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The Morality of Commercial Life

Ethics lecture by Wim Dubbink and Luc Van Liedekerke

Most moral problems in commercial life involve problems of moral motivation. Consider major recent cases like Enron, the Madoff Ponzi scheme, the banking crisis and the Deep Horizon oil spill. In each of these cases the agents involved were not paralyzed by moral dilemmas that froze them into inaction.

They knew what was morally right and what was morally wrong but they had a hard time motivating themselves to do the morally right thing. Hence, pushing back problems of moral motivation is a major task of contemporary business ethics. These problems are stirred up by the moral skepticism that is prevalent among contemporary business people. Business ethics must therefore also push back moral skepticism.

In view of this analysis, contemporary philosophical business ethics as an academic discipline is in disarray. It suggests that business ethics is in large part about moral dilemmas and it has a tendency to focus on developing methods to this end. What is more, it tends not to appreciate the problem of moral skepticism to its full extent. Oftentimes the matter is concluded by noting that commercial agents have sufficient non-moral arguments to comply with morality. Morality works. Hence, the prudent business person chooses to be moral because morality is profitable in the long run. Philosophical business ethics needs to come around if it wants to remain meaningful. Even the business people who were enthusiastic about solving moral dilemmas in the 1980s start to find the whole operation silly. It must be much more precise in analyzing the moral problems of contemporary commercial life and it must take on moral skepticism.

We try to contribute to this development by distinguishing various types of problems harassing commercial life. But most importantly, we try to develop a philosophical grounding of business ethics, that will seriously challenge the moral skeptic. The core of our effort is to demonstrate that the morality of commercial life can only be understood if we take a dual perspective on morality. Morality can and must be grounded from a functional (i.e. non-moral) perspective and from a hermeneutic (i.e. moral) perspective. Yet, the hermeneutic perspective deserves to be given priority. In the end, the non-moral grounding fails to convince the non-moral agent. To the extent that it is convincing, its representation of morality has major shortcomings, that give new fuel to the moral skeptic.

Wim Dubbink is associate professor of business ethics at Tilburg University. He specializes in Kantian Business Ethics and corporate institutional design. Dubbink studied history and philosophy in Groningen, and received his PhD the Erasmus Business School Rotterdam in 1999. He is series editor of Springer’s Issues in Business Ethics Series. His 2009 contribution to the Society of Business Ethics Annual Conference was selected best governance paper, while his 2011 contribution won the best paper award. Recent publications in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Business Ethics Quarterly, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. He is now finalizing a book The Morality of Commercial Life (with Luc van Liedekerke, editor).

Luc Van Liedekerke is professor of business ethics at the universities of Leuven and Antwerp and heads the Centre for Economics and Ethics. He specializes in financial ethics and CSR. He studied philosophy and economics at the K.U.Leuven and holds a PhD in philosophy and an MSc in Economics. Recent publications include a monograph with Wim Dubbink on European Business Ethics Cases in Context: The Morality of Corporate Decision Making, and several publications in Ethik und Gesellschaft, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Journal of Business Ethics. In 2000 he co-edited the book Explorations in Financial Ethics, Peeters, Leuven. He is the outgoing president of the European Business Ethics Network.

Last modified:30 October 2012 8.39 p.m.