Three takes on business ethics: Young academics hold court.

I recently spent a day acting as a Faculty Advisor at an event held by the Canadian Business Ethics Research Network (CBERN). The day involved listening to presentations by young PhD students in the field of Business Ethics and offering constructive comments on their research projects. The students presented on very different scholarly questions within Business Ethics, each drawing on his Doctoral research. It was interesting enough that a summary bears repeating.

The first presentation was by Sean Geobey from the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience. Geobey’s presentation was about a broad cluster of financial mechanisms known as “social finance” (which includes, for example, microfinance, social banking, and crowd-funding). The focus was on the degree, if at all, to which such innovations can serve as remedies to failures on the part of more traditional market- and government-based mechanisms.

When, for example, can microfinance remedy failures of traditional banking, and to what kinds of failure is microfinance in turn subject? The significance of this work is plain: it is increasingly clear that there is value to be found in open-minded innovation about the institutional mechanisms we use to supply goods and services, including finance. If social finance is to make good on its promise, we need sophisticated understandings of just what it can and cannot do.

Second up was Abraham Singer from the University of Toronto. His presentation was an exploration of the relevance of the political philosophy of John Rawls — the most important in his field of the 20th Century — to corporate governance. Singer’s conclusion was to cautiously assert that Rawls probably has relatively little to tell us about corporate governance. Rawls was primarily concerned with justice in what he called the “basic structure” of society, the key institutional mechanisms that make society what it is. That basic structure, according to Rawls, must be subject to principles of justice that would be acceptable to essentially everyone, regardless of their own particular vision of ‘the good life.’ And Rawls was clear in stating that beyond that basic structure, all of us must be permitted the freedom to live our lives as we see fit.

Singer argued convincingly that where the Rawlsian framework is concerned corporate governance is essentially a private matter, and so the specific principles of justice that Rawls advocated just aren’t relevant within corporations. That’s not to say that justice within corporations isn’t a concern; it’s just to say that the principles that apply there will be specific to the kind of institutions that corporations are, rather than being the principles that apply to how we organize society more generally.

And finally was a presentation by Hamish van der Ven, also from the University of Toronto. His work is on the factors that affect companies’ decision to “go green.” The standard assumption is that companies that take an environmentally-sensitive turn are likely to do so because they’ve become convinced of the business case for doing so. They may, for example, have realized that there are significant bottom-line benefits to energy conservation, and positive reputational benefits to being seen as sensitive to environmental concerns.

Van der Ven’s hypothesis—supported by limited but provocative data—suggests that what is much more important is whether a company’s senior executives have or have not had opportunities to associate with, and absorb values from, environmentalists and environmental organizations. What matters, in other words, is the processes of socialization that senior executives have been through.

Van der Ven argued that you can understand a lot more, for example, about Walmart’s relatively strong environmental performance (compared, say, to Costco’s) by looking at the experiences of certain key decision-makers, and by looking at the number of points of interaction (or lack thereof) between the companies and various environmental groups.

Interestingly, none of these three young scholars is from my own home discipline, namely philosophy, which is the traditional ‘home’ of academic business ethics. Singer and van der Ven are political scientists, and Geobey’s background is in economics and environmental studies. Small sample, to be sure, but this kind of diversity is as it should be. Business ethics is and must be a broad discipline. It needs to draw upon both theoretical and practical insights, and on scholarly methods from a whole range of humanist and social-scientific disciplines. Business ethics, in other words, is everybody’s business.

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