Business Ethics – a plea to ‘keep it simple’ in applied ethics

I’ve been reading a chapter on business ethics (from the Blackwell Companion to Philosophy). What struck me most, much more than the content, was the approach taken. There seems to me to be an unwelcome tendency present in applied ethics: a tendency to stick a discipline name in front of the word ‘ethics’ and then try and over-cultivate it as an academic field. I’ve felt this whilst delving into bioethics, and again, but more so, in business ethics.

Reputational Compliance

Reputational Compliance

Obviously, there are some very interesting problems associated with business ethics, things like:

  • problems of collective decision-making and responsibility;
  • about how to treat different kinds of stakeholders;
  • problems connected with globalisation;
  • how to balance competing duties;
  • the moral status of organisations;
  • and issues to do with behaving ethically when there are free-riders in abundance.

However, none of these issues and problems are restricted to business practices. Rather, they are the kind of problems moral and political philosophers grapple with all of the time in a variety of contexts. What the business ethicist seems to want to do (apologies to you if you are are business ethicist and I’m horribly mis-characterising you), is to develop special business ethics methodologies, frameworks, typologies, and terminologies, which they can illustrate with diagrams and figures. As an example, the chapter I’ve been reading contained one figure illustrating ‘The extended three-level conception of business ethics’, which ‘provides a framework to locate the plural affiliations of the economic actors in the current global context’.

This approach to an ethics sub-discipline looks more than a little forced and unnecessary to me. Part of the reason for this is that there seems to be a blurring between the descriptive and the prescriptive at work. It’s one thing to model how businesses view ethics and implement ethical codes, and to understand the various actors and interactions – that’s a nice empirical sociology project. It’s quite another to make claims about how agents and organisations should behave. In the latter case, all the various frameworks, typologies, methodologies, and terminologies seem much, much less relevant to issues at hand. For sure, in understanding how a business should treat its various stakeholders, it will be necessary to identify those stakeholders and find relevant differences between them, but I think I need convincing that that requires anything particular to the field of business ethics to get our ethical theorising going.

So, this post is my plea for applied ethicists to concentrate on the basics and to cut back on the field-specific frameworks and jargon. Ethical thinking is already complex enough: which moral theory should we adopt, who owes what to whom, how do we deal with conflicting duties, what values do we care about and how do we conceptualise them etc. I’d have thought that the last thing needed is an extra layer of complexity and a new specialist language to learn.



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