Responsible Business: Strategies for Making Good
Dr Christopher Reynolds
Business is in need of new strategies for making good decisions. It
has become glaringly obvious that business does not exist in isolation
of the community and needs to consider socially responsible behaviours
in conjunction with achieving corporate objectives. Traditional strategies
and paradigms, however, are proving inadequate in this process as business
seeks to deal with contemporary political and social considerations.
At the same time, there is a growing dissatisfaction with the concept
of ‘moral philosophy’ as a term that may be applied to business. Almost
by instinct, business has rejected traditional morality as irrelevant
and in the absence of rational and meaningful discourse, ethical decision
making, for business as well as for Western society, is in a state of
disorder. In this context, historical survey, and historical precedent,
are being almost totally ignored in the search for existential answers
to business ethical issues. Indeed, this is the real ethical dilemma
of our time.
The religious environment that gave birth to much of the tradition and
ethical thinking of modern Western society, (if the distinction can
still be made) has now faded in its social and political influence in
society and with it a comprehension of traditional morality as it could
apply to business. As the meaning of ethics has become blurred, so too
its language has become strange and its nuances lost. Still, as people
become more empowered to determine the nature and opportunities of their
personal and community life, they will not tolerate the continual unchecked
growth of an ethical egoism in business in the form of the Hobbesian
notion of untamed self interest. Kant’s proposition of a civil state
built upon social compact remains a valid social construct and there
remains the needs for accountability and responsibility if society is
to have order.
In the context of change and of a more demanding society, there is a
need for a new ethical paradigm that is reasonable and provides a sound
foundation for business to make decisions. It is proposed that the concept
of responsibility and responsible ethics can provide business with such
a foundation and give it the tools to form strategies for good decisions.
However, the endeavour to make ethics relevant to contemporary commercial
society starts with clarifying the meaning of the concept. Originally,
the Greeks defined the term to refer to “a people like us” and used
it to describe, firstly, the habits and traditions of the community,
and secondly, the process of rational pursuit for personal happiness.
Ethics had both personal and social application. At the same time, it
had a far more broader meaning than morality, and adherence to a moral
code and the original and correct meaning of the term can be demonstrated
to have far more application and relevance to the ethical endeavour
of the business community than.
The notion of responsible ethics first arises in the Greek context as
the process of rational decision making is placed in the context of
responsibility to one’s self as well as to the community. Drawing upon
the work of Richard Niebuhr, a twentieth century Christian ethicist,
as well as Aristotle, responsible ethics is to be contrasted with both
deontology and teleology. Where deontology asks the primary question;
“what is my obligation?”, and teleology asks; “what is my goal?”, responsibility
first asks “ what is happening ( in the tradition of a situational ethic)
and asks “what is the most fitting response?”. While Aristotle may indeed
to be teleological in his assertions concerning the human ethical objective
to find happiness, he is at the same time, and primarily, concerned
with the nature of the community (polis) and of the rational ethical
processes of the community.
While it can be argued that responsibility ethics has both a Greek and
even a Christian tradition, it must also be argued that it also has
a contemporary relevance as it allows an existential application to
ethical issues as they arise. This is its strength. It also allows for
the development of a new ethical language that expresses the process
of decision making in way that is meaningful to contemporary business.
Responsible ethics builds on the notions of relationship and social
interaction. While allowing for goals to be set, and laws to be established,
it argues that laws and goals need to be established in the context
of responsibilities. The rational decision making of the society itself
dominates the ethical process. Accordingly, it could be argued that
responsibility ethics is a ‘holistic’ approach in as much as the process
of decision making can be equally applied to personal relations, careers,
and business in its social and corporate dealings. With particular reference
to business, it gives meaning to the notion of the ‘corporate citizenship’
and allows business to take charge of its own interactions.
As social and political change brought about the concept of ‘responsible
government’ some centuries ago, so, too, social and political change
across the world today is demanding responsible business.