A Pragmatic Approach to Business Ethics: Panel Discussion and Author's Response

Review of Business, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview
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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.

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