In some ways, the term ‘business ethics’ is an inadequate concept for an interdisciplinary field covering a vast range of normative issues in commerce, governance, leadership and management. The term lends itself most directly to a core set of questions about how individuals in the business world ought to behave, or what principles they might appeal to in order to negotiate moral dilemmas in some aspect of commercial or organisational life. But if we consider the array of ethical issues addressed by people engaged in all forms of commercial activity, be they professionals or tradespeople, merchants or board directors, they almost invariably reduce to matters of individual motives, behaviour and forms of decision-making contextualised by layers of expectations and practices involving organisational, cultural and/or legal norms. Traditionally, the term ‘professional ethics’ was restricted to members of specific ‘professions’, so called largely because of defined codes of conduct considered definitive of the practices which defined them. More recently, the term has acquired a broader meaning, referring to a high level of general ethical awareness and practice that is not confined to any code of conduct. In this unit, business ethics will be discussed in terms of a ‘higher’ standard of professionalism, according to which the Socratic and Christian emphasis on self-management determines the way in which one manages and deals with others.
The perspective of this unit is that ethics is neither optional nor purely personal in a business context, since it lies at the heart of all decision making. Interestingly, in the world of commerce, we tend not to talk of ‘business morality’, but, rather, of ‘business ethics’. This is because, like all other forms of human activity, our commercial transactions have numerous codes of behaviour, numerous moral codes. Indeed, when attached to socially enforced sanctions and limitations, these moral codes become legal codes. As will be discussed throughout this unit, the issue, on most occasions, is not the presence or absence of such codes, but, critically, the awareness of the significance of such codes, their intention, and, especially, a willingness to abide by them. In other words, business ethics is about our understanding of, and commitment to, our values in commercial contexts.
Where appropriate this unit is supplemented by Biblical, ethical, philosophical, and social scientific materials and perspectives. These materials and perspectives are intended to enhance, not detract from, contemporary understandings of business contexts, practices, and environments. Where such materials and perspectives are deployed, linkages to relevant business understandings will be made explicit.