Business Ethics

When business people speak about “business ethics” they usually mean one of three things: (1) avoid breaking the criminal law in one’s work-related activity; (2) avoid action that may result in civil law suits against the company; and (3) avoid actions that are bad for the company image. Businesses are especially concerned with these three things since they involve loss of money and company reputation. In theory, a business could address these three concerns by assigning corporate attorneys and public relations experts to escort employees on their daily activities. Anytime an employee might stray from the straight and narrow path of acceptable conduct, the experts would guide him back. Obviously this solution would be a financial disaster if carried out in practice since it would cost a business more in attorney and public relations fees than they would save from proper employee conduct. Perhaps reluctantly, businesses turn to philosophers to instruct employees on becoming “moral.” For over 2,000 years philosophers have systematically addressed the issue of right and wrong conduct. Presumably, then, philosophers can teach employees a basic understanding of morality will keep them out of trouble.

However, it is not likely that philosophers can teach anyone to be ethical. The job of teaching morality rests squarely on the shoulders of parents and one’s early social environment. By the time philosophers enter the picture, it is too late to change the moral predispositions of an adult. Also, even if philosophers could teach morality, their recommendations are not always the most financially efficient. Although being moral may save a company from some legal and public relations nightmares, morality in business is also costly. A morally responsible company must pay special attention to product safety, environmental impact, truthful advertising, scrupulous marketing, and humane working conditions. This may be more than a tight-budgeted business bargained for.

We cannot easily resolve this tension between the ethical interests of the money-minded businessperson and the ideal-minded philosopher. In most issues of business ethics, ideal moral principles will be checked by economic viability. To understand what is at stake, we will look at three different ways of deriving standards of business ethics.

Deriving Business Ethics from the Profit Motive.

Some businesspeople argue that there is a symbiotic relation between ethics and business in which ethics naturally emerges from a profit-oriented business. There are both weak and strong versions of this approach. The weak version is often expressed in the dictum that good ethics results in good business, which simply means that moral businesses practices are profitable. For example, it is profitable to make safe products since this will reduce product liability lawsuits. Similarly, it may be in the best financial interests of businesses to respect employee privacy, since this will improve morale and thus improve work efficiency. Robert F. Hartley’s book, Business Ethics, takes this approach. Using 20 case studies as illustrations, Hartley argues that the long-term best interests of businesses are served by seeking a trusting relation with the public (Hartley, 1993). This weak version, however, has problems.

First, many moral business practices will have an economic advantage only in the long run. This provides little incentive for businesses that are designed to exclusively to seek short-term profits. As more and more businesses compete for the same market, short-term profits will dictate the decisions of many companies simply as a matter of survival. Second, some moral business practices may not be economically viable even in the long run. For example, this might be the case with retaining older workers who are inefficient, as opposed to replacing them with younger and more efficient workers. Third, and most importantly, those moral business practices that are good for business depend upon what at that time will produce a profit. In a different market, the same practices might not be economically viable. Thus, any overlap that exists between morality and profit is both limited and incidental.

The strong version of this profit approach takes a reverse strategy and maintains that, in a competitive and free market, the profit motive will in fact bring about a morally proper environment. That is, if customers demand safe products, or workers demand privacy, then they will buy from or work for only those businesses that meet their demands. Businesses that do not heed these demands will not survive. Since this view maintains that the drive for profit will create morality, the strong version can be expressed in the dictum that good business results in good ethics, which is the converse of the above dictum. Proponents of this view, such as Milton Friedman, argue that this would happen in the United States if the government would allow a truly competitive and free market. But this strong view also has problems, since it assumes that consumers or workers will demand the morally proper thing. In fact, consumers may opt for less safe products if they know they will be saving money. For example, consumers might prefer a cheaper car without air bags, even though doing so places their own lives and the lives of their passengers at greater risk, which is morally irresponsible. Similarly, workers may forego demands of privacy at work if they are compensated with high enough wages. In short, not every moral business practice will simply emerge from the profit principle as suggested by either the weak or strong views.


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