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What Exactly is Business Ethics?

A cashier finds out that I teach business ethics and immediately straightens up out of her slouch and carefully counts out my change. A sales representative discovers I’m a business ethicist and responds, “Oh ___! how am I doing?” Others laugh at the apparent oxymoron of corporate morality.

Is business ethics about etiquette or keeping a strict moral code? As a business ethicist, am I simply a good behavior appraiser? The answer is yes . . . but not just that. While the field of business ethics includes the creation and enforcement of regulations, morality judgments tend to be considered at minimum legal and ethical levels.

The mere identification of immoral behavior is often unproductive and ineffective. A Ph.D. in business ethics is not required to decide that Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme is wrong. Professional business ethicists are not needed to confirm that the reward from Munich Re, the world’s biggest insurer, of prostitutes to top sales representatives is unethical. What’s interesting and useful is exploring the respective issues affecting companies on a daily basis−such as moral hazard (risking someone else’s property without taking on the associated responsibility) and how incentives affect corporate morale and production−in order to offer concrete reflection and practical solutions.

Our field excels in looking at acceptable business practices and economic systems requiring further analysis, including marketplace dilemmas which don’t have obvious answers. What are the benefits and drawbacks of capitalism and conservationism? Are sweatshop labor and outsourcing obvious evils? Should transcendent principles or “When in Rome . . .” govern international trade?

Many people believe that business ethics is a contradiction in terms at worst and an unenforceable set of real-world rules to live by at best. While improved individual behavior is a worthy goal of business ethics, a broad business ethical vision incorporates critical marketplace reflection at the systemic, corporate, and personal levels with realistic moral and economic change.

  1. August 16th, 2011 at 07:35 | #1

    Nice post.

    The notion that business ethics is a contradiction in terms is so foolish that anyone thinking about it for a few minutes should be able to realize the error. All commerce requires trust. Trust (if not mistaken) is rooted in ethical behaviour. So ALL commerce requires ethics. The problem is that some people in business don’t have high ENOUGH ethical standards. But that’s very different from saying the two never go together.

  1. June 21st, 2011 at 09:30 | #1
  2. September 10th, 2012 at 15:52 | #2