The Four Dimensions of Business Morality


The Four Dimensions of Business Morality

As a shorthand, I call the four dimensions of business morality the generative, empathic, restrictive, and philanthropic modes. Generative morality hinges on the use of moral imagination to create innovative initiatives that reflect noble purposes. Empathic morality hinges on the use of perspective-taking and the Golden Rule to build strong collaborative relations with employees, partners, investors, clients, and customers. Restrictive morality hinges on the use of ethics to prevent damaging and disreputable practices. Philanthropic morality hinges on the use of charitable giving to share part of one’s profits with worthy causes. Some distinctions among the four are drawn in Table 1.

Table 1: The Four Faces of Morality in Business
 

Generative

Empathic

Restrictive

Philanthropic

Function

Inspiration

Collaboration

Protection

Promote worthy cause

Source

Deep beliefs

Perspective-taking

Traditional codes

Charitable impulse

Instrument

Imagination

Golden Rule

Conduct

Earned profits

Venue

Products, services

Relationships

Management

Outside institutions

Outcome

Innovation, sales

Trust, morale

Reputation, safety

Reputation, satisfaction

Generative morality arises from deep inner purposes and beliefs. Not everyone feels such purposes and beliefs, or sees how to connect them to their career choices. But those who do often find these core beliefs to be a valuable source of inspiration in their work. Deep purposes and beliefs provide the sparks of imagination that can give birth to a new business concept. They also can provide a sense of commitment that can sustain the concept during inevitable periods of doubt, stress, and temporary reversals. They provide a reason to go to the mat for an idea, a steel foundation for the persistence always needed to implement any innovation. I place this dimension first because it is the mode of morality that people tend to be most in tune with when they first choose a career and set their goals. People who enter business to make positive contributions to the world (the “what” and “why” questions discussed in the Introduction) are motivated by purposes and beliefs that can form the basis of a highly generative morality. The key to success, as I will show in Chapter 3, is to nurture this fertile source of creative imagination rather than allowing it to fade away over the course of a career filled with compromise and burnout.

Empathic morality is an approach to business relationships that reflects the Golden Rule principle of treating others as you yourself would like to be treated. It fosters trust, collaboration, understanding, and communication. In Chapter 4, I will show the many productive uses of empathic morality in the business world.

Restrictive morality is the widely shared societal code of ethics that protects people from trouble, regulates their behavior according to the traditional norms that society demands, guards their reputation, and provides them with safety from legal attack. It is the mode of morality most strongly emphasized by business-school ethics courses and corporate ethics training. Important though such training can be, its effectiveness often suffers by taking ethics out of the context of the broad personal and social concerns that are included in the other three moral dimensions. In Chapter 5, I will present a more integrated—and more positive—approach to business ethics.

Philanthropic morality reflects a charitable impulse, donating a share of profits for altruistic ends. It requires the same sense of purpose, diligence, and humility that is required by the business success that brought the profits in the first place. When done properly, philanthropic morality reaps benefits beyond pure altruism, such as enhancing the reputation of the business leader and the company in the communities in which they operate. When done poorly, however, philanthropy causes more harm than good, damaging both the community and the donor’s reputation. In Chapter 6, I discuss the challenges of using philanthropic morality to promote worthy causes.