Peter Ulrich and Thomas Maak

There are different approaches that may constitute business ethics, just as there are different ways to think about ethics in society. Firstly, there is the widely held view that the sole task of business ethics is to restrain the economic drive for profit in cases which raise considerable moral problems. This perspective restricts the role of business ethics to a corrective factor which needs to be applied against too much economic rationality. However, since this understanding of rationality is not questioned as such, the result is a compromise in which economic logic is only restricted by ethics instead of being integrated with ethical reason. It wrongly presupposes that there is an area in which economic market control functions ‘without ethics’. The mistake here is failure to realize that every conceivable form of market economy is a political arrangement and has to be justified in its entirety in terms of ethics. Market solutions to problems of social interaction and integration are on no account value-free and neutral but depend on the given relations of power and resources between the trading parties. That is why every market interaction has a moral dimension. The question is, are the participants aware of it and if so, do they have the ethical means to cope with it?

Secondly, in contrast to this ‘corrective’ approach, another way of thinking of business ethics is as a purely economic theory of morals. It is argued that moral behavior in business may be a useful idea. Moral economics thus analyses the function of morals from an economic point of view and identifies the possible benefits of certain types of moral behavior. The essence here is that the actions of the actors should be determined not by moral intentions (good will) but solely by their economic interest, guided by an institutional framework of economic restrictions (incentives or ‘disincentives’). It is, however, easy to see that the reduction of ethics to economics misses the core problem; this type of ‘business ethics’ does not contain the vital ethical minimum in terms of the imperative moral rights of people. What if moral behavior has no economic advantage? In that case, the strictly self-interested market player has no motivation to pay heed to the legitimate claims of others. Ethics conditioned by economics cannot be considered true ethics since the point is precisely to respect the ‘inviolable’ basic rights and dignity of every human being no matter what the circumstances.

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