Foundation and Form of the Field of Business Ethics

By Ryan, Lori Verstegen | Journal of Private Enterprise, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Foundation and Form of the Field of Business Ethics


Ryan, Lori Verstegen, Journal of Private Enterprise


The common quip that "business ethics is an oxymoron" has its roots in the general public's disbelief that businesspeople regularly engage in ethical behavior. Even if they do so at home, they assume, once within the confines of the corporate arena, they revert to a Hobbesian form of brurishness. Surprisingly, those working in the academic field of business ethics are similarly skeptical of business actors' behavior, and generally see their mission as the reform of both capitalism and capitalists.

This article will explore the genesis of the field's critical stance on markets and businesspeople, and examine its primary critiques. It will also briefly outline the work being done by the minority of free-market scholars who engage the field and suggest how this "defensive" position could be shored up.

Narrowing the Scope

The field of "business ethics" may seem somewhat amorphous to the layperson, but it has relatively clear boundaries in academic circles. Within the structure of philosophical thought, "ethics" examines how people should conduct themselves, and, under that umbrella, business ethics is an "applied ethics" field much like medical ediics or journalistic ethics. Within the field of business ethics itself, a strong dichotomy exists between psychological work (e.g., businesspeople's moral decision-making methods) and normative theory (i.e., how people should behave in a business context). With one important exception, discussed below, few attempt to bridge the divide, given the philosophical injunction concerning the "is-ought" dichotomy.

Notably, within the business-school academy, several specialties focus on ethical issues. The accounting field has its own code of professional ethics, and its issues now merit a dedicated journal, the Journal of Accounting, Ethics & Public Policy, and "accounting ethics" workshops hosted by the American Accounting Association. Similarly, "marketing ethics" research is published in marketing journals and discussed in dedicated workshops co-hosted by the American Marketing Association. Even respected finance journals publish (notably classical liberal) articles on ethics topics; the specialized needs of this field have also resulted in two book-length treatments focused specifically on ethics in finance. The Management discipline, however, is the center of the field in American business schools, and home both to business-ethics courses and to the most influential journals in the field of "business ethics." The most visible journals, the prestigious Business Ethics Quarterly and the near-monthly Journal of Business Ethics, have established area editors in these other business-school specialties, in an effort to be more inclusive of marketing, accounting, and even legal scholarship.

This discussion, then, will limit itself to the Management-based academic field of "business ethics," from the perspective of the United States, which is widely agreed to be slightly more conservative in tone than the equally robust European field. While die area is also treated in a variety of topical-including free-market-oriented-journals, those discussions remain outside the academic conversation being examined here.

Foundations of the Field

The field of business ethics was destined to be economically and politically liberal, in die modern and not the classical sense, given its dual genesis in business schools and philosophy departments. The field's business-school roots can be traced back to the University of California-Berkeley in the 1960s, where many of the first leaders of the nascent Business and Society field worked or were trained. Early research in this area focused on corporations' "social responsibilities" and sought economic reforms to assuage the inequalities perceived to be inherent in capitalism. These liberal scholars, resident in business schools' Management departments, helped to establish the broader "social issues in management" field that later spawned the more specialized area of business ethics. …

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