The word “moralisation,” often used in connection with capitalism since the financial crisis of autumn 2008, appears to be directly related to business ethics. Indeed, this field of research is concerned with the place of morality in economic life. After some thirty years of academic work, mainly in English, many moral issues have been analysed and discussed. And some of its theories have potentially surprising consequences. This is because, while remaining faithful to the liberal economic model, they would lead, if applied, to building a world quite different from the one we know today.

One might consider that the sole purpose of business ethics is ultimately to justify practices based on the selfishness of actors caught up in the ruthless game of economic competition. In short, to oil the wheels of the economic system. Perhaps this is why moralisation discourse has so far made little use of it, as if business ethics could not be dissociated from ethical deviations in the economic world. However, some of its developments clearly convey a conception of business ethics that go beyond a mere rhetorical packaging. It is therefore useful to underline how they can give meaning to the idea of moralisation, or even converge unexpectedly with critics of capitalism.

As most business ethics scholars understand it, moralisation generally leaves the basic structure of economic life intact. It is the structure’s operating rules (the regulations), not its principles, that should be “moralised.” This is certainly the reason why the words moralisation and regulation are often confused.

But the “moralising” ambition of certain developments in business ethics goes far beyond the question of regulation. For instance, one of these developments focused on defining a new contract between a company and the society in which it operates, a contract based on a different quality of relations with its stakeholders. Such ideas as the capacity for care, which has been widely theorised by care ethics, or the theory of the common good, are typical of these attempts to moralise business life.

It would be wrong to consider that these attempts had little effect on the practices of the actors. Indeed, they have introduced new terms into the language used to describe and evaluate business practices – without questioning the principles of liberal economy, which is, for business ethics, a guarantee of credibility.

Another development within business ethics with respect to moralisation has addressed the problem of the integration of the individual into the economic sphere. Robert Solomon, inspired by Aristotle’s moral philosophy, argued that “the corporation is first of all a community,” that its members should be able to live a good life, to exercise the virtues that allow them to realise human goods, in particular to exercise their integrity, which is, in Solomon’s words, “the linchpin of all of the virtues,” “an anchor against personal disintegration.” Avoiding such a “disintegration” supposes that the different parts of one’s life should not be separated. That is why Solomon emphasized that “good employees are good people” (1).

Solomon’s vision is of a system in which professionals are genuinely concerned about the general well-being and take full responsibility for their actions. In such a system, everyone would think that what is good for one is good for the community. In such a system, morality would somehow be more important than regulation.

This vision illustrates the far-reaching significance of some theories in business ethics. The new types of relationships it describes depend on deep-rooted convictions about the individual relationship to the community, which, in turn, depend on economic and social structures. Incidentally, the problem of integration – on which the new types of relationships is based – is close to the problem that André Gorz, an anarchist and Marxist-inspired thinker, has so clearly underlined. He distinguished two modes of integration of people within a productive organisation: autonomous and heteronomous (2). And he stated that, in the latter case, the integration of the person into his or her organisation has a “functional” nature (3), like the workings of a machine.

Of course, the convergence between Gorz’s vision and Solomon’s vision – the latter, not the former, being part of business ethics – has certainly a limited scope. But the idea of a human society in which production activities would be carried out in an autonomous way and people would be genuinely integrated into the economic system, is common to them.

This convergence, and the scope of the “moralisation” advocated by Solomon and some supporters of a new contract between the company and its stakeholders, underline the contributions that business ethics can make to reflections on a better (or a quite new) functioning of the economic system.

Alain Anquetil

(1) R. C. Solomon, “Corporate roles, personal virtues: An Aristotelean approach to business ethics,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 2(3), 1992, p. 317-339.

(2) Gorz distinguishes “autonomous activities and heteronomous work,” but he observes that “there is [not] a clear-cut separation” between them. A. Gorz, Métamorphoses du travail : Critique de la raison économique, Paris, Folio Gallimard, 1988, tr. G. Handyside and C. Turner, Critique of economic reason, Verso, 1989.

(3) “Functionality is a type of rationality which comes from the outside to the conduct determined and specified for the agent by the organization in which she or he is subsumed” (Ibid.).

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