Firm principles

The Ethical Organisation
April 5, 1996

A popular local recipe for a serving of business ethics is the following. Take some case studies with strong European flavours, strengthen the actualite with sprinklings of company reports, policies and codes, marinade with theories, capturing utilitarian and deontological contrasting aromas, and - for hints of the Mediterranean - spice with virtue theory and Aristotelian allusions, garnishing with market morality. Marinading apart, Alan Kitson and Robert Campbell have followed the recipe well, having themselves contributed, and ordered from others, pertinent case studies and surveys, from British Airways's dirty tricks to the Cooperative Bank to coverage of management, purchasing and marketing.

The whole is oriented towards the organisation of companies, with Kitson and Campbell supplying layers of theoretical material. Corporate organisations, because of structural and decision-making complexity, are agents accountable for their actions. The argument that companies should just make money within the law because that is what they are best at is rightly dismissed. Money making requires, for example, the institution of promise keeping; so that is one identifiably moral value that companies should support. The authors seek greater corporate moral excellence than such minimally enlightened self-interest, so, given their stress on virtue in personal morality, it is disappointing that there is no exploration of how companies might possess virtues such as courage and modesty.

The book presents various identifying criteria for ethical organisations, though there is negligible comment on how these ways of moral pulse-taking interrelate. One approach towards corporate moral excellence demands a healthy reciprocity between corporate moral culture and employees' autonomy. Although this approach is described as "powerful", the power is elusive; questions of how corporate organisational excellence engage moral excellence remain largely unaddressed. Stakeholder analysis takes into account purchasers', suppliers' and workers' interests - but where does such analysis stand regarding consumers lured into nicotine addiction and, indeed, those consumers suffering from torture instruments supplied on time and according to contract?

Kitson and Campbell serve up a promising introduction as hors d'oeuvre, one rightly sensitive to interplays between practice and theory, but the main dish has too many themes. The book is, indeed, a textbook for business ethics and management students, with references to classroom questions and tendencies towards listings.

The book is best seen as delivering some pretty useful ingredients rather than itself being a ready-cooked meal. Arguably, with business ethics, it is better to have the raw materials underdone than overcooked.

Peter Cave is visiting lecturer in philosophy, City University, and course tutor in applied ethics, the Open University.

The Ethical Organisation: Ethical Theory and Corporate Behaviour

Author - Alan Kitson and Robert Campbell
ISBN - 0 333 62566 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £14.99
Pages - 252

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