Tag Archives: Business

Maurice Hamington and Maureen Sander-Staudt (eds.) Applying Care Ethics to Business (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011)

In her discussion she emphasised that women saw morality differently, were more occupied with their own situation, their relations to actual people around them, and how scholars and scientists should treat actual people in actual situations rather than just general rules for ethical reactions to events, persons, attitudes. This type of morality she called an ethic of care. In these thirty years since the publication of her book, care ethics have developed as a distinct view in ethics and might now even be counted as a major theory. Various authors have contributed to this development and if I should only name two, I think that Nel Noddings and Michael Slote should be mentioned.

Care ethics defines itself by starting with the fact that human beings are relational creatures meaning that they cannot develop and mature as human beings unless their relations to other human beings are normal. It is a moral fact of major importance that human beings are dependent beings and it is by and through their relations with other humans that they achieve moral maturity. Their moral sense develops as well by understanding the role of value of these relations and they become morally salient for it. This is not true just about female moral agents, but also about male moral agents.

It should come as no surprise that the central concept of this type of ethics, care, has already received various interpretations, and that the distinction between caring for and caring about has been clarified. It is fairly natural to expect that care ethics applies to intimate private life and it is easy to see how it can be broadened out to other areas, such as the health care system and education. Nodding has applied the care ethics to education convincingly and received support and wide following.

I admit that I have not been an enthusiastic supporter of this new trend in ethics. Care ethics seems naturally to flow into moral particularism, the idea that there are no general moral facts and hence no moral principles or moral laws; all we have is our moral sense, our ability to pick up moral characteristics in particular, embodied situations, and as our moral experience grows our moral sense becomes more skilled in discerning the moral characteristics. This seems to me to be implied by much of what is said about care ethics in this collection of essays. I do not want to doubt or argue for the merits of moral particularism, but if you want to believe it you must be prepared to argue for it, give good reasons for believing it. Much of what is said in these essays about other theories in ethics, such as consequentialism or deontology, is stereotyped with limited analysis and no feeling for the strengths of these theories. Sometimes it is as if it were an obvious truth that one should do away with general truths in ethics and limit oneself only to situational analyses and accept that there is no way to generalise about two situations where there are two different agents. But the fact that there are two agents in the same situation does not rule out the possibility that a general principle applies to both. It is also true to say that depriving you of all general principles makes it difficult if not impossible to decide in cases where limited goods have to be distributed among different agents. So there are serious questions to be asked about care ethics as it is laid out in these pages.

This does not preclude that there are many interesting analyses achieved here and a number of serious points about ethics in business. Applying care ethics in business is not the obvious choice from various ethical theories, it appears as a “Virginia Slim” ethic for women in business, as one of the authors puts it, not very promising and even a downright non-starter. But the authors succeed in arguing for a place for care ethics in thinking about ethics in business. It really is a serious contender for our attention in analysing and thinking about morality in the marketplace and its corporate agents. I think it is rightly pointed out that many influential theorists and politicians have believed that business and markets were somehow amoral, not constrained by the normal moral rules that we have to take into account in our everyday lives. But this is false. If anything should stare us in our face from the international tumult and collapse in global markets in 2008 and 2009, it is that markets and the corporate agents must act morally if markets are to be viable in the long run. This does not mean that it will be easy to affect this change in the players on the market because many of the largest ones, even though they had to accept large sums from public purses, still believe that they should go on as if nothing had happened.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part is called justice, distribution and economics and the papers address issues such as an overview of care ethic for organizations, an analysis of markets in terms of care ethics, a look at Adam Smith´s theory of the economy in terms of care ethic and an argument based on the care ethic for rejecting the free market. The second part is named corporate decision making and there are articles about stakeholder theory, the role of care ethics in corporate decision making and unintended consequences. The third part is about case studies and the authors discuss the enforcement of immigration in the workplace and care ethics, the possible role of care ethics in corporate competition and the exploitation of the homeless in TV series. The fourth and last part is about corporate culture and how the care ethic can contribute to the quality of that culture.

In many ways this is an interesting collection of articles, if for no other reason than that care ethic and business seem an unlikely match a priori. But the care ethic proves to be surprisingly resilient in the world of money, manhood and profits.

Jacob Dahl Rendtorff, Responsibility, Ethics and Legitimacy of Corporations (Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 2009)

The book has five parts, each building on the previous one and progressively going from general to particular. So, after the introduction, we find a section on globalization, value-driven management and business ethics. Then we find a section on business ethics and corporate social responsibility in different fields of business. Part 4 deals with legal and political developments and the challenges to global business ethics. The book culminates in part 5, describing and prescribing policy proposals for corporate strategy and the basic ethical principles for business ethics and corporate citizenship.

Rendtorff has a dialectic style, presenting an argument and its counterargument basically for all topics covered. This makes the 500-page-book dynamic and a pleasant reading.

The theories of business ethics are multiple, some more sophisticated than others. They range from a theory of profit maximization — where the firm or corporation is not an autonomous entity but the result of contractual obligations among individuals, — to a theory of corporate citizenship — where the firm/corporation is a non-human person with moral capacity and therefore responsibility toward others, including the environment and the community in which it operates, which can extend globally.

The adherence to ethical principles or ethical codes can be instrumental as well as a goal in itself. By engaging in ethical behaviors or socially responsible activities, firms may be more profitable. Employees will be happier and more productive in a morally supportive environment and customers with strong moral/social preferences will prefer dealing with firms that share the same goals and commitments. On the other hand, the meaning of a successful ethical code or responsible citizenship depends on actually believing in it, believing that is a goal in and of itself, rather than a mare marketing ploy.

I believe the questions Rendtorff asks, implicitly and explicitly, are immensely important and difficult, if not impossible, to answer. In my eyes this is the value of his contribution, in addition to extensively cover the current literature.

Rendtorff explicitly presents some potential tensions between profit motives and ethics motives, between stockholders and shareholders and between different stakeholders. Especially toward the end of the volume, when he describes the global corporation and its responsibilities, he hints at potential tensions, if not even clashes, between different ethical standards across different cultures.

Some of the questions that emerge from this book could be, for example: How does a theory of business ethics and corporate responsibility relate to economic theories spring off experimental results where subjects seems to indicate that income maximization may not be the sole motivational force in their behavior? What if a formal commitment to ethics and/or citizenship crowds out the more natural sense of fairness, as it is shown happening in many economic experiments?  How can we distinguish a firm that adopts an ethical code for moral reasons from one that adopts it for instrumental reasons? Under what conditions can a firm be ethical even if it is driven by profit maximization? What if profit maximization generates, unintentionally, more ethical results than an ethical motive? What if, as it is sometimes said, ‘hell is paved with good intentions’ and an ethical motive generates unethical consequences? What happens when the goals of autonomy, dignity, integrity, and vulnerability that a firm should have generate (unintended) consequences that destroy or undermine the autonomy, dignity, and integrity of some individuals? What if, to protect the natural environment from a disrupting pesticide such as the DDT, we let the mosquitoes carrying malaria live, and spread and cause the death of millions of people? What if, to protect the beautiful elephants, we are forbidden from killing them when they roam on the fields of African farmers, leaving them without crops, that is condemning them to starvation and death for malnutrition? What if, to protect the dignity and the jobs of some manufacturing workers in the West, we close down sweatshops in southeast Asia, preventing children from working in a factory and sending them to the next best source of income—prostitution?  What if, to stay within the West, a firm with strong ethical beliefs, grounded in religious beliefs, fires or refuses to hire a gay individual?

The questions Rendtorff asks, explicitly or implicitly, are relevant questions for both the development of this young discipline which has already made so much progress, and for the development of a better understanding of how we can live peacefully and prosper in a world where individuals and businesses can do what they are meant to do and do it in the best possible way.