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Off-Target Criticism of “Business Ethicists”

Criticism is easy when you’re vague and unclear about who you’re criticizing. I mean, that makes it impossible to be wrong, right?

Witness this odd little rant in the Boston Globe, (by a philosophy professor named Gordon Marino) apparently aimed at someone vaguely labeled as “business ethicists,” and the role they (failed to) play. The business of business ethics.

Here are a few key paragraphs:

In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristoff observed that of the great multitude of economic talking heads, next to none of them recognized the pavement that we were rushing toward. Finally, there is some public scrutiny of our overreliance on expert opinion.

However, there is one cadre of experts that has not been asked to approach the bench: namely, that brigade of briefcase-toting philosophers known as “business ethicists.”

Back in the ’80s, just after the Michael Milken scandals, the business of business ethics took root on Wall Street and in MBA programs around the nation. Within a few years, philosophers began setting up shop in the financial districts. Every corporation worth its exec bonuses had ethics codes and workshops run by some Socrates in a suit. Many companies put ethicists on retainer and insisted that their employees sit through seminars for continuing-education credit in ethics. By the ’90s, MBA programs began requiring courses in business ethics. Soon the business of business ethics was a booming multi-billion-dollar business. To what avail…?

I’m probably inflating the significance of this editorial, just by commenting on it. But the piece is so misleading that it’s hard not to comment.

The first error worth noting lies in the author’s understanding of the field of business ethics — or rather, the fields of business ethics. Is his target philosophers, or the people performing business-ethics roles in Corporations, who in fact are overwhelmingly not philosophers? Though there is some overlap, the academic study of business ethics (within which philosophy professors like me play a significant role) is quite distinct from the business ethics function carried out within corporations (often by “Ethics & Compliance” departments). To the best of my knowledge, those departments are staffed by lawyers and accountants and so on. That’s not an attempt on my part to shift blame from philosophers onto others: it’s just pointing out that the author of the editorial is a bit confused.

Fast forward to the current economic crisis, and the unethical behaviour that facilitated it:

Did we hear a peep from the experts on ethics while these shenanigans were in play? Hardly. The silence is understandable.

Again, to evaluate this we need to know who the author is talking about. But regardless, it’s an odd charge. If he’s talking about corporations’ internal ethics advisors, why on earth expect that “we” would hear a peep from them? If he’s talking about academics, he’s just uninformed. Business ethics scholars spend pretty much all their time promoting ethical behaviour on the part of corporations. As for commenting, after the fact, on the financial crisis and its sources, I’m guessing the author just hasn’t noticed the conferences, the special issues of scholarly journals, and the blog entries.

Finally, the author ends off with a totally wrong-headed prescription:

…if business ethicists cannot do anything to diminish the tendency toward greed, they ought to close up shop.

To say that business ethics, or any other field, ought to “close up shop” if it cannot change fundamental facts about human nature demonstrates a deep and dangerous misunderstanding of what we can, and should, expect of that field. Does advising an organization on what policies to implement in order to deal with conflict-of-interest require changing human nature? No. Does helping managers balance their obligations to shareholders against their obligations to other stakeholders require changing human nature? Thankfully no. Does reminding corporate leaders about the importance of visibly modelling the virtues they wish employees to imitate (advice they certainly don’t always follow) require changing human nature? No.

I think reflection on the role(s) of business ethics is an excellent thing, overall. But it’s rather unseemly to tell business ethicists that their job is to tilt at windmills, and then criticize them for not hitting their targets.

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