Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

Business Ethics in A New Key

Academic journal article Journal of Private Enterprise

Business Ethics in A New Key

Article excerpt

Miseducation About Business

In our day we live in perpetual tension between convictions that promise us happiness here on earth and ones that call us away and ask us to renounce that very same world. As I once entitled a column I wrote for a newspaper in Birmingham, Alabama, "We Praise Mother Teresa and then Hit the Shopping Mall." Most of us are, in other words, torn.

It is not our essential nature that produces this tension. No, there is a possibility of living harmoniously with the world in which we are, admittedly, unique. But then birds are unique, as are fish, as are many other living beings. So this itself should pose no insurmountable problem.

In our case, however, there is the possibility of being wrong. Human beings must learn about the world and sometimes they learn badly or are taught the wrong things. This is especially the case when it comes to our attitude about business, as taught in our colleges and universities.

Business Ethics Misconceived

Some time ago Neivsweek magazine ran a "My Turn" column (1989) by professor Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University who taught a term of business ethics at the Harvard Business School. The author, who has written, among other works, a book (1988) highly critical of neo-classical economics, spent the entire piece lamenting the meager interest his MBA students showed in the subject he was trying very hard to explain to them.

Etzioni's main complaint in the Newmek piece is that he "clearly had not found a way to help classes full of MBA's see that there is more to life than money, power, fame and self-interest." More specifically, the MBA students were disappointingly fond of business, including advertising. Some endorsed the idea of "consumer sovereignty," meaning that consumers have the chance to make up their minds as to what they will purchase, even in the face of the persuasive efforts of advertisers. Our author complained in the face of this belief, "But what about John Kenneth Galbraith's view [which] argues that corporations actually produce the demand for their products, together with whatever they wish to sell-say male deodorants." The implication was that the idea of consumer sovereignty is a myth-people are made to buy things by advertisements, not by their own considered judgments as they encountered the advertisements' messages.

Another complaint advanced by Eteioni was that the Harvard MBA's didn't wholeheartedly welcome his "ethical" criticism of corporate PACs. He notes that "scores of corporations encourage their executives to form political-action committees, and use the monies amassed to influence both Congress and state legislators.... One student said he liked PACs: 'Last summer, I worked for a corporation that has one. Its PAC allowed me to advance my economic interest. And I could use my vote in the ballot box to support those who agree with my international ideas.'"

After he informs us of all these horrible goings on, Etzioni asks, "So it's OK for corporate executives to have, in effect, two votes, while the rest of us have one?"

Professors aren't alone in bashing business. In an episode of the old TV program, The Saint, we get this exchange: "Everybody is interested in money. No, not Templar, not that much; too mentally stable." And if that seems like an unimportant source, let us recall what Charles Baudelaire had to say about business: 'Commerce is satanic, because it is the basest and vilest form of egoism. The spirit of every businessman is completely depraved.... Commerce is natural, therefore shameful (Baudelaire, 1957). History is replete with famous people saying demeaning things about commerce, from Plato's Socrates and Aristotle to Marx, Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and, of course, Arthur Miller, to name a few.

Consider Etzioni's substantive criticisms of business and its executives-they aren't at all telling. Although Etzioni never mentions it in his discussion, there is a powerful response to Galbraith's debunking (Baudelaire, 1957) of the consumer sovereignty doctrine. …

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