Responsible Business: Strategies for Making Good Decisions


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.