A Business Ethics Divide
One can slice business ethics into various types, but one of the most significant differences in the field is the starting point. Some want to start in the midst of current business conversations, and then try to move students or mangers toward a more “ethical” view of their work. Others want to start with a vision of where business students and managers should be and then try to move them in that direction.
If one is looking at business ethics as basically an ethic for managers as persons, it may make sense to begin where they are. If one sees business ethics as the ethics of business organizations and systems, on the other hand, then it probably makes sense to begin with a vision of where these organizations and systems would be if they were ethical.
My book on corporate integrity, for example, begins with the sentence: “What would organizations look like if they had integrity and how can we move them in that direction?” The book explores five “integrity challenges” that must be met for organizations to have integrity. The environmental challenge, for example, was to develop what I called “natural prosperity,” which would mean that instead of humans prospering at the expense of the rest of nature, both human and non-human communities would prosper together.
Civilizing the Economy is even more of a utopian book. It lays out a narrative that would move us away from the treatment of humans and nature as properties and move us toward a civic economics of provision where providers are treated as living beings. From the perspective of an economics of property, especially as formulated by Adam Smith, treating nature and humans with dignity would require a major transformation in our economic thinking. I just don’t see how it is possible to treat persons and nature a little less like property and make the changes we need to make for a just and sustainable economy. Making things better, in this case, is not good enough. We need to make better things.
I think that if business ethics is serious about the ethics of business organizations and the ethics of systems of provision, then it should have a vision of where we need to go, instead of assume that it is enough to improve whatever we are doing.