--Originally published at The Noble Leisure Project
Oxford’s Prof. Roger Crisp offers three senses in which to understand the term “business ethics” in his “A Defense of Philosophical Business Ethics” (in Shaw, Ethics at Work, 2003). The first is the “ethical outlook” of the actor; the second, the set of principles that should govern business behavior; the third, an area of philosophical enquiry. For business practitioners, the first and second of these should be of great importance, though Crisp argues forcefully that the third, in which the individual actually engages in moral philosophy before making business decisions, is essential (6). Perhaps there is a fourth. Business ethics also appears to be the system by which we make moral judgments in business settings and act upon them, assessing praiseworthiness and blame, justifying rewards and punishments. Although this may seem to flow from various policies or institutional practices, we can, and should, question whether these policies and practices are themselves ethical in nature. To the extent that the general concern of ethics is to provide the best reasons for doing what we ultimately do, parties in business situations should constantly evaluate whether their own moral judgments, and the way these take shape, contribute to reasons for behavior they neither intend nor desire.
In describing an ethical outlook, Crisp notes that sometimes this is “implied by behavior or explicitly stated” and that “behavior and statement can of course come apart” (2). We should ask whether this “coming apart” itself a matter of ethical concern. Perhaps the answer turns on whether the statement itself is intentional or aspiring. For example, there may be many reasons for a company to make a value statement like “the interests of our customers must come first.” This is likely to be an intentional statement, one designed to guide the behavior of its employees, but also to invite potential customers to chose this company over its rivals. When, inevitably, an employee places his own or the company’s interests ahead of the customer’s, where should we situate our moral evaluation: on the company, or the individual? If, making this statement, the company appears to have no real intention of standing by it, as we might observe from the way in which it habitually deals with its customers, the company would be morally blameworthy. Alternatively, a statement may be purely aspiring, e.g., “we will at all times strive to serve the best interests of all our stakeholders, including our investors, our employees, our counterparties and our communities.” When these interests conflict, as at times they surely must, we need to appeal to some defensible first principle in order to make an appropriate evaluation. In other words, we need to engage in philosophy.
Crisp raises and answers several objections to philosophical business ethics, among them, the problem of skepticism (2), of the abstractness (4) and idleness (7) of philosophy itself, and the inevitability of moral disagreement (9). Arguing against philosophical skepticism, Crisp notes, “a complete denial of the force of moral principles is implausible” (3). He posits rational self-interest as against such moral principles (3, 11) and offers up egoism as a form of skepticism. Yet this appears to deny the very philosophical questioning for which he advocates. Ethical egoism is itself a moral principle, one that states an action is right if and only if it is in our self-interest. Although this theory may be “hard to believe” (3) when applied to individuals, it is hard to deny when applied to businesses, or by extension, to individuals acting on behalf of businesses. The very purpose of a business appears to be its self-interest, and a wide range of moral philosophy is grounded in the idea that what is right is what is aligned with something’s purpose (teleology). We should no more expect a business to place outside interests ahead of its own than we should expect a player in a poker tournament to place the enjoyment of fellow contestants ahead of his interest in winning. It would be nice if he were to pursue that interest with a second eye to their enjoyment, but we would not condemn him if he did not. The poker analogy is a common one; whether it is morally relevant is the kind of question philosophical business ethics appears to require.
In his discussion of disagreement, Crisp rightly observes that “disagreement is consistent with there being a truth” (9), so the fact that its practitioners disagree should not be an argument against business ethics. But to point out that there is less disagreement than we might think, while likely the case, serves to lessen Crisp’s argument, rather than strengthen it. Crisp argues that we can have more than one reason for doing the right thing, and that seems quite right, when these happen to coincide. But the goal of philosophy is to uncover the truth, and what would be more “absurd” than not to accept more than one reason, would be to accept one reason we believe to be true along with another we believe to be false. While it may be that several theories will conclude that we should pay our debts and should not kill our competitors (10), the usefulness of understanding “the because” as Aristotle urges us to do (10) is that we can apply the principle to less obvious cases where multiple theories are likely to produce different results. Given the complexity of business situations and venues, this is where the importance of philosophical business ethics is most apparent.