Leading Article: A virtuous endeavour

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The Independent Online
THE INAUGURATION today of Britain's first full professorship of business ethics, at Manchester Business School, is one more sign that the field is a growing one. Watching the recent succession of highly publicised trials and scandals, a cynic might observe that there are now practitioners of business ethics to be found everywhere except in business.

Business ethics as taught and studied has very little to do with criminality. The depredations of a Robert Maxwell or a Peter Clowes take place irrespective of the ethical standards of the society surrounding them. In fact, crooks will benefit from an atmosphere of general honesty and moderate greed just as violent thugs will more easily exploit a peaceful society.

The spectacular thefts of a Robert Maxwell testify by their long success to the general, and generally justified, expectation that businessmen in this country are honest and trustworthy. The point when one can speak of systematic corruption, rather than outbursts of unfettered larceny, comes when honest men feel that they are handicapped by their own honesty. There are large parts of the world where it is now impossible to do business without resorting to bribery. This is regrettable not merely on absolute ethical grounds, but also because it keeps the people of these countries poorer than they need be. Bad business is inefficient business.

But is efficient business necessarily good business? That is the sort of question, slowly gathering force over the century, that has led to the establishment of business ethics as a separate study. A hundred years ago the archetype of a good businessman was a philanthropist such as Andrew Carnegie, who made millions by exploiting his workers, attacking his rivals and cheating where possible his customers, before spending much of his fortune charitably.

Yet, as Gerald Ronson discovered, it is not enough nowadays to have given generously to charity, even when your only crime has been so technical that juries reel away exhausted from the spectacle. The ethical businessman today is expected to acquire his money justly, as well as spend it charitably.

It is this change in public expectations that the current academic interest in business ethics reflects and will, in turn, strengthen. There is a general feeling that the interests of shareholders, customers and employees are liable to conflict with each other. And where all three are united, it may be at the expense of someone else's ecology. The strength of this feeling is shown by the success of those companies that have exploited it, such as the Body Shop, or the numerous funds offering 'ethical investment' as their Unique Selling Proposition.

In fact, it is the public suspicion of companies which ensures that the best ones will do their utmost to avoid even the appearance of conflict between the interests of their shareholders, their employees and their customers. And in a well-run company a virtuous spiral sets in: well-treated employees produce attractive goods; satisfied customers make for happy shareholders.

This sounds like an argument against having professors of business ethics. It is not. Virtue comes no more naturally to those in business than anyone else; and chairs of business ethics are part of what the vigilant society needs to defend its standards of honesty.