Contemporary Reflections on Business Ethics

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There are few legal restrictions on the types of governance structures that firms can have. And some firms are in fact controlled by workers Dow ; Hansmann To insist that other firms should be governed this way is to say, according to this argument, that people should not be allowed to arrange their economic lives as they see fit. Another criticism of worker participation appeals to efficiency.

Allowing workers to participate in managerial decision-making may decrease the pace of decision-making, since it requires giving many workers a chance to make their voices heard Hansmann It may also raise the cost of capital for firms, as investors may demand more favorable terms if they are not given control of the enterprise in return McMahon Both sources of inefficiency may put the firm at a significant disadvantage in a competitive market. And it may not be just a matter of competitive disadvantage.

If it were, the problem could be solved by making all firms worker-controlled. The problem may be one of diminished productivity more generally. Business ethicists seek to understand the ethical contours of, and devise principles of right action for, business activity. One way of advancing this project is by choosing a normative framework and teasing out its implications for a range of issues in business. One influential approach to business ethics draws on virtue ethics see, e. For MacIntyre, there are certain goods internal to practices, and certain virtues are necessary to achieve those goods.

Building on MacIntyre, Moore develops the idea that business is a practice, and thus has certain goods internal to it, the attainment of which requires the cultivation of business virtues. Scholars have also been inspired by the Aristotelian idea that the good life is achieved in a community. They have considered how business communities must be structured to help their members flourish Hartman ; Solomon Another important approach to the study of business ethics comes from Kantian moral theory D. In a competitive market, people may be tempted to deceive, cheat, or manipulate others to gain an edge.

Ethical theory, including virtue theory and Kantian deontology, is useful for thinking about how individuals should relate to each other in the context of business cf. Rorty But business ethics also comprehends the laws and regulations that structure markets and organizations. And here political theory seems more relevant see and cf. This is not an easy task, since while Rawls makes some suggestive remarks about markets and organizations, he does not articulate specific conclusions or develop detailed arguments for them. But scholars have argued that justice as fairness: 1 is incompatible with significant inequalities of power and authority within businesses S.

Arnold ; 2 requires people to have an opportunity to perform meaningful work Moriarty ; cf. Hasan ; and requires alternative forms of 3 corporate governance Norman ; cf. Singer and 4 corporate ownership M. A version of this view can be found in McMahon , but it has been developed in most detail and is now most closely associated with Heath According to Heath, the reason we have a market-based economy, as opposed to a command economy, is because markets are more efficient.

But markets fail, due to imperfect information, externalities, transaction costs, and more. The state corrects for many market failures through regulation. We set limits on pollution and require truth in advertising, among other things. But we would not want, and we cannot write, regulations to address every market failure. This is where business ethics comes in, according to the MFA.

Business Ethics

Businesspeople have a moral obligation not to exploit the market failures that the law allows them to exploit. Put another way, the moral obligations of businesspeople are identified by the ideal regulatory regime—the one we would have if regulations were costless and written and administered by a godlike figure. Selecting a normative framework and applying it to a range of issues is an important way of doing business ethics. But it is not the only way.

Indeed, the more common approach is to identify a business activity and then analyze it using intuitions and principles common to many moral and political theories. The main way that firms interact with consumers is by selling, or attempting to sell, products and services to them. Many ethical issues attend this interaction. Among the things commonly said to be inappropriate for sale are sexual services, surrogacy services, and human organs. Some writers object to markets in these items for consequentialist reasons. They argue that markets in commodities like sex and kidneys will lead to the exploitation of vulnerable people Satz Others object to the attitudes or values expressed in such markets.

They claim that markets in surrogacy services express the attitude that women are mere vessels for the incubation of children Anderson ; markets in kidneys suggest that human life can be bought and sold Sandel ; and so on. Whether selling a particular thing for money expresses disrespect, they note, is culturally contingent. They and others also argue that the bad effects of markets in contested commodities can be eliminated or at least ameliorated through appropriate regulation, and that anyway, the good effects of such markets e.

Some things that firms may wish to sell, and that people may wish to buy, pose a significant risk of harm, to the user and others. When is a product too unsafe to be sold? This question is often answered by government agencies. In the U. In some cases these standards are mandatory e. The state identifies minimum standards and individual businesses can choose to adopt higher ones.

Questions about product safety are a matter of significant debate among economists, legal scholars, and public policy experts. Legal scholars have also devoted considerable attention to tort law, the area of law that deals with cases of non-contractual, non-criminal harm. But business ethicists have paid scant attention to these questions.

Existing treatments often combine discussions of safety with discussions of liability—the question of who should pay for harms that products cause—and tend to be found in business ethics textbooks. There is much room for exploration of these issues. Drop side cribs pose risks to consumers; so do chainsaws. On what basis should the former be prohibited but the latter not be Hasnas ? On the question of liability, an important issue is whether it is fair to hold manufacturers responsible for harms that their products cause, when the manufacturers are not morally at fault for those harms Piker Most advertising contains both an informational component and a persuasive component.

Advertisements tell us something about a product, and try to persuade us to buy it. Both of these components can be subject to ethical evaluation.

Issues in Business Ethics | Mollie Painter | Springer

Emphasizing its informational component, some writers stress the positive value of advertising. Markets function efficiently only when certain conditions are met. One of these conditions is perfect information: minimally, consumers have to understand the features of the products for sale. While this condition will never be fully met in reality, advertising can help to ensure that it is met to a greater degree Heath Another value that can be promoted through advertising is autonomy.

People have certain needs and desires—e. Their choices are more likely to satisfy their needs and desires if they have information about what is for sale, which advertising can provide Goldman These good effects depend, of course, on advertisements producing true beliefs, or at least not producing false beliefs, in consumers. The issue here is not whether deceptive advertising is wrong—most believe it is cf. Child —but what counts as deceptive advertising, and what makes it wrong.

Its advertisements were deceptive, and therefore wrong, because they appeared to make a true claim, but in fact made a false claim. But many advertisements that do not seem deceptive make false or unverifiable claims. It is common to say of these types of claims that they are not warranted as true, and so cannot deceive Carson Yet these claims may in fact deceive some people. Advertisements are deemed deceptive when a reasonable person, not any person at all, is deceived. This makes deception in advertising a matter of results in consumers, not intentions in advertisers.

Many reasons have been offered for why deceptive advertising is wrong. One is the Kantian claim that deceiving others is disrespectful to them, a use of them as a mere means. Deceptive advertising may also lead to harm, to consumers who purchase suboptimal products, given their desires and competitors who lose out on sales. A final criticism of deceptive advertising is that it erodes trust in society Attas When people do not trust each other, they will either not engage in economic transactions, or engage in them only with costly legal protections.

The persuasive component of advertising is also a fruitful subject of ethical inquiry. Galbraith , an early critic, thinks that advertising, in general, does not inform people how to acquire what they want, but instead gives them new wants. Moreover, since we are inundated with advertising for consumer goods, we want too many of those goods and not enough public goods. Hayek rejects this claim, arguing that few if any of our desires are independent of our environment, and that anyway, desires produced in us through advertising are no less significant than desires produced in us in other ways.

Galbraith is concerned about the persuasive effects of advertisements. In contrast, recent writers focus on persuasive techniques that advertisers use. Some of these are alleged to cross the line into manipulation. It is difficult to define manipulation precisely, though many attempts have been made see, e. For our purposes, manipulative advertising can be understood as advertising that attempts to persuade consumers, often but not necessarily using non-rational means, to make irrational or suboptimal choices, given their own needs and desires see and cf.

Associative advertising is often held up as an example of manipulative advertising. In associative advertising, the advertiser tries to associate a product with a positive belief, feeling, attitude, or activity which usually has little to do with the product itself.

Thus many television commercials for trucks in the U. Commercials for body fragrances associate those products with sex between beautiful people. The suggestion is that if you are a certain sort of person e. Crisp argues that this sort of advertising attempts to create desires in people by circumventing their faculty of conscious choice, and in so doing subverts their autonomy cf. Arrington ; Phillips Lippke argues that it makes people desire the wrong things, encouraging us to try to satisfy our non-market desires e.

How seriously we take these criticisms may depend on how effective we think associative and other forms of persuasive advertising are. Our judgments on this issue may be context-sensitive. Paine Paine et al. But children, she argues, do not have the capacity for making wise consumer choices see also E. Moore Thus advertising directed at children—as opposed to advertising of products for children directed at adults—constitutes a form of objectionable exploitation. Other populations who may be similarly vulnerable are the senile, the ignorant, and the bereaved. Ethics may require not a total ban on marketing to them but special care in how they are marketed to Brenkert Sales are central to business.

Perhaps surprisingly, business ethicists have said little directly about sales. But much of what is said about advertising also applies to sales. Salespeople are, in a sense, the final advertisers of products to consumers. They provide benefits to consumers in much the same way as advertisers and have the same ability to deceive or manipulate consumers. Carson works out a detailed theory of ethics for salespeople.

Carson justifies 1 — 4 by appealing to the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. He identifies two other duties that salespeople might have he is agnostic : 5 do not sell customers products that you the salesperson think are unsuitable for them, given their needs and desires, without telling customers why you think this; and 6 do not sell customers poor quality or defective products, without telling them why you think this.

For the most part, 1 — 4 ask the salesperson not to harm the customer; 5 and 6 ask the salesperson to help the customer, in particular, help her not to make foolish mistakes. Whether salespeople should help customers in this way may depend on how adversarial their relationship should be. The broader issue here is one of disclosure. But there is no consensus on what information is relevant to a purchasing decision, or what reasonable people want to know. For many products bought and sold in markets, sellers offer an item at a certain price, and buyers take or leave that price. But in some cases there is negotiation over price and other aspects of the transaction.

The locus classicus for this debate is Carr According to him, bluffing in negotiations is permissible because business has its own special set of rules and bluffing is permissible according to these rules. Carson agrees that bluffing is permissible in business, though in a more limited range of cases than Carr. If you have good reason to believe that your adversary in a negotiation is misstating her bargaining position, then you are permitted to misstate yours.

A requirement to tell the truth in these circumstances would put you at a significant disadvantage relative to your adversary, which you are not required to suffer. That is, the prices of goods and services are set by the aggregate forces of supply and demand; no individual is able to buy or sell a good for anything other than the market price.

In reality, things are different. Sellers of goods have some flexibility about how to price goods. Most business ethicists would accept that, in most cases, the prices at which products should be sold is a matter for private individuals to decide. This view has been defended on grounds of property rights. Some claim that if I have a right to X , then I am free to transfer it to you on whatever terms that I propose and you accept Boatright It has also been defended on grounds of welfare.

Prices set by the voluntary exchanges of individuals reveal valuable information about the relative demand for and supply of goods, allowing resources to flow to their most productive uses Hayek Despite this, most business ethicists recognize some limits on prices. One issue that has received attention recently is price discrimination. This is widely regarded as wrong. Economists tend to think that price discrimination is valuable insofar as it enables firms to increase output.

But the moral status of it is less clear. When it was revealed that Staples and other online retailers were charging consumers in different zip codes different prices for the same products at the same time, consumers were outraged. But some writers argue that this practice is no worse than movie theaters giving discounts to children Elegido ; Marcoux The problem may be that Staples and others engaged in this practice without disclosing it.

Another issue of pricing ethics is price gouging. Price gouging can be understood as a sharp increase in the price of a necessary good in the wake of an emergency which renders that good scarce. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in , for example, many retailers charged very high prices for water and gasoline. Many jurisdictions have laws against price gouging, and it is widely regarded as unethical Snyder But some theorists defend price gouging. While granting that sales of items in circumstances like these are exploitative, they note that they are mutually beneficial.

Both the seller and buyer prefer to engage in the transaction rather than not engage in it. Moreover, when items are sold at inflated prices, this attracts more sellers into the market. Permitting price gouging may thus be the fastest way of eliminating it Zwolinski For further discussion, see the entry on exploitation.

Most contemporary scholars believe that sellers have wide, though not unlimited, discretion in how much they charge for goods and services.

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Business ethicists have written much about the relationship between employers and employees. Most of this writing has inquired into the obligations that employers owe to employees. This may be because employers usually have more power than employees, and so have greater discretion in how they treat employees, than employees have in how they treat employers. Another important topic in this area is privacy. For space reasons this topic will not be discussed, but see the entries on privacy and privacy and information technology.


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Ethical issues in hiring and firing tend to focus on the question: What criteria should employers use, or not use, in employment decisions? The question of what criteria employers should not use is addressed in discussions of discrimination. While there is some debate about whether discrimination in employment should be legally prohibited see Epstein , almost everyone agrees that it is morally wrong Hellman ; Lippert-Rasmussen Discussion has focused on two questions. First, when does the use of a certain criterion in an employment decision count as discriminatory? It seems wrong for Wal-Mart to exclude white applicants for a job in their marketing department, but not wrong for the Hovey Players a theater troupe to exclude white applicants for a production of A Raisin in the Sun.

We might say that whether a hiring practice is discriminatory depends on whether the criterion used is job-relevant. Suppose that white diners prefer to be served by white waiters rather than black waiters. In this case race seems job-relevant, but it also seems wrong for employers to take race into account Mason Another question that has received considerable attention is: What makes discrimination wrong?

Some argue that discrimination is wrong because of its effects on those who are discriminated against Lippert-Rasmussen ; others think that it is wrong because of what it expresses to them Hellman For further discussion, see the entry on discrimination. According to them, employers have a duty to hire the most qualified applicant. Some justify this duty by appealing to considerations of desert D. Miller ; others justify it by appealing to equal opportunity Mason The standard challenge to this view appeals to property rights Kershnar A job offer typically implies a promise to pay the job-taker a sum of your money for performing certain tasks.

While we might think that excluding some ways you can dispose of your property e. In support of this, we might think that a small business owner does nothing wrong when she hires her daughter for a part-time job as opposed to a more qualified stranger. Many of the same ethical issues that attend hiring also attend firing. There has been a robust discussion of the ethics of firing in the business ethics literature.

Most would say that it is wrong for an employer to terminate an employee for some reasons, e. Thus the debate is between those who think that employers should be able to terminate employees for any reason with some exceptions , and those who think that employers should be able to terminate employees only for certain reasons.

Arguments for at will employment appeal to freedom or macroeconomic effects. Business organizations generate revenue, and some of this revenue is distributed to their employees in the form of pay. Since the demand for pay typically exceeds the supply, the question of how pay should be distributed is naturally analyzed as a problem of justice. Two general theories of justice in pay have attracted attention. This view is sometimes justified in terms of property rights.

Employees own their labor, and employers own their capital, and they are free, within broad limits, to dispose of it as they please Boatright According to it, the just wage for a worker is the wage that reflects her contribution to the firm. This view comes in two versions.

On the absolute version, workers should receive an amount of pay that equals the value of their contributions to the firm D. On the comparative version, workers should receive an amount of pay that reflects the relative value of their contributions to the firm, given what others in the firm contribute and are paid Sternberg The contribution view strikes some as normatively basic, a view for which no further argument can be given D.

The pay of any employee in a firm can be evaluated from a moral point of view, using the two theories sketched above. But business ethicists have paid particular attention to the pay of certain groups of employees, viz. There has been a robust debate about whether CEOs are paid too much Moriarty a , with scholars falling roughly into two camps. Reiff There has also been a robust debate about whether workers in sweatshops are paid too little. They say that sweatshops wages, while low by our standards, are not low by the standards of the countries in which the sweatshops are located.

This explains why people choose to work in a sweatshop: it is the best offer they have. Efforts to increase artificially the wages of sweatshop workers, according to these writers, is misguided on two counts. First, it is an interference with the autonomous choices of employers and workers. Second, it is likely to make workers worse off, since employers will respond by either moving operations to a new location or employing fewer workers in that location.

Other writers challenge these claims. While granting that workers choose to work in sweatshops, they deny that their choices are voluntary D. Given their very low wages, this suggests that sweatshop workers are exploited. Moreover, some argue, appealing to a Kantian duty of beneficence, that firms can and should do more for sweatshop workers Snyder Smith [] famously observed that a detailed division of labor greatly increases the productivity of manufacturing processes. To use his example: if one worker performs all of the tasks required to make a pin himself, he can make just a few pins per day.

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