Retrieving Business Ethics from Political Philosophy

Article excerpt


Academic business ethics is in the thrall of normative political philosophy. As a consequence, the content of academic business ethics is anomalous in the history of moral reflection on commerce, irrelevant to the vast majority of business people in the world, and too grandiose to address fruitfully doing business ethically at the level most business is done. Business ethics can be retrieved by refocusing on the activity of doing business, elucidating principles of action that are modest in aim and in which the business person can have a corresponding confidence.

JEL Code: M14

Keywords: Business; Contract; Ethics; Normative; Philosophy; Political

I. Introduction

My title commits me to convincing the reader of three propositions. First, business ethics as an object of university teaching and research has been captured by or is in the thrall ¿^another academic discipline, normative political philosophy. Second, this is a harmful or at least sub opti m al state of affairs about which business people, university academics, the public at large, or some combination of these should be concerned. Third, there exists a compelling alternative to business ethic s's capture by or thrall with normative political philosophy toward which business people, university academics, the public at large, or some combination of these should seek to move business ethics.

In this paper I argue that the main conversation in academic business ethics is derivative of normative political philosophy. This state of affairs is cause for concern because the content of this derivative business ethics is irrelevant to almost all business people in the world. That is because its content is addressed most naturally to C-level decision makers in large, publicly traded corporations and to legislators possessing the authority advance public policy initiatives aimed at those corporations. In other words, this business ethics is addressed to a small number of people operating at a level far removed from where most of the world's business people do business. Moreover, even in those cases in which its prescriptions are relevant, this business ethics's content is productive mainly of doubt about the right thing to do. That is because it is based upon contentious claims about justice derived from contending theories that, in turn, make its prescriptions contingent on the truth or correctness of the debatable theories of justice used to derive them. A business ethics retrieved from normative political philosophy can be built on the foundations of both the history of moral reflection on commerce and the model informing other forms of applied professional ethics, such as medical ethics and legal ethics. A business ethics so built promises the twin virtues of relevance to the great bulk of business done by the great bulk of business people and inspiring confidence in the judgments formed about ethical business practice in accord with its prescriptions.

II. Business Ethics as Normative Politicai Philosophy

A pioneer and leading figure in the field, the late Robert Solomon (1990) advances a threefold taxonomy of business ethics analysis or argument consisting of levels that he terms the micro, the macro, and the molar. The micro level of business ethics analysis or argument concerns "the rules for fair exchange between two individuals." The macro level concerns "the institutional or cultural rules of commerce for an entire society ('the business world')." The molar level ("molar" from the Latin moles, meaning "mass") concerns "the basic unit of commerce today - the corporation" (Solomon, 1990, p.359).

Solomon's micro level sounds like it is focused on business practice. For what, exactly, is business practice if not engaging in exchange transactions and, concomitantly, what is business ethics if not an articulation of the moral norms that inform engaging in exchange transactions? Similarly, his macro level, at first blush, sounds like it is focused on business practice. …