Leading Article: A virtuous endeavour

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea