[back to archive]
P H I L O S O P H Y F O R B U S I N E S S ISSN 2043-0736
Issue number 51
31st January 2009
I. 'What Do I Do Now? Three Kierkegaardian strategies after failing to be
promoted' by Neil Abramson
II. 'CSR as an Ethical Dilemma' by Geoffrey Klempner
III. Ethical Dilemmas Now Online
Associate Professor Neil Abramson didn't retreat and lick his wounds after
failing to achieve promotion to a full professorship. Instead, he wrote an
article analysing the philosophical implications of his experience. The result
is a very useful mini-introduction to Kierkegaard's philosophy, and the
distinction between the aesthetic, ethical and religious standpoints. Hopefully,
it will also encourage others in a similar situation to discover the value of
philosophical reflection when faced with adverse personal circumstances.
After some thought and deliberation, we have decided to make the ten units of
the Business Pathways Ethical Dilemmas program free to download. There is still
a fee for those who wish to take the program and avail themselves of the
opportunity to submit work for review and discuss the arguments of the program
with its author.
In this issue of Philosophy for Business, I have included the full text of
Ethical Dilemmas Unit 9, returning to the controversial theme of Corporate
Social Responsibility. My new contribution to the debate is to locate the
question of CSR within the context of ethical dilemmas, which is a challenge
for moral philosophy generally and not only business ethics.
I. 'WHAT DO I DO NOW? THREE KIERKEGAARDIAN STRATEGIES AFTER FAILING TO BE
PROMOTED' BY NEIL ABRAMSON
Every year at my university, two or three associate professors are refused
promotion to full professor. Even though they have the right to be reconsidered
after an additional two years, most never seem to re-apply. I have been my
faculty association's Tenure and Promotion Advisor (TPA) for the past 6 years
so I see many promotion cases, acting as advocate for the candidate. I cannot
recall a single case where someone refused re-applied though I am told that it
has happened. It is a curious situation. Persons highly motivated to achieve
promotion do not seem motivated to re-apply at their earliest opportunity. I
have wondered whether the rejection itself negatively affects one's continued
motivation for career advancement. Recently, my own promotion application was
rejected, and it has become a personal question.
The judgment to accept or reject a promotion application always seems to
represent a subjective process, producing great uncertainty for the candidate.
Objective advancement criteria are defined in general terms but lack clear
performance standards and benchmarks for performance. A tenure and promotion
committee (TPC), a group of anonymous external referees, and a Dean will each
decide, assessing whether the specific achievements of the candidate fit the
general criteria. In my Faculty, a candidate for promotion must show 'evidence
of continuing growth,' 'a deepening of research activity' since promotion to
associate, and a 'national and/ or international reputation.' S/he must have
demonstrated a 'record of ongoing significant research' by publishing in high
quality journals. S/he must also be effective at teaching and have suitable
Specific benchmarks for these criteria are not defined. Evaluators must
estimate the value of the candidates' achievement based on their own experience.
Usually there is no consensus even as to what constitutes a high quality
journal. As a result, the criteria seem to vary depending on who does the
evaluation, and who is being evaluated. I saw one case where perceived
collegiality deficits blocked a candidate with high research and teaching
achievements even though collegiality is not a stated criterion. In my own
Faculty, a candidate with lower numbers of refereed articles was promoted,
while two years later a similar candidate with 50% more refereed articles was
blocked, apparently because the new TPC had higher standards. This 'changing of
the guard' of the evaluators -- new TPC members, new external referees, new dean
-- adds great uncertainty for candidates that have been rejected. How can the
candidate be sure that following the recommendations of the evaluators that
rejected him/ her, will bring future success with a new group of evaluators?
I was rejected for the quality of my research. While four external referees
were positive, one was negative, and one was ambivalent, the TPC concluded that
in sum, it 'has mixed assessments of [my name's] scholarly activity that range
from very poor to poor.' Teaching and service were judged fine, so the TPC
recommended that I write more articles for 'high quality and influential
refereed academic journals' and not publish in 'lower tier publication outlets.'
I now have to choose whether I should continue to work hard, trying to get
myself promoted in another couple of years, or to accept that it is unlikely
that I will be promoted and to try to make the best of things as they are. I
had thought that I had been working hard, and successfully following an
effective promotion strategy. Being a careful person, I had consulted with my
mentor and other senior colleagues. All encouraged me to apply. I am sure that
most failed promotion candidates are equally sure of the validity of their
cases prior to rejection. Having been so sure that I was on the right track
before, I wonder if my future efforts will prove equally fruitless. It is a
temptation to take a more relaxed attitude and attempt to meet my need for
achievement outside the workplace. I suppose this is the thinking of many who
do not re-apply.
I understand that my choice will define who I am, and who I become as a person.
Kierkegaard argued, 'we are what we do' (Caputo, 2007). I will be a different
person if I struggle for promotion, than if I relax into defeat. I must find
the truth that is true for me, 'the idea for which I am willing to live and die,
' and that truth will define 'what I am to do' (Kierkegaard, 1996).
Kierkegaard defined three kinds of motivation. I see that I am free to choose
between them as strategies for what to do now.
The Aesthetic Motivation
As an aesthetic, I will be unable to choose between the course of action I had
originally followed, and the course of action recommended by the evaluators. I
will equivocate, accomplish nothing, and will have no future case for promotion.
I will not, however, be unhappy because I will seek my satisfactions from the
context of my personal life, accepting that eventually every career path is
Kierkegaard (1992) observed that psychologically, most people were aesthetics.
I assume, therefore, that most candidates refused promotion may be
aesthetically motivated. This is surely not the motivation that the evaluators
seek to instill in those they reject. The evaluators hope to redirect
candidates into a more fruitful path so that candidates will achieve at a level
more comparable to their peers who have successfully been promoted.
Unfortunately, the rejection may have the unintentional effect of reduced
motivation and performance.
Kierkegaard defined the aesthetic motivation as essentially epicurean --
devoted to a life of pleasure seeking as opposed to a life defined as a
principled and ethical existence (Caputo, 2007). Aesthetics prefer less
demanding solutions because they prefer to make less effort. The lowest effort
solution is never to choose, take a stand or make a decision. Then the aesthete
will not suffer opposition or negative consequences. As Caputo (2007) put it; '
the whole idea in 'aestheticism' is to station oneself decisively in the field
of indecision and freedom from choice' (p. 27). Aesthetes use the 'rotation
method' where many project ideas are offered but none ever actualized.
From the point of view of the organization, this is not a moral position
because the aesthete may talk a good game, but evades his/ her organizational
responsibilities. Kierkegaard agreed, observing that the aesthete did not adopt
a moral position but only sought to satisfy him/ herself. The aesthetic
motivation produces 'deadwood' -- someone not motivated to engage in any
organizationally valued activity. From the aesthete's point of view, however,
the goal of pleasure is achieved when the need for promotion is sublimated into
advancement in non-work related personal or volunteer activities. Accepting that
promotion is out-of-reach, the deadwood realizes that s/he is well paid compared
with other professionals. Even 'deadwood' receives annual negotiated salary
increases if not merit bonuses. Giving up the goal of promotion, the aesthete
metaphorically deserts the organization for a life outside of work.
The Ethical Motivation
In the ethical, I will compromise my original course of action, to follow the
evaluators' recommendations. I will actively seek the pro-offered reward of
promotion, and attempt to avoid the punishment of further rejection by
cooperating. If I cooperate while not being convinced that the recommended path
will lead surely to promotion, then I will become what Kierkegaard calls a '
Knight of Infinite Resignation' (Kierkegaard, 1985). I will pursue the ideal of
promotion while thinking it absurdly unlikely that I will succeed because new
evaluators will have new and unknowable expectations.
This is the motivation the evaluators seek to instill. The candidate is
expected to accept the universal ethic of the profession, that his/ her work
will be evaluated by the peer review of those already promoted. A candidate
whose production is deemed insufficient is guided towards a path that the
evaluators understand to be the most efficacious. From the evaluators' point of
view, this is a reasonable expectation on the order of the categorical
imperative (Kant, 1990): 'I ought never to act in such a way that I could not
also will that my maxim should be a universal law' (Sullivan, 1995). A
candidate seeking to aspire to full professor status must achieve the required
standard because if all professors were allowed to achieve less, the brand
would be diluted. Seeking to achieve less, and also seeking promotion, is to
adopt a private morality of personal exemption that Kant regarded as morally
reprehensive, or even 'evil' if intentional. The rejected candidate is asked to
put aside the path s/he has followed, to follow the path defined by the
evaluators. The candidate accepts being committed to his/ her own path only to
the degree that it conforms to the peer review defined compromise.
My own truth that that I am metaphorically 'willing to live and die for,' is
the desire to do business ethics research. I returned to school from industry
to do my PhD in business ethics. If I am not doing business ethics, I cease to
be myself because 'I am what I do.' I am not sure that I could accept a
compromise that did not include business ethics research.
Yet my evaluators seem to discourage business ethics publications because they
cannot agree what would constitute a top quality business ethics journal. One
of the refereed publications that I submitted to the evaluators appeared in the
Journal of Business Ethics (JOBE). I regard JOBE as the premiere journal of
academic business ethics research. When we hired an ethics professor, my senior
colleagues supported one candidate expressly because s/he had three JOBE
publications. I note, however, that the evaluators are not in agreement about
JOBE. Referees 3 and 6 state that JOBE is a top journal. Referee 4 says that it
is a top journal but classifies it together with another journal that other
evaluators regard as 2nd tier. Referee 5 states that JOBE is 2nd tier or lower.
Referee 2 makes no reference, and referee 1 says that s/he has never heard of
JOBE. Nor would I be encouraged to publish in a practitioner journal like
Philosophy for Business because the evaluators do not regard practitioner
articles highly. I have several, of course, because I studied in an applied
To satisfy the evaluators, I must cooperate. If I must publish in top journals
that generally do not publish business ethics articles, then I must publish
something else, abandoning my own truth and accepting that I have been guided
to become a different person. Losing my reason for being, I would become what
Kierkegaard calls a 'Knight of Infinite Resignation.' I would have given up
hope that I could achieve the truth I sought. I would cooperate out of duty but
without enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm, I think my work productivity would
suffer. In addition, I would be skeptical that the next group of evaluators
would agree with this group, finding me unworthy because my productivity had
declined from my last application. It would be absurd if they did not.
The Pure Motivation
In the pure, I would adhere to the truth and the values that illuminated the
path deemed inadequate by the evaluators, and reject the notion that rewards or
punishments should be allowed to interfere with my pursuit of what I have
regarded as true for me (Kierkegaard, 1956). I would become a 'Knight of Faith'
(Kierkegaard, 1985) -- faithful to my own vision of what is true and important,
refusing to become a different person by changing what I do. Yet even though I
know that this uncompromising attitude would seem to make it absurd that I will
be promoted, I would still have faith that my truth will be recognized and I
will be promoted.
Kierkegaard considered the pure motivation as the highest existential morality
because the individual remained true to him/ herself, even in the face of
criticism and rejection -- like Freud, or Jung or Christ. By compromising one's
highest value, 'perhaps you killed the wish and became spiritually like dead
flesh that feels no pain' (Kierkegaard, 1956, 154). By insisting on 'the truth
that is true for me' (Kierkegaard, 1996), one achieves what Heidegger (1962)
called 'authentic resoluteness' -- where one assumed responsibility for one's
past and future, committed oneself to a course of action, and accepted the
consequences. Purity is not, however, a clever strategy, and may bring
suffering in the form of withheld rewards and additional punishments in the
form of ridicule, and perceived irrelevance and uncooperativeness as one
refuses to conform to the universal professional ethic of peer review. As
Kierkegaard pointed out, the clever wo/man plays the politician and schmoozes
his/ her way to promotion while the sincere idealist foolishly clings to a
rejected value. Yet I would imagine that the wo/man whose commitment is so
great is more likely to produce quality than the clever politician who sways in
the breeze. As a Knight of Faith, I would agree that it was absurd to hope in
such a hopeless situation, but as Kierkegaard (1985) said, 'For God anything is
possible.' I would continue to hope for promotion, putting my faith in who I am.
Yet, my peers' approbation might discourage an early re-application for
promotion as likely to be refused.
It is a paradox that seeking to remain pure in one's existential commitment to
truth is also the private morality standing against the categorical imperative
of the many that Kant regarded as evil. Pragmatically speaking, the ethical
motivation is the best strategy if I truly seek to be promoted, but the mixed
motives of pragmatism sacrifice the motivation gained from my commitment to my
truth. It is an irony that my evaluators, representing the organization, place
a greater value on political astuteness than on sincerity and unmixed
commitment. I see, however, that insistence on purity is a danger to the
organization. The pure individual cannot be controlled by rewards and
punishments, nor can s/he be trusted to conform. I should choose the ethical
course, becoming a Knight of Infinite Resignation skeptically motivated by duty
and politics. Would that I had the courage to be a Knight of Faith!
Caputo, John D. (2007). How to Read Kierkegaard. New York: W.W. Norton.
Heidegger, Martin (1962). Being and Time (trans. John Macquarrie & Edward
Robinson). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
Kant, Immanuel (1990). Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (trans. Roger J.
Sullivan). New York: Macmillan.
Kierkegaard, Soren (1996). Papers and Journals: A Selection (trans. Alastair
Hannay). London: Penguin.
Kierkegaard, Soren (1992). Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (trans. Alastair
Hannay). London: Penguin.
Kierkegaard, Soren (1985). Fear and Trembling (trans. Alastair Hannay). London:
Kierkegaard, Soren (1956). Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (trans. Douglas
V. Steere). New York: HarperOne.
Sullivan, Roger J. (1995). An Introduction to Kant's Ethics. Cambridge:
(c) Neil Abramson 2008
Neil R. Abramson, MBA, PhD
Simon Fraser University
Segal Graduate School of Business
500 Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada
II. 'CSR AS AN ETHICAL DILEMMA' BY GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
Social responsibility as an ethical dilemma
The idea that companies should strive to be socially responsible has generated
huge debate, yet with very little movement from entrenched positions. When
approached from the point of view of the study of ethical dilemmas, it is not
difficult to see why. We are, at one and the same time, ethical beings and
players in the business arena. There is no logical reason why the duties and
responsibilities of a citizen, spouse, parent, or friend should always be
consistent with the duties and responsibilities of a director, manager, board
member or employee. While most of the time in our day-to-day activities we may
not experience any conflict between these different roles -- indeed one hopes
there would not be a clash otherwise the simplest decisions would become
impossible -- in a complex, imperfect world such conflict is inevitable and
We saw back in unit 2 how, faced with the challenge of ethical dilemmas, there
is a strong temptation to believe that every ethical question must, in
principle, have a definitive answer, even if we do not yet know what that
answer is. Convinced that all we need to find the answer is the right tools, we
are then tempted to think along the following lines. Since the solution to our
problem has eluded us despite our best efforts, what that shows is that we need
a better, more effective ethical theory, one which will yield a reliable method
or recipe for resolving any ethical question, and thus lead us to the answer
which we seek. -- The more one learns about the sheer variety and complexity of
ethical dilemmas, the less plausible that line of thought appears.
The alternative view, which we have consistently argued for here, is that there
is no single 'right' answer to an ethical dilemma. Undoubtedly, some people are
better at grappling with ethical dilemmas than others, but this is a talent,
native or acquired -- one aspect of what we term 'wisdom'. To say, however,
that there is no definitive resolution of an ethical dilemma is not to say that
any decision that we reach is merely subjective, or that we do not have a
responsibility to make the best choice that we can, given the circumstances.
The reasons which motivate our final decision are reasons which we could
present to others, if asked to do so, and if necessary defend with arguments;
even though by the nature of the case such arguments will be less than
conclusive. There is generally a time limit on ethical deliberation; when the
time limit runs out, you have to make your judgement call, and act.
Let us now see how the question of social responsibility first appears from the
point of view of the business arena. When you are making decisions that involve
other people's money -- people who have invested in your company and entrusted
you with the stewardship of their funds -- the decision to use that money for
anything other than generating a profit, with the aim of gaining the maxim
return on investment, is tantamount to theft. Unless you can present an
effective business case for doing what your conscience or your feelings tell
you is the right thing to do, such action is ethically prohibited. You would be
no better than Robin Hood stealing from one group of persons to give to another.
But now let us look at the other side of the argument. If you have good reason
to believe that the activities of your company have resulted or will result in
serious damage to the environment, or unjust treatment of employees, or the
destruction of local communities, or long term health hazards to consumers then
regardless of the risk of negative impact on profit, as an ethical individual
you have to do the right thing. You cannot allow the bad situation to continue
unchecked, so long as you are in a position to do something about it.
An argument such as the one we have presented to the effect that you cannot do
XYZ, and yet you must do XYZ has all the hallmarks of a classic ethical dilemma.
To merely state that observation is not of course to solve the problem. What
it does do, is help to clarify the debate. You can't do justice to an ethical
dilemma if you adopt the blinkered policy of always choosing one side of the
argument, regardless of the particular circumstances. That is what the
defenders of entrenched positions over social responsibility effectively do. On
the contrary, the circumstances always matter. There is no easy let-off from
engaging in the nitty-gritty of ethical debate, and making an ethical decision
which inevitably will not please everyone but which you and your company are
prepared to stand up for. That is what ethics demands. Business ethics -- if
indeed it deserves the name -- cannot require anything less.
Business case for social responsibility
Is there a business case for social responsibility? Increasingly many companies
believe that there is, and have acted on that belief. There is now a burgeoning
literature on the business case for social responsibility. Many case studies
have proved beyond doubt that social responsibility can and does pay. Then why
doesn't everyone do it? Is it ignorance? or does a socially responsible company
policy work for some, but not others? -- From the point of view of logic, one
cannot assume that an effective business case can always be made for socially
responsible action. The empirical evidence that social responsibility pays --
for example, increasing ethical awareness of consumers who prefer goods from
socially responsible companies, favourable publicity and the generation of good
will -- does not and cannot show that social responsibility always pays,
regardless of the particular circumstances.
The debate, indeed, is no different from the question first raised by Socrates
and Plato two and a half thousand years ago over the connection between virtue
and happiness. Suppose that what Socrates and Plato believed is empirically
true: when you study human behaviour you find that, by and large, and for the
most part, those who are ethically virtuous lead better, happier lives. Despite
this evidence, we all know that sometimes, inevitably, doing the right thing
entails a degree of sacrifice: there will be occasions when you are required to
pursue an outcome which is less favourable to yourself for the sake of the
Even so, the debate is by no means done with, for the supporters of the
business case will argue that if you take a sufficiently long view, the
benefits of socially responsible action will always outweigh the costs. However,
one is justified in asking, what is the hard evidence for that belief? Such a
claim appears to be held as a mere article of faith. It looks like either
propaganda or wishful thinking. If the propaganda succeeds, then it might
indeed prove to be an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suppose it were
true that all businesses would benefit if they acted in unison and universally
embraced the ideal of social responsibility, just as the human race would be
better off if we all behaved ethically. In the face of scepticism, that is as
weak an argument for corporate social responsibility in this world as it is an
argument for ethics. Those individuals and companies who succeed in resisting
the propaganda and continue recklessly to break the rules, profit from the
secure knowledge that the majority can always be relied upon to toe the line.
A variation on this theme is the idea that companies whose primary aim is
profit do less well than companies who aim to do worthy things -- build a
better mousetrap, cater to their customers' needs, develop a good
management-employee relationship -- things which, or so we are led to believe,
naturally lead to increased profitability and success in the marketplace, just
as human happiness is best achieved not by pursuing it consciously but rather
by engaging in activities which increase the quality of a person's life and
consequently lead to happiness. The analogy fails, if only for the reason that
there is a wealth of knowledge about precise and actionable ways of increasing
company profit, if that is really all one cares about, whereas human happiness
is, as it has always been, elusive and difficult to predict or quantify.
Another variation on the theme is the increasingly talked about notion of
sustainability, which manages to embrace ideas of long-term company survival
and profitability, protection of the sources of raw materials, care for the
environment, social responsibility and much more. The sheer breadth of the term
raises a question about its utility, not to mention the risk of equivocation.
From the point of view of generating profit in the long term, it could indeed
be argued that it is not always a good thing to keep a company or a brand going
indefinitely. Companies, like people, have a natural lifespan. There is nothing
more unseemly than a company on a life support machine, kept alive by taxpayers
' money. In a thriving economy, the most important factor is not longevity of
existing companies but the number of new companies entering the marketplace.
The desire to see your company flag flying in fifty years time is
sentimentality, not sound business sense.
Anyone arguing for social responsibility who relies on the business case is
therefore doing their cause a disservice. They are sacrificing facts for the
sake of ideology. Or, in plain terms, they are peddling lies. Any company with
a clear vision of why it is there in the marketplace knows this. Business
people will be only too willing to embrace the hard-headed conclusion that so
long as responsible action, whether towards the environment, local communities,
ones customers or employees, pays, it is worth pursuing, but not otherwise. When
responsibility ceases to pay -- especially when a perceived short term advantage
is so great as to outweigh any possible long term considerations -- it is
irrational to continue to insist on the socially responsible option.
Ethical case for social responsibility
What about the ethical case? 'Self-sacrifice' is an emotive term, and it is not
difficult to see why philosophies which denigrate the very idea of altruism or
self-sacrifice have become popular in the business world. Ayn Rand's Virtue of
Selfishness has always retained a devoted hard core of followers. Back in unit
1, when we discussed the 19th century moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick's
pessimistic view of the clash between morality and self-interest, we concluded
that any sensible approach to ethics must allow for a component of healthy
self-interest: 'we have to recognize there is such a thing as ethical judgement,
which takes considerations of altruism and self-interest, together with the
minimum required standards of behaviour, and makes a balanced decision.' To say
that it is legitimate to factor in considerations of self-interest is clearly
different from claiming that ethics can be reduced to self-interest, and
different again from the exhortation to abandon traditional ethics altogether
and make a 'virtue' out of selfishness.
Putting aside such radical views, it should be clear that the ethical case for
social responsibility does not, in fact, need to be made. To be socially
responsible is the ethical thing to do, full stop. You either care about ethics
or you don't. To ask for an ethical reason for being ethical -- given the
insufficiency of self-interested reasons -- is to embark on a vicious regress.
What does need to be argued for, however, is the relevance of ethical argument
in the context of the business arena. Why should we go beyond questions of
profitability and survival and get ourselves entangled in the thickets of
ethics, when following the path of self-interest is so much easier and clearer?
The rules for behaviour within the business arena are not the rules for
behaviour outside the business arena: that is a point which we have repeated
time and again. However, a point we have also emphasized is that when you enter
the business arena you do not leave the world. You are, at one and the same time
an ethical being and a player in the business arena; every decision you make has
to reckon with that fact. You may not acknowledge the fact, but you are
ethically responsible all the same. The rules may be different in the business
arena, but they do not grant immunity from ethical challenge as and when it
If there is an 'ethical case' to answer, it can therefore only be a case for
how much concern, how much of one's time, energy and financial resources are
channelled into pursuing socially responsible policies where these outstrip --
or at least are not known to coincide with -- the demands of self-interest. In
plain terms, in every company there is an imperative for ethical debate. The
business imperative, to survive and make a profit, has to be balanced with the
ethical imperative to behave responsibility and take account of the effects of
one's actions and decisions on society at large. How exactly one adjusts that
balance is something that each individual, each company has to decide for
themself, or itself.
There is no need to make invidious judgements or comparisons. A company which
idealistically puts its priority on promoting social benefits is no better or
worse, in itself, than a company which benefits society by concentrating its
energy on creating wealth and providing employment through the pursuit of
profitable activities. It suffices that the ethical imperative is acknowledged,
that there is genuine ethical debate within the company. In a similar way you
can be an ethical person and pursue a life of service to the community, or be
an ethical person and devote yourself to self-improvement and self-fulfilment,
and pursuing your own personal goals and projects.
Defending the term 'CSR'
It is a standard move in philosophical debate to challenge the use of a term,
to claim that it is incoherent or embodies conflicting beliefs or theories. In
recent times, the term 'corporate social responsibility' -- first coined in the
1930's by two Harvard professors -- has fared particularly badly in this respect.
'We uphold the principles of corporate responsibility; we don't understand
what is meant by corporate social responsibility,' is a typical claim one hears
from company spokespersons and public relations departments.
In reality, with the word 'social' removed, the term 'corporate responsibility'
can denote anything you like. All ethics is concerned with responsibility. To
assert, as a company or an individual business person that you are 'responsible
' conveys no information over and above the statement that you observe the
minimum ethical standards required of a player in the business arena. But we
have already seen that that is not enough. It is not enough to play by the
rules, to keep your promises and not lie or cheat. Of course, every player is
responsible for their behaviour in this sense. The question at issue, however,
concerns the good or bad consequences of decisions that you make, decisions
which in themselves may be fully within the strict 'rules of the game'. To
assert that you are responsible for your actions, but not responsible for any
of the consequences of your actions is double-talk.
What the term 'social' denotes is that the responsibility in question is for
the consequences of ones actions, the impact of decisions made, on society at
large. In making this bold claim, we are not arguing for the ethical theory of
consequentialism, according to which the right action is one which weights up
all the consequences of one's actions, selecting the one which leads to the '
greatest happiness for the greatest number', or 'maximization of desire
satisfaction' or whatever your favourite flavour of utilitarian ethics. As we
saw in unit 4, when we looked at Bernard Williams' critique of utilitarianism,
what utilitarians fail to acknowledge is the importance of the individual
perspective: to quote Williams' phrase, human beings are not just '
self-sacrificing cogs in the utility machine'. Self-interest, personal
integrity, loyalties, principles are all factors to take into account alongside
consideration of the consequences of one's actions. The result may indeed be
complex and messy, involving difficult decisions and compromise. But that, as
we have argued, is the nature of ethics and equally business ethics.
Most importantly, from our perspective, the term 'social' denotes our
recognition of the artificial, but very real boundary line between the business
arena and the wider society in which that arena exists. We ourselves constructed
that arena; it exists with our continued support and blessing. Indeed, it is
hardly possible to conceive of life without it. The business arena is not an
autonomous entity cut off from the rest of the world. Whatever happens within
the business arena, so far as it affects those outside, has to be considered
from that wider perspective. That is the true meaning of social responsibility
within a business context.
Importance of praxis
It might seem that we have achieved a lot. We have carved out a logical space
within which there can be meaningful ethical discussion around the
responsibilities of companies and individual business people in relation to
society at large, resisting the temptation to adopt extreme positions and
putting the case for patience and compromise, a willingness to consider each
question on its merit, to always take into account the particular circumstances
of the case. To assert, however, that there is no way to avoid the hard work of
'getting down into the nitty-gritty of ethical debate' in itself accomplishes
little. It sounds like just another abstract formula. The formula still doesn't
give any guidance over what to do when we actually face a real-life ethical
In defence of this approach, one could argue that our concern is only to pursue
a philosophical investigation into the foundations of business ethics. It is not
our job to produce an ethical training manual for company directors and business
executives. But that is too easy a let out. A critic could point out that there
is no reason to believe, on the basis of what has been said so far, that the
kinds of ethical judgement called for are within the capacities of ordinary
mortals, that is to say, decisions no doubt requiring a modicum of experience
and wisdom, but not the judgement of Solomon. Given that pursuing a policy of
social responsibility entails grappling with difficult ethical dilemmas, what
has not yet been shown is that these dilemmas do not outstrip the capacities of
ordinary people for making rational choices. In forming ethical judgements we
are not shooting in the dark. We can take honest, practical decisions on
questions of ethics and social responsibility, and, most importantly, gain
support from others for those decisions.
It is true that, in a sense, we do not need to learn the skills of ethical
judgement afresh when we enter the business arena. We brought those skills with
us. An ability to make ethical judgements is something we all have, at least
those who have been brought up in human society. Maybe, somewhere in the galaxy,
there exist alien beings who lack the capacity to understand what ethics is
about; maybe there are human beings brought up by bears or wolves who have
never learned to be 'human', but these extreme cases apart, we do know what to
do when faced with an ethical dilemma. We may not always do it very well, we
may feel on occasions in need of guidance from someone wiser and more
experienced, but even then we grant ourselves the ability to judge that the
advice proffered is sound and worth following. You need a basic understanding
of ethics in order to benefit from ethical advice.
Training manuals can be useful, in a context where a large number of people
need to be inducted into the 'company philosophy'. I would argue that, far more
importantly, what every company needs to do is create a forum for ethical debate.
Even with all the talk of philosophies and codes of conduct, this is not
something that one sees that often. Ethics should be on the agenda, at every
level from the boardroom down to the shop floor. A company should be prepared
to defend its ethical policy, not just in the boardroom or at AGMs, but in
regular question and answer sessions, staff magazines, perhaps even the setting
of a friendly debate where motions are argued for and against, and voted on. All
these things can contribute to creating an atmosphere which fosters good ethical
decision making and a healthy corporate culture.
It is a tried and tested wisdom that a company needs to remind itself, again
and again, what it stands for. Human memory is a fragile thing. We all-too
easily get distracted from the main issue: remembering why we are here. This is
the polar opposite of social responsibility as a PR exercise, where nicely
worded mission statements, grandiose ethical claims and impressive lists of
socially responsible projects are loudly trumpeted to the press and the outside
world. All too often, such claims are seen for what they are: a mere fig-leaf.
Fighting the system
But there is something else we need to consider. This is perhaps the real core
of resistance to the idea of social responsibility in the business world. We
have been talking as if the only thing that counts are the deliberations of
individuals or groups of individuals, who are free to make any decision their
conscience dictates. The reality is that an organization or a business is a
human creation which, once put in motion, gains a powerful life of its own. All
the more is this true of the business arena itself. It may not be true to say
that human beings are mere 'slaves to their own creation', but neither are we
its lord and master. We exert influence where we can, resigning ourselves to
the inevitable consequences when our interventions prove ineffective.
The system may be difficult to change. But then again, one wouldn't want it to
be too easy. We rely on the massive inertia of the system to keep things
running smoothly. If you want to make changes, you have to plan ahead. Just as
when steering a super-tanker, you know that it will take a mile or two of water
before the ship responds to a touch on the tiller.
What exactly is 'the system'? The system is not just companies and what they do.
It is as much we ourselves, the consumers, whose loves and hates, passions,
enthusiasms and appetites are the ultimate fuel for the market economy. In '
Ethics and Advertising', I concluded,
The stark truth is that manufacturers and advertisers are
as much controlled by the fickle consumer as in control.
Rules can be set down concerning what is factually truthful,
decent and fair. It is not the advertiser's job to make
people better than they are, or want better things than
Geoffrey Klempner 'Ethics and Advertising'
Philosophy for Business Issue 9, 13th June 2004
That said, we may not all be aware of the full spectrum of possibilities of a
meaningful human existence, but we are not just helpless victims of consumerist
brainwashing either. We have the power to bring about change, if only we were
prepared to use it.
As a moral philosopher, of course one would indeed like to make people 'want
better things than they want'. You have to believe that every effort counts for
something. If people want cheap trainers, then someone has to manufacture them
at a low enough price. If more and more people want to drive their own car,
then someone has to drill the oil and refine the petrol. It would be the height
of hypocrisy to expect better ethical standards from companies than consumers
themselves are willing to exhibit. On the other hand, as noted previously,
there is strong evidence of increasing consumer awareness of ethical issues, to
the extent that companies are now actively marketing for this preference.
That is one aspect of the equation. Another, equally important side is the role
of investors. As is well known, a large proportion of the shareholders of the
large public companies consist of insurance companies whose primary obligation
is to the thousands of individual holders of life insurance policies who are
looking to be provided for in their retirement. The ethics of the companies in
which they invest come in a poor second. In time, investors will become
ethically more aware. In that case, once again, the pressure for change will
come from below rather than above.
It is true that as individuals, much of the time, we don't have a clear enough
view of what is possible. We only know what we want, or the latest thing that
happens to prick our consciences. But even when we do get a clear enough view,
one faces the perennial problem of politics itself: getting individuals and
organizations to co-ordinate their actions, on the assumption that everyone is
willing to play their part in the effort.
The impossibility of co-ordinating human actions in a scenario where no-one can
be 100 per cent certain that the other person will not take advantage of their
trust was the basis for Hobbes' argument, in Leviathan, that the problem of
politics can only be solved by having a sovereign with absolute power to impose
laws and make decisions: a single captain for the ship. Until a captain comes
along, business ethics will remain vitally important not only as a guide to the
actions of business people and companies, but also because in this age of
globalization the political process is no longer just in the hands of
politicians. National governments have a duty to show leadership, but so indeed
do company boards and CEOs.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2008
III. ETHICAL DILEMMAS NOW ONLINE
Coinciding with a campaign to make company boards and CEOs aware of the
Business Pathways Ethical Dilemmas program, the ten units of the program are
now permanently online and free to download. The units are in PDF format and
can be found at the following URL:
The decision to depart from Pathways policy of making full study materials
available only to students after they have enrolled and paid their fee was
taken after some discussion and debate.
On the one side, it was argued that making something free immediately devalues
it in the eyes of potential customers, and in particular in the eyes of
business people who are used to paying dearly for professional consultation.
The argument which won the day, however, was that the reason that subscription
to Business Pathways e-journal is free of charge is that we want to reach as
wide an audience as possible. We have something important to say that makes a
difference: in the business world, philosophy and ethics matter. We want that
message to be heard.
From the Ethical Dilemmas page:
a primer for decision makers
Ethical Dilemmas is for anyone interested in philosophy,
but especially aimed at those who are in a position to make
strategic decisions which involve a company's long term
goals and values, in relation to the challenge of
reconciling self-interest with ethics.
We do not accept the frequently touted view that it is
always in a company's interest -- including its long term
interest -- to be ethical. In the real world, unethical
companies and corporations survive and prosper. A business
ethicist who tells you that you that ethics will always pay
in the long run is either self-deluded, or lying.
Equally, we reject the view that the only rational
constraint on decision making in business is profit and
loss. What this means in terms of the bottom line is that
ethics and and a company's self-interest will inevitably
come into conflict. The only effective way to resolve this
conflict is to recognize that each must, on occasion, give
How is it possible to make this kind of existential
judgement, which is neither strictly ethical nor
self-interested? How do you judge how much you are prepared
to pay for ethics? These are questions that Ethical Dilemmas
seeks to resolve, as well as addressing dilemmas which arise
between conflicting ethical considerations.
The program is based on ten self-contained units which are
free to download. You will be engaging the author, Dr
Geoffrey Klempner, in one-to-one dialogue, either online or
face to face. Those who have completed the program are
encouraged to write articles for publication in the
Philosophy for Business e-journal.
The fee for the Ethical Dilemmas program is on a sliding
scale, depending on how much interaction you require. For
more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Geoffrey Klempner
Geoffrey Klempner has a Doctorate in Philosophy from
University College Oxford. He is Director of the Pathways
School of Philosophy and Editor of Philosophy Pathways and
Philosophy for Business e-journals. [CV]
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2009