Having entered the second decade of the twenty first century it is hugely unremarkable to comment that ethics has become of central importance to management.  But can business really claim to be good?

As an academic discipline business ethics has fully matured, replete with experts, journals, conferences, text books and courses.  In businesses so much goes on in the name of ethics – whether it be corporate social responsibility, corporate governance, or environmental management.  Business ethics has also become an important matter for public discourse, with issues of managerial malfeasance, corporate collapse, the financial crisis, worker exploitation, and executive remuneration all being examples of matters that have captivated the public interest.  Across these domains the established sense is that business organizations should be ethical, and that their actions can be assessed and/or modified in relation to whether or not they are good.

This goodness can even be measured! Each year the Ethisphere Institute in New York publishes a list of who it believes are the ‘world’s most ethical companies’.  According to Forbes Magazine the list “gives its winners an opportunity to trumpet their do-gooding ways”. But why might an organization wish to engage in such moral self-congratulation?  In the same Forbes article Alex Brigham, Ethisphere’s Executive Director, is quoted as saying that “more and more companies are realizing how ethics can be an important competitive advantage in the global economy” and that “many companies use the designation in their marketing materials to attract customers”.  Is this really what ethics is all about?  Can the ethics of business activity be regarded as of value only because it can be used to enter yet another competition with one’s rivals?  Does the value of ethics rely only on whether it will yield market expansion and global domination?

Ethics has traditionally been a matter of concern for individuals. But with business ethics it is the ethics of the organized collective that comes under scrutiny. It is assumed that ethical matters can be organized, counted and judged.  In many cases organizations develop codes of conduct, statements of values and such like in order to manage ethics.  There is an inherent contradiction here though.  If ethics is managed by trying to influence or control people’s behaviour there is a likelihood that it can serve to promote moral conformity rather than ethical autonomy, engagement and deliberation – as if by doing things a certain way you can score a higher score on Ethisphere’s multiple choice test for an organizations ‘ethical quotient’.  According to critics, the type of statements made by Brigham reflect another risk – that ethics becomes compromised when it is adopted for the strategic purposes of an organization. The Ethisphere credo of “Good. Smart. Business. Profit” is not a list of words that everyone would think can or should go together all of the time. The danger is that ethical programs driven by economics rather than ethical motives. What is good might not always be what is profitable; of course it can be most costly. Conversely, the creation of surplus value (profit) from the employment of labour is not so simply judged as being righteous. It might even be the case that business ethics is little more than a matter of corporate public relations, again with dubious ethical content.

If we follow these lines of critique, business ethics doesn’t look so good anymore – it is a mode of domination over employees, a smokescreen for economic exploitation, or some kind of cosmetic make up for organizations.  So, is it really the case that once ethics becomes subject to management and organization it somehow loses its location as being ‘ethical’ and is instead mortally tainted?  While I am quite sympathetic to the criticisms that have been levelled at business ethics it is still not time to give up!  The philosophical work of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) can be a useful guide in reflecting on the meaning of all this.  Levinas has a unique approach to ethics.  He does not use the term ethics to refer to some system of rational procedures, practices, policies or dispositions that can ensure a sense of ‘goodness’ or righteousness on the part of one who adheres to them. He has no ethical quotients. Neither does he develop a set of prescriptions or values intended to guide or inform how people might live or respond to situations in which they find themselves. Congratulating oneself on one’s own righteousness is not part of this ethics either.

Before any program, model or code of ethics is arrived at, Levinas insists that ethics arises from one’s responsibility to other people.  Ethics is not about oneself, but is about service to others. This is a relational idea of ethics, one that Levinas understand in the context of the face-to-face. It is relationship of generosity and humility, where no other person is considered as ‘another of me’ but as wholly unique and unknowable.  This ethics is always about care and devotion to others before myself.  Levinas’ is an ethics that is thrust upon us as we discover that we live in a world of other people whose needs interrupt self-interest and the egoistic pursuit of one’s own desires.  Such is the ethical condition of our own existence – a condition of ‘being-for-the-other’ which we bear without choice.

So, what does all of this have to do with ethics in business and organizations?  When the ethical condition of being-for-the-other becomes subject to organization things can come awry.  In such conditions ethics is always compromised on account of the presence of so many other others, and the split responsibilities that one might have to each and all of them.  This is a condition, if you like the condition of organizing ethics: choices and decisions must be made by considering the conflicting needs of other people.  There are winners and losers, and even amongst the winners some win more.  It is at this point that ethics becomes organized – contemporary practices of business ethics reflect one possible way of attempting such organization.  The inevitable irony is that the organization of ethics will always betray its origins in ethics. This is so because the very matter of ‘organization’ and the rational application of administration to many people loses the possibility of ‘being-for-the-other’. The face-to-face relationship of ethics gets lost in the sea of faces. People become rendered as anonymous and regarded of importance not through an ethical relation, but just in terms of whether they are a means to the end of ‘competitive advantage’ where the good is seen as being inexorably yoked to the profitable.

An important distinction is that following Levinas the ethical relation with the other person is not rational.  Ethics doesn’t start with being smart. It is an emotional and embodied matter that we experience before and beyond we think about it.  This ethics arises out of our bodies rather than our minds.  This approach understands ethics as being a desire for the other person – it is like love.  Despite these ethical feelings we nevertheless do need to talk to each other, to reason with each other and to work out how to divide things up between us.  In organizations if ethics is to be present it is not just about caring for every other person, but is about negotiating the fact that we cannot care for everyone.

The point is that while the organization of business can be inspired by ethics, it is never good enough to actually say that they are ethical.  They just cannot live up to the demands of that inspiration; no matter what ranking lists or business magazines have to say about it. This is the condition of the organization of ethics – a necessary condition of impossibility. This is not a reason to despair.  It just means accepting that ethics is less of a destination and more of an impossible horizon of possibility.  Like walking to the horizon, this impossibility does not make it worthless.  Quite the contrary it is the pursuit of the impossible horizon that can give business ethics its very meaning.

The impossible horizon of business ethics renders it inane to make judgements of this or that organizational practice as being ‘ethical’, or ‘unethical’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead what is important for practice is to never lose sight of the horizon.  If you follow this line of thought it suggests that business ethics, with all of its programs, schemes and measurements,  must not forget its origin in an ethics of and for the other. At the same time it might always imagine an unknowable and impossible future where that ethics would be in place.  Trumpeting one’s own ethical achievements has no place here.

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