Business Ethics: A Moral Compass or A Way To Justify Actions

Yes, I checked an ethics book out of the library. For those of you that know me, this is decidedly uncharacteristic and maybe even a bit ironic. (@Middleman: those discussions in Business, Government, and Society come to mind!) And I’m not saying I’m unethical, just that I tend to gravitate towards the legality of an issue before I orient the moral compass north. Think of it as more of a magnetic north (legality) than the true north (ethics). In any case, while perusing the New Books section, I came across “The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics”. I was intrigued, not only because I find ethics to always be an interesting exploration, but also because it has some significant relevance to our upcoming discussions on Enron and “The Smartest Guys in the Room”. The handbook is presented as a philosophical discussion of hot button ethics issues that include executive pay, the environment, corruption, diversity, corporate lobbying, and about a dozen other topics. Each area is discussed in essay format and is presented by a different author. This consensus approach seems to add some validity to the book, as it is not simply one author’s ideas sprawled about over the 800 or so pages this book covers.

The question I pose about the importance of a book regarding business ethics is whether a document like this should act as a moral compass for an executive or as a way to justify existing behavior. My contention is that this type of book is at the mercy of the reader. How one chooses to examine the presented issues and derive value from the book is solely up to the reader. So as an executive, would you read this book as a way to guide moral thinking or read it in an attempt to find justification for existing behavior?

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One Response

  1. No one bit on the question, eh? Too bad. Well, there is still time.

    Do you think _any_ executive would pick up an 800 page anthology on ethics? OK, snark turned off.

    Your question is especially salient in light of thinking about Weick and retrospective rationality. All sorts of actions are undertaken due to the pressure of the moment and only afterwards is any attempt to explain rationally or morally made. This may not be due to conniving but due to the fundamental nature of action in the world.

    I appreciate your distinction between magnetic north (legality) and true north (morality). In writing terms, it would be nice if we had a parallel metaphor in the title. “Moral Compass or…” Expense report? Spin? Window dressing? Loss leader?

    When I have had these kinds of discussions with students, I am puzzled by this type of common comment: “I ma glad we learn about Enron and ethics because I wouldn’t want to do anything illegal.” Conforming to the law is hardly an ethical position as no free will is really invoked. Of course, there are so many complications. To name two:

  2. 1) Legal regimes encode past conflict on morality. See Sarbanes-Oxley or civil rights or women’s suffrage or prohibition for examples.
  3. 2) The boundaries around what is clearly legal or illegal are constantly contested making it difficult to imagine that business decisions can always be made in unambiguously legal terms. To complicate this, as we see in Enron, or in efforts to redefine torture by the US government, actors try to aggressively draw the boundaries around legal and illegal. Surely ethics and morality matters for that process?

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