Market price for morality

An Introduction to Business Ethics - Business Ethics
April 21, 1995

When I'm good, I'm good; when I'm bad I'm better." Although business - at least conventionally accepted business - was far from Mae West's mind, many would suppose her words to have business application. While business might profit when doing good - and might even profit through doing good - on occasion may not the bad (particularly if invisible to customers' eyes) secure better profit?

Resisting costs of improved disablement provision, marketing undesirable products to eager third-world consumers, careless treatment of animals, discouraging employees' openness on unsafe practices - these exemplify business self-interest falling away from the morally good; and only optimists and term redefiners would believe that promotion of enlightened self-interest captures all that businesses morally ought to do. Morality seeks to constrain action, unless agents are saintly built or rules but descriptions of existing practices rather than prescriptions for how practices should be. Such meta-ethical consideration provides common entry into business ethics, one well signposted by Tom Sorell and John Hendry in Business Ethics and displayed in George D. Chryssides and John H. Kaler's anthology, An Introduction to Business Ethics, both of which have European settings, unlike most available introductions.

As well as examining sources of business ethics' issues (scandal, for example, "is an uncertain indicator" of the unethical), Sorell and Hendry assess motivations - what moral worth attaches to businesses engaging in right action if for the wrong reasons? - and the value of vision and practice codes with which no self-respecting company these days is without. Shell once claimed credit for contributions to local communities, the form of thecontribution being, well, payments to distributors, suppliers and taxation payments to governments. How morally splendid we too must be, wryly note the authors, keeping fast food workers employed by our purchase of Big Macs.

An attractive feature of Sorell and Hendry's work is their sensitivity to such detail while attending to key ethical questions. Although big companies provide much raw material, small businesses and government policies are also examined, taking us from discriminatory elements in a driving school's satisfaction of consumer demand, to a store closure's community impact, to privatisation programmes and the Maastricht social chapter. Other attractions are the careful analyses, identifications of moral relevance and consistency quests, philosophy being the authoritative source of their approach.

Philosophy also offers normative theories, theories evaluating actions. Such theories, casting moral doubt on sole aims of profit maximisation, seek to widen circles of concern beyond those of shareholders. Recently Anglia TV's board was allegedly motivated solely by share price outcome in accepting a proposed merger. The widening moral circle embraces other stakeholders (employees, consumers, suppliers) and wider environments and societies. The supporting theories - Aristotelianism, Kantianism, Utilitarianism and "neo" revisions - typically are paraded in introductions; they are here. Such theories, applied to businesses, generate justifications for moral praise, blame or indifference. We might therefore examine a corporation's putative moral agency, one irreducible to that of employees and shareholders. Neo-Aristotelianism's central concepts include virtue, for example. Can corporations themselves be courageous, generous, self-respecting, with intentions and interests? Lapsing into a mythical animism, we might even ask what is it like to be British Airways? Without lapsing, Chryssides and Kaler explore the topic.

Once introduced, normative theories, while not receiving short shrift, secure only passing references from Sorell and Hendry, such as: this practice is consistent with Kantianism, that is utilitarian. Justificatory puzzles therefore remain; for these theories, without modification, resist this "pick and mix" (also found in Chryssides and Kaler). Kantianism permits no utilitarian switch on days when Kantian goings get tough. Theories themselves, however, require support, being promoted or dismissed as they fit or fail to fit pre-theoretical moral intuitions. Their appeal is their voicing of fundamental competing moral concerns: general welfare in utilitarianism, respect for persons in Kantianism and the flourishing virtuous character in Aristotelianism. Identifying such concerns both within and without business dispels ideas that business has a separate moral agenda or no moral agenda at all.

Sorell and Hendry are selective in topics; Chryssides and Kaler supply readings galore: authoring sound original introductory articles, European case studies and discussion questions. Fifteen per cent of readings are in Beauchamp and Bowie's earlier American collection; but this new improved combination of anthology favourites - Carr's business bluffing, Friedman's money-making as the sole business responsibility - with relevant pieces, from feminism to creative accounting, is to be recommended. Anthologies constitute staple dip-in diets of applied ethics' courses, appealing to sound-bite generations. Sorell and Hendry's work, displaying virtues of sustained, careful writing and consistency of approach, is well worth the cover-to-cover endeavour. With eyes on the eye-catching and target markets, even this non-anthology possesses lucky dip pretensions, its cover promoting a bumper list of companies covered; yet coverage is but a few lines in many cases. Good business or just good packaging? As Sorell and Hendry might say: packaging is no secure indicator of content.

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

An Introduction to Business Ethics

Author - George D. Chryssides and John H. Kaler
ISBN - 0 412 46080 7
Publisher - Chapman & Hall
Price - £19.99
Pages - 585pp

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