"The Promise (and Limits?) of Philosophic Business Ethics"

Business Ethics: An Ethical Decision-Making Approach
(John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.. The Atrium, Southern Gate,Chichester, West Sussex, UK, 2017)

Author: Mark S. Schwartz

A review by William C. Frederick, 2017

This comprehensive, practically-oriented, well-argued account of how to use philosophic ethics concepts to understand and reshape a business-firm's activities and behavior is yet another positive effort by philosopher Mark Schwartz to demonstrate the relevance and promise of philosophic analysis. In one sense, it somewhat resembles his 2011 book, Corporate Social Responsibility: An Ethical Approach (Broadview Press: Peterborough, Ontario, 2011), a point to which we shall return later.

Rather pragmatically, the book is divided into three major parts: Part One: Descriptive Theory, Part Two: Normative Framework; and Part Three: Practical Applications. A Conclusion: Navigating the Moral High Road, summarizes the book's major points and the author's hopes. Four Appendices provide further details about the basic analytic concepts, including, believe it or not, a discussion of how Hollywood movies portray business ethics. So, there is a bit of almost everything about the ethical and unethical behavior of business firms.

Part One's Descriptive components consist of "two essential sets of constructs or factors that influence decision making [in business firms]: individual and situational." While an individual's moral character, the kind of moral issue involved, the firm's organizational environment, and an employee's or a manager's personal situation are key factors, Swartz says that even "possibly more important is trying to understand how we arrive at ethical decisions." The "how" explanation leads to Chapter 2's "Integrated Ethical Decision Making" model that explains the "actual behavior" of an organization's employees and managers. Fortunately for the book's readers, a Table summarizes the major factors proposed by the author that influence the ethical or unethical behavior of an organization's employees and managers. An indicator of the chapter's comprehensiveness is the presence of 111 footnotes plus 80 references to the leading scholars in the business ethics field.

Part Two's Normative Framework is where the author begins to develop the kind of conceptual- analytical approach that leads toward answers to the ethical-unethical issues raised in Part One's Descriptive discussion. His "Integrated Ethical Decision Making" model posits that ethical behavior is more likely to occur in organizations if "there is strong individual moral character . . . a high level of moral intensity . . . [and a] strong ethical corporate culture." Unethical activity occurs when organizational conditions lack these characteristics, especially in the presence of "strong authority pressures and peer influence to engage in unethical behavior." Once again, most of these factors are displayed in Table 2.4 and summarized in Table 2.2.

One of the book's most important chapters is called "Distinguishing Right from Wrong", which the author says is ". . . one of the most fundamental processes in moral philosophy." He describes a "Multifaceted Ethical Decision-Making Model" composed of moral standards that both support ethical behavior ("universal ethical values, utilitarianism, Kantian duties, moral rights, and justice/fairness") as well as standards such as "relativism or "group norms" and "egoism (greed") that often rationalize unethical behavior for individuals or groups. Each of these aspects is described and criticized in the text and summarized in Table 4.1.

One of the most surprising and dismaying points made by author Schwartz comes when he discusses ways of "resolving conflicts between the moral standards." The problem for him is that "various moral standards can come into conflict", which is "one of the major difficulties of makng a moral judgment." He therefore concludes that "Unfortunately, no uncontroversial solution to reconciling conflicts has ever been established." So, what does he propose? It means "taking a pluralistic approach to moral judgment, which is the position I [Swartz] would recommend as well." "Each individual will have to decide which moral standard or standards are the ones that make the most sense to them . . . ."

A reader is tempted to exclaim, "Huh?" after working through four chapters that discuss, summarize, and critique several moral standards and concepts in considerable detail. Is this "pluralistic" approach the best "solution" to ethical dilemmas that arise in the workplace? Are there either no answers or a "plurality" of answers, depending upon one's own personal perspective? In one sense, probably not intended by the author, his book then presents a whole host of "ethical" and "unethical" answers apparently to be seized upon by managers, employees, shareholders, competitors, and others to justify their own and others' behavioral activities in the workplace.

This view seems to be at odds with other discussions about an array of ethical standards found in other chapters that are available for consideration by the firm's leaders and employees. He does say, though, when there are conflicts between core ethical values and "the bottom line" [or profits] "the ethical values must always take priority over profits." That's what one would expect an ethics philosopher to say, but it does seem somewhat inconsistent with the presence of ethical values (some of them "core values"), ethics codes, and the ethical leadership of a firm's managers.

Those employees and managers are given a set of 14 "triggers" that might be pulled in testing their firm's ethical culture: for example, be morally aware, avoid bias, develop one's moral character, or consider working in a less profit-oriented organizational environment, et al. However, the author concludes on this note of caution: ". . . the primary reason for firms and their agents to behave ethically . . . is an obligation in and of itself for each of us operating within society. . . . our ‘should' self must always take priority over our ‘want' self if our goal is to live a truly ethical life."

Well, perhaps so, but "each of us" is also a member of human society, a human community, a family, a workplace , and all of these socio-cultural features are loaded with diverse values and ethical concepts. As the author points out, this adds up to a "plurality" of values, attitudes, communities, and cultures, so the "moral compass" can and does apparently point in many different directions. Leaving the ethics solution to "each of us" individually overlooks the power and influence of societal factors that may, or may not,put us on "the moral high road".

The book ends by saying that ". . . keeping us on the ‘moral high road' . . . is ultimately up to each of us."

My critique of the author's emphasis on a person's own individual ethical posture is not to be interpreted as a critique of the whole book. As noted at the beginning of this review, Schwartz presents many, many examples of both ethical and unethical behavior found in the marketplace, and the entire book is a delight to read for that reason alone. In his 2011 book, Corporate Social Responsibility: An Ethical Approach, he was somewhat more open to other explanations of a corporation's social responsibility and ethical-unethical posture, as I pointed out in my review of that earlier work which is posted on my website. But I have learned something important in reading and reviewing these two books: Mark Schwartz is one of philosophy's most informed, relevant, and interesting commentators about ethical and unethical issues in the corporate world.