Morality in Business Reconsidered

Morality in Business Reconsidered

Morality in business has multiple faces, each playing its own special role in ensuring business success. The most familiar face is known as “business ethics,” correctly considered to be the prudent voice that warns us to stay out of trouble. When adhered to, such moral codes as “don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t bribe, don’t discriminate, don’t sexually harass your employees” work to rein in impulses that could be hazardous to one’s business (and one’s career) if left unchecked. In addition to legal and civil penalties that may result from being caught red-handed in an outright offense, there is the matter of one’s reputation. It does no one in business good to become known as a shady character. Organizations too must guard their public images. As any good public relations firm knows, a clean ethical slate is a precious asset for any company, as valuable as an irreplaceable piece of property.

Another familiar way of acknowledging the moral dimension in business is through philanthropic giving. Many businesspeople donate to philanthropic causes, such as charity for the needy and support for education or the arts. Often this is done with an eye to one’s reputation: a person, or a company, can try to build (or, in some cases, repair) an image of integrity through generous philanthropic giving. And for many who give, the impulse is genuine, stemming from a sense of social responsibility. As a rule, philanthropic giving comes after the business has made rich profit. It is not part and parcel of the profit making itself.

These first two dimensions of business morality—ethics and philanthropic giving—are familiar because their benefits to self and society are so evident. It is clear to most people that unethical business practices need to be constrained because they place careers at risk, harm the public, and undermine business relationships. It is just as clear that charitable behavior not only improves the community but also elevates one’s place in it. Both moral dimensions contribute directly to the enlightened interests of anyone who wishes to build an enduring business career.

But two other, less familiar, moral dimensions are also central to business success. One is a way of using moral purposes as a source of fruitful ideas, and the other is a way of collaborating based on principles of empathy, perspective-taking, and the Golden Rule. These dimensions contribute directly to the capacity for successful accomplishment in business; indeed, they are generative of most cutting- edge work. But they are not often noted (with some prominent exceptions), because few who rely on these moral dimensions trumpet them; in fact, people may not be fully aware of the role of these principles in their own success. These two dimensions are the elements of morality that are responsible for the proactive promotion of positive initiatives, in contrast to the negative avoidance of ethical breaches that we often think of when we use the term moral conduct.

A positive initiative may be as simple as an urge to serve customers better by bringing them a less expensive product, or it may be as complex as wanting to wire every neighborhood on earth for computing. There is a sense of purpose at the heart of every great business success. Of course, people in business have many other motives and inclinations too, including a desire to make lots of money, to prove oneself, to gain social status and control, to work on something interesting, to have fun, and so on. As I noted in the book’s Introduction, I am not claiming pure moral motives. Rather, I am pointing out that a moral purpose always plays some role, because it is needed for creating and sustaining the innovation that achieves success.

The four roles of morality in business that I noted—the two familiar ways (protective and charitable) and the two less recognized ways (proactive moral imagination and empathy-based relationships)—represent distinct but complementary means of moral advantage. In this book, I devote a chapter to each dimension. I first introduce the aspect of the moral imagination (in Chapter 3) and follow that with empathy (Chapter 4), ethics (Chapter 5), and finally philanthropy (Chapter 6). I have chosen this order to indicate the developmental sequence through which morality in business typically unfolds, as I explain next.