Business Ethics as Practice

Published date01 June 2007
Date01 June 2007
Business Ethics as Practice
Stewart Clegg, Martin Kornberger, and Carl Rhodes
University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia
Corresponding author email:
In this article we develop a conceptualization of business ethics as practice. Starting
from the view that the ethics that organizations display in practice will have been forged
through an ongoing process of debate and contestation over moral choices, we examine
ethics in relation to the ambiguous, unpredictable, and subjective contexts of managerial
action. Furthermore, we examine how discursively constituted practice relates to
managerial subjectivity and the possibilities of managers being moral agents. The
article concludes by discussing how the ‘ethics as practice’ approach that we expound
provides theoretical resources for studying the different ways that ethics manifest
themselves in organizations as well as providing a practical application of ethics in
organizations that goes beyond moralistic and legalistic approaches.
In recent years, business scandals, ranging from
Enron to the Parmalat disasters, have once again
redirected the attention of both managers and
organization theorists to a consideration of ethics
and the moral dilemmas corporations face in the
context of contemporary capitalism (see Donald-
son, 2003; Johnson and Smith, 1999; Parker,
2003; Porter and Kramer, 2002; Soule, 2002;
Tonge, Greer and Lawton, 2003; Veiga, 2004;
Weaver, Trevin
˜o and Cochran, 1999b; see also
Werhane, 2000). Despite such a renewed focus, as
Donaldson (2003) suggests, the theoretical tools
employed to analyse and understand ethics
require further development. In the same vein,
as Wicks and Freeman argue, ‘organization
studies needs to be fundamentally reshaped . . .
to provide room for ethics and to increase the
relevance of research’ (1998, p. 123). It is an aim
that we subscribe to. The goal of this article is to
develop a theoretical framework with which to
explore ethics in organization theory that moves
beyond being either prescriptive or morally
relative. To do so, we argue that ethics is best
understood and theorized as a form of practice.
Our approach is concerned with theorizing ethics
in relation to what managers actually do in their
everyday activities. We argue that such practice is
central to how ethical subjectivity is formed and
contested in organizations, as it is circumscribed
by organizational rules, norms and discourses.
It has long been recognized that the discipline of
organization studies needs to enlarge its role in
debating and discussing complex cases of ethics
(Saul, 1981; Zald, 1993). Continuing such discus-
sion is critical to the development of the field
because ‘systematic attention to the moral dimen-
sion of business is necessary to a coherent and
constructive notion of organization studies’
(Wicks and Freeman, 1998). However, as Donald-
son argues ‘one problem preventingus from taking
ethics more seriously is a form of scientific naı
where we regard ethics as worse than ‘‘soft’’
because it lacks a theoretical foundation’ (2003,
p. 363) The theoretical disdain may occur because
ethics have beenviewed as an extraneous incursion
from a moral realm outside ordinary practice and
orderly theory (Feldman, 2004), an incursion from
a transcendent and barely grasped tradition.
We approach ethics through a theoretical
framework focusing on how ethics play out in
practice, not pragmatically, but through an
emphasis on the context and interpretation of
ethics, the discourse in which they are enacted
and their relation to organizational subjects.
With this concept of ethics as practice we are
able to conceptualize the relations between: rule
British Journal of Management, Vol. 18, 107–122 (2007)
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2006.00493.x
r2006 British Academy of Management
following and rule violation; the interplay be-
tween subjects and rule systems, and the active
and discursive construction of ethics and the
power such discourse exercises. We are aware of
the risks entailed in this approach and we will
seek to avoid them, especially the slander that the
position, like any postmodernism, is a form of
ethical relativism (Feldman, 2004). Rather than
stress the relativism of ethical practices, we
suggest that they will be conducted in a situation
of ethical pluralism, one in which moral choices
are made, often in unclear situations and against
potentially conflicting standards (see Bauman,
1993). We thus view ethics in organizations as an
ongoing process of debate and contestatio n over
moral choices – as Bauman argues, ‘being moral
means being bound to makes choi ces under
conditions of acute and painful uncertainty’
(Bauman and Tester, 2001, p. 46). In the suggested
ethics as practice framework, uncertainty and
‘bounded moral rationality’ (Donaldson and
Dunfee, 1994) are accounted for rather than being
replaced with an unwavering moralistic model
prescribing what organizations and their members
should do in order to be ‘ethical’, such as
subscribing to some transcendent notion of ‘tradi-
tion’ (Clegg and Feldman, 2005; Feldman, 2004).
In the next section we will situate ethics as a
key concern for management and organization
theory. Second, we describe our use of the
concept of practice and its focus on the way that
organizational members engage in ethical choices
and decisions facing ambiguous, unpredictable
and subjective contexts of action. Third, we
examine how ethical choices can be understood
as defying predetermination by ethical models,
rules or norms; ethics are both unpredictable and
future oriented. Fourth, we locate the practice of
ethics as situated within organizational discourse.
Then, we examine how ethics as practice relates
to managerial subjectivity. Lastly, we apply our
approach to the analysis of ethics in organiza-
tions and conclude by pointing to possible future
directions that the study of ethics as practice
might take.
Philosophy, ethics and the rule of
Philosophically, our approach originates with
Kant’s deontological ethics (see Kant, 1998, p.
30). Rather than defining a set of values that
should guide action, Kant developed a process
that could be employed to prove whether an
action is ethical or not. He does this with the idea
of the categorical imperative, proposing that one
‘act only on that maxim whereby you can at
the same time will that it should be a universal
law’. The categorical imperative is not intended
to provide any specific ethical values but a
process by which anyone, anytime, anywhere,
can verify their action as ethically sound.
We agree that a deontological ethics is important
in that it marks an important step away from
an ethics based on certain and predetermined
values. However, such an ethics based on duty
does not take into account the changing socially
and discursively constituted environments in
which people enact their sense of duty. As Byers
argues, the categorical imperative can also be
taken as a case where ‘given the infinite particu-
larity of the situations from which the maxim is
generated, the range of maxims subjected to
universalization is itself infinite’ (in Byers and
Rhodes, 2004, p. 159).
In organization studies, researchers have
sought to determine whether ethics is an indivi-
dual or an organizational issue. Opinions vary;
some researchers argue that ethics is a funda-
mentally individual responsibility (Ibarra-Cola-
da, 2002; Soares, 2003; Watson, 2003), whereas
others insist that ethics is guaranteed in and
through bureaucratic structures (du Gay, 2000,
2004). We align ourselves, broadly, with those
social scientists, such as Gilligan, who focus on
ethics not as a matter of the ‘moral agent acting
alone on the basis of his [sic] principles’ (Gilligan,
1987, p. 304); we see morality as grounded in the
‘daily experiences and moral problems of real
people in their everyday life’ (Tronto, 1993, p. 79)
where the ethical maxim cannot be generalized
beyond the particularity of the situation. In
relation to business ethics this suggests ‘a need
to recognize the complexity and disorder of real-
life management practice and adopt methods of
investigation and theoretical and conceptual
frameworks that allow for this’ (Bartlett, 2003,
p. 233; see also Maclagan, 1995). As Bauman
puts it, ‘in the face of moral dilemmas without
good (let alone obvious) choices’, we recognize
the ‘excruciating difficulty of being moral’ (Bau-
man, 1993, p. 248). It is the practical aspects of
such complex ethical processes that we see as
108 S. Clegg, M. Kornberger, and C. Rhodes

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT