then, when there are conflicts between people in different groups, each can retreat to his or her own special code, with the result that no resolution of the conflict is possible . . . There can be only one kind of morality, and it is universal (pp. 42-43).
Here again, there are problems with the passage. (a) If defenders of the view really are maintaining something "logically incoherent," discussion of the issue will move forward more fruitfully if we allow them to back off and say what they really mean (which will not usually continue to include logical incoherence). (b) Moreover, other pragmatists - and here most notably Mead (again), in the last part of "Mind, Self, and Society" (1934) - would say that no need to appeal to either a "supreme" moral principle or "only one kind of morality [that is] universal" is necessary to overcome the problem Michalos is referring to. All that is required is an appeal to a principle of greater generality than the two in conflict, and if conflict still persists, to another of still greater generality, and so on. The problem of infinite regress obviously comes in here, but pragmatists (and especially members of the school of American Pragmatism) are convinced that societies solve their particular problems long before they face that philosophical problem and are forced to choose a single supreme moral principle that is allegedly truly universal. (Some pragmatic philosophers, such as Joseph Margolis, in "Pragmatism without Foundations: Reconciling Realism and Relativism" , argue that we can never, in principle, arrive at a supreme universal principle of morality; yet we can resolve, within a particular context, the kind of disagreement Michalos refers to.)
4. My last suggestion has to do with the sections of Michalos's chapter 2 that deal with the relationship between rationality and morality. Remembering my two earlier criticisms of Michalos for using phrases such as "logically absurd" and "logically incoherent," as well as his terse "logical" style, I am inclined to worry that he has too narrow a definition of rationality in mind. Many authors of "clear thinking" textbooks (including Michalos?), and many authors of applied ethics textbooks dependent on that sort of clear-thinking tradition, seem to think that there is, ultimately, only one test of rationality: lack of inconsistency. But if one considers actual conflict resolutions - in real life, in legal affairs, in historical or social science discourse, even in the actual practice (as opposed to philosophers' theories) of the natural sciences - "rationality" has a variety of meanings. Leaving aside the everyday life arena (where power of persuasion is often adequate for the resolution of conflicts), these meanings of "reasonable resolution of disagreement" are typically taught in jurisprudence classes, in introductions to historical or social science research, in methods classes at the beginning of graduate courses in science, and so on. Whether or not any of these rational-resolution methods violate the laws of formal logic is a deep philosophical issue. All I would say is that, for the kind of rational resolution of business conflicts that Michalos wants ethics to help provide, a much more expansive definition of "rationality" than that provided by formal logic will suffice. Indeed, lower-level methods of conflict resolution are often better in real-life situations.
In sum, I think Michalos's book is an excellent start in the fight direction. It would, I feel, be better, if it were truer to the best in the American Pragmatist tradition, in the senses I have spelled out. So, in the spirit of friendly suggestions I have tried to employ here, maybe Michalos will take some of these ideas into consideration when he does a revised (and improved?) second edition of the book.
IV. The Author's Response
I very much appreciated the opportunity of having my book reviewed at the Second Annual International Conference Promoting Business Ethics, and even more so the opportunity of replying and having some public discussion of the issues. The present opportunity to put some of my views before a still broader public is all the more appreciated. Rose Zuzworsky seems to be fairly sympathetic to my project, so I have less to say regarding her comments. She asks whether we have "become willing dupes not wanting to upset ourselves or the applecart by delving too deeply into what is coming out of corporations and business meetings." I think this is an accurate characterization for many of us much of the time, and I think we are able to see our own complicity when we think about the evils of trafficking in tobacco products and military supplies. It would be foolish to deny that there are no benefits from the production and sale of such products, but the fact that we collectively allow ourselves to live off them with such modest levels of recognition or complaint seems to me to be an indication of moral weakness.
Richard Hansen begins with some legitimate doubts about my "commitment to free market capitalism." Since the fundamental organizing principle of free market capitalism is that a person's voice and influence should be proportionate to the size of a person's capital (or purse), and the fundamental organizing principle of democracy is that each person's voice and influence should be equal to that of every other person, there is a basic inconsistency between capitalism and democracy. In Canada we have a political party, the New Democratic Party, that says it is committed to democratic socialism, just as the Republican and Democratic Parties in the United States say that they are committed to democratic capitalism. Depending on how one defines the key concepts, there are more or fewer problems making the idea of democratic socialism and democratic capitalism self-consistent. Still, because of the basic inconsistency between the fundamental organizing principles of capitalism and democracy, democratic capitalists have bigger logical problems to face than democratic socialists. Quite apart from the human and economic costs and benefits of being a capitalist or a socialist, I would prefer the latter position on the grounds of logical consistency alone.
Hansen prefers pragmatists to idealists because, he says, "we tend to think of them as more predictable." On the contrary, the first sentence of my book says that "The trouble with pragmatists is that they will get in bed with anyone." I think that this is true. The reason it is true is that pragmatism, as a philosophy of life, has no substantive aim beyond efficiency, and efficiency is merely a matter of the benefits of one's actions being at least as great as their costs. If we only know that a person aims to act efficiently but we have no idea of exactly what the person regards as a benefit or a cost, as good or evil, then we have no idea of how the person will act. The predictability that Hansen finds in pragmatists is really the result of the fact that the pragmatists he encounters are presumed to be relatively single-mindedly committed to profit maximization in a fairly restricted sense. If we know that a person is committed to profit maximization in this sense, i.e., to accumulating financial wealth, and we know that the person is a pragmatist, then that person's actions will be very predictable. That person will seek the lowest cost means to maximizing her or his wealth. But in this they would be no more predictable than St. Vincent in his single-minded pursuit of caring for the poor. Everything I know about St. Vincent, which is not much and entirely the result of going to Vincentian conferences on business ethics, indicates that he was a pragmatist of the highest order. (I leave it to others to make the most of the unintended pun.)
Hansen claims that "as a pragmatic businessman, I believe there's a great deal to be said for" the "No-harm Principle: avoiding trouble" over my preferred "Principle of Beneficence: take actions to improve the quality of life." He says, and I agree, that "avoiding evil resonates among business people more than just doing good." In fact, I think it "resonates" more among most people, inside and outside the business community, than my preferred principle. I think it is more attractive to most people because it is usually both easier to see and to do something about avoiding trouble than it is to see and do something to improve the quality of life. Very often, of course, the quality of people's lives can be and is improved by other people avoiding trouble. For example, people who obey traffic laws, pay their taxes and do not physically abuse other people make genuine contributions to improving the quality of many other persons' lives. So, the two principles are not mutually inconsistent.
I prefer the Principle of Beneficence as a guide to action because I think a community inhabited by people following this principle would be a better place to live in than a community inhabited by people primarily interested in staying out of trouble. In the latter sort of community, people in need might meet only closed doors, hard hearts and no helping hands, while in the former sort of community such people would meet open doors, warm hearts and helping hands. Whether or not I ever have the good fortune to find myself in a compassionate community, there is no doubt that it presents a preferable ideal for human beings. Furthermore, precisely because it presents a more desirable state for people, a state with a superior quality of life, as a pragmatist I prefer that principle of action which has precisely such a state as its primary objective. The No Harm principle may well be easier to follow, but it is a less efficient means to the end I have in view.
Hansen feels that "the argument that business ethics is profitable is a great one," but he just doesn't "think that it's always true." I consider it the worst argument for business ethics for two reasons. First, insofar as one's motive for action is making a profit rather than doing what is morally right, there is nothing in one's motive that is morally praise.worthy. Consequences aside, to the extent that the motive of personal profit merits moral praise, every selfish act would also merit moral praise precisely insofar as it is motivated by pure selfishness. However, it seems to me that, consequences aside, the idea of a morally praiseworthy act with a purely selfish motive is logically incoherent. While I do believe that the consequences of one's actions are supremely important for determining its moral character, as explained in the second essay in my book, I do not believe that only consequences are important.
Second, and I think more important, the worst argument for business ethics seriously undermines morality. If businesspeople are convinced that the main reason they should be ethical in their business practices is that such action best serves the interest of profitability, then when there is a conflict between doing what is morally right and doing what is profitable, they will be justified in doing what is profitable. Following the line of the worst argument, they understand that morally good action is at best instrumentally good as a means to the end of personal profit, which is presumably intrinsically good. Moral goodness, in other words, is valuable or good insofar as it serves the interest of personal profit. Therefore, in conflict situations when only one of the two aims can be served, it would be reasonable and just to abandon morality in order to obtain the supreme good of personal profit. That, obviously, would seriously and critically undermine the institution of morality. Indeed, I think it would be absolutely fatal for morality, and that is why I regard the profitability argument as the single worst argument for business ethics.
Paul Durbin is also very sympathetic to my project. So I will only make a few comments on his review.
First, I agree that my chapter (6) on trust could be included as part of the foundation of my general approach. I also agree that it is worthwhile to make some distinctions among "others" when one is trying to decide who to trust more or less, with which issues and so on. As a working principle, I would suggest something analogous to the Principle of Insufficient Reason that is employed in The Classical Theory of measuring probabilities. That is, unless one has some reason to regard any other person as less trustworthy (less honest, caring, etc.) than oneself, one ought to regard such people as equally trustworthy (honest, etc.) as oneself.
Second, regarding Durbin's concerns about self-interest and selfishness, I am partly in agreement. In my discussion of the Loyal Agent's Argument (chapter 4), I explicitly distinguished healthy self-interested action (e.g., self-sufficiency, self-starting, self-defence, self-confidence) from selfish action (e.g., always serving oneself first and best, regardless of others' needs). I am also aware that there is a fairly long tradition among moral philosophers who believe that the best answer to the question, "Why should I be moral?" is roughly "because it is in your own best interest." I cannot hope to convert defenders of that tradition here, and I probably did not say enough in my book either. But I would like to add a bit to what I already said. In particular, I do think that there is an important difference between supporting morality or the institution of morality in the interest of building a compassionate community to which one may or may not belong, and supporting these things because they will probably bring one some personal profit, or they will further one's own personal interests. It may be the case that people who seriously ask, "Why should I be moral?" cannot see any difference in these answers or that they can see a difference but still cannot be motivated by anything but their own self-interest. In the latter case, I guess we have nothing to talk about. I see a world in which people care about each other as a better place than a world in which people finally care only about themselves or some sorts of extensions of themselves, and those on the other side do not see it that way. This is disturbing but not surprising. However, my main concern here and in my book was to make the alternatives clear and to clearly explain the dangers (costs) of using the most frequently used (but worst) argument in defense of business ethics. If my work accomplishes these things, that should help clarify the main reason for and benefits of business ethics.
Third, regarding the need for a supreme moral principle, I agree that some conflicts can be resolved without one. However, my logical points are that (1) when a conflict is resolved by appeal to one alleged moral code over another. then the triumphant code is the only accepted code in that situation and is therefore a good candidate for a universal code, and (2) the only way to guarantee that there will be no infinite regress of alternative codes is to settle on a supreme moral principle.
Finally, the view I defended in chapter 2 on the relationship between rationality and morality is practically identical to the view I presented in my "Foundations of Decision-Making" (Canadian Library of Philosophy, 1978). Basically I think one can use exactly the same operational model for morality that one uses for rationality provided that one is willing to expand one's recipient population for benefits and costs to include everyone affected by one's action. In economists' jargon, I am recommending something like internalizing all externalities or serving the interests of all stakeholders in a relatively impartial way. I would never claim that this is the only or even the best way to think about rationality and morality, but I do claim that it is one good way to go and one is all we need.
Rose Zuzworsky is Adjunct Professor of Theology, St. John's University, New York.
Richard Hansen is Senior Vice President, New York Life Insurance Company, New York.
Paul T. Durbin is Professor of Philosophy, University of Delaware.
Alex C. Michalos is Professor of Business Ethics, University of Northern British Columbia, Canada, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Business Ethics.…
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Publication information: Article title: A Pragmatic Approach to Business Ethics: Panel Discussion and Author's Response. Contributors: Not available. Journal title: Review of Business. Volume: 17. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 1995. Page number: 29+. © 2009 St. John's University, College of Business Administration. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.