Good ethics is often seen as good business.
Recently, there’s been a growing trend among businesses to see ethical practices as an important part of their financial success.
To be sure, this is a good thing. Social and environmental responsibility should be an important part of any business model. Nevertheless, I question the motive behind this growing trend.
Behind much of the philanthropy and “going green” campaigns is an ulterior motive. For example, I’ve recently been pressured by a number of companies to “go paperless” and no longer receive a paper bill in the mail. Why? They contend, if I go paperless, “it’s good for the environment.” Really? Is that their motive? Certainly, going paperless would save more trees and that’s a good thing.
However, do these companies really care about the environmental impact of using so much paper?
Or, is the real incentive to go paperless their bottom line?
Paperless bills will save their company money. I think this is their real motivation; they know it and many of us know it too.
So, why play the ethics card?
Well, in short, because good ethics is good business. Be that as it may, I want to raise a question about this growing trend toward business ethics. Namely, does it matter why an organization adopts some ethical practice or policy?
The famous philosopher Immanuel Kant provides a little insight on this question. Kant offered an example of a shopkeeper who always charges their customers a fair price. In such a case, Kant imagines there are three possible motives for why the shopkeeper might always act fairly.
First, the shopkeeper might always charge a fair price because it’s good business.
This is the rationale I’ve been considering above. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think we’d all agree that there’s nothing wrong with this rationale. At the same time, I think we would also say that there’s something not quite right about it either. There should be something more to ethics than just its being good business.
Secondly, Kant considers the possibility of the shopkeeper being a naturally fair minded individual.
In this way, the store owner is naturally inclined to be fair. Being a fair person is just their moral temperament. Cheating a customer would keep them up at night. So, they do the right thing because they don’t want an immoral action on their conscience. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this rationale. In fact, it’s nice to know that people still have a conscience. This is a good thing. However, shouldn’t ethical principles be more than just the way I happen to feel about something? Shouldn’t ethics be more than what happens to be good for an organization or what a business happens to think is right?
Lastly, Kant’s third consideration contends that the shopkeeper could choose to be fair to their customers because being fair is the right thing to do.
In other words, the shopkeeper could choose to be ethical simple because being fair to others is a good thing. In this way, an organization would choose philanthropy or decide to “go green” not because it was good for their bottom-line and not because they like to help people or the environment but because these things are the right thing to do (period). Kant believed that this was the right motivation for moral action. I think Kant was on to something here.
In fact, I think we would all benefit from more organizations doing the right thing, not for ulterior motives, but because being ethical is more than just good business.