Profit cloaked as ethics?

Business Ethics at Work
November 24, 1995

My goodness, what huge ........!" Complete format with "diamonds" and await classic punchline: "Goodness, my dear, had nothing to do with it." Complete with "earnings per share" and be startled by contrasting response: "Goodness had everything to do with it" - if we are to believe Elizabeth Vallance's book.

That goodness secures good business profits is a crude thesis requiring dressing. Vallance obliges, serving the thesis, suitably garnished, as: ethical business pursues maximisation of long-term owner value, though this value includes nothing non-financial, such as pride in charitable works. It now looks as if goodness is lost and just anything constitutes ethical business providing it delivers financial maximisation. Fortunately, Vallance identifies some recognisable ethical concepts, satisfaction of which helps in the delivery, the concepts being common decency (covering honesty and responsibility towards stakeholders) and distributive justice. Businesses which ignore such values ultimately fail because, for example, duped customers spread the word. Vallance applies the values to specific areas, ranging across redundancy programmes, directors' duties and the environment.

If Vallance's ethical values promote financial value, it is lucky for us that they do. Were they not to (there is no logical connection between ethical values and financial deliverance), ethical business should reject them and non-owner stakeholder luck runs out - as does our understanding of the ethical. Business motivated thus permits neither employees nor consumers to rest, assured of being well treated. Compassion towards employees, advertising honesty - these are no part of the ethical business aim, but mere contingent means of aim achievement. Setting aside philosophical doubts about ethics being mere means to long-term (business) self-interest and the accompanying motivational instability, how secure is the factual claim that ethics delivers the goods? It is difficult to believe that torture equipment suppliers and cigarette manufacturers - and some food providers, fashion houses and newspapers - would flourish so if they dealt responsibly with all parties concerned. With high unemployment, does business need much current regard to employees' conditions and redundancy terms for long-term value?

When conflicts arise between stakeholders' interests, what is good for business, namely owner value maximisation, should, according to Vallance, determine outcomes; business which behaves otherwise is dishonest. Business ethics is but a tool to help achieve the maximisation aim, sustained discussion of whether the aim needs revision being absent. If this approach were right, works on slavery ethics should be satisfactory without assessment of whether slavery should exist, yet well-run slavery business, maximising slave-owner value and fulfilling expectations of parties concerned, is unlikely to benefit slaves. Exclusive religious sects, good at being exclusive, may harm some members; good marriages may repress extramarital activities which might otherwise be good for partners; and what is good business may be no good at all for some stakeholders, for example whistle-blowers and those employees whose values are not profit grounded. Applied ethics - be it of business, slavery, sects, marriage - needs to consider the possible revision of these man-made institutions, not merely how to be true to their aims and (if at all) their efficient organisation. Business and these other institutions are not protected species inhabiting tamper-free zones.

Being no book for philosophers, might the book benefit business practitioners, for whom it is primarily intended? Certainly, it is an excellent source for specific business dilemmas, with sensible discussion of values and choices; but dangers lurk of business merely using the book's ethical language to cloak what comes naturally - profit pursuit. If ethical word-play leads business to claim that what is good for business is good per se, then we see business marketing - but not business ethics - at work. Caveat emptor!

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

Business Ethics at Work

Author - Elizabeth Vallance
ISBN - 0 521 40535 1 and 40568 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00 and £10.95
Pages - 191

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