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The Moral Background

The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics

Gabriel Abend
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    The Moral Background
    Book Description:

    In recent years, many disciplines have become interested in the scientific study of morality. However, a conceptual framework for this work is still lacking. InThe Moral Background, Gabriel Abend develops just such a framework and uses it to investigate the history of business ethics in the United States from the 1850s to the 1930s.

    According to Abend, morality consists of three levels: moral and immoral behavior, or the behavioral level; moral understandings and norms, or the normative level; and the moral background, which includes what moral concepts exist in a society, what moral methods can be used, what reasons can be given, and what objects can be morally evaluated at all. This background underlies the behavioral and normative levels; it supports, facilitates, and enables them.

    Through this perspective, Abend historically examines the work of numerous business ethicists and organizations-such as Protestant ministers, business associations, and business schools-and identifies two types of moral background. "Standards of Practice" is characterized by its scientific worldview, moral relativism, and emphasis on individuals' actions and decisions. The "Christian Merchant" type is characterized by its Christian worldview, moral objectivism, and conception of a person's life as a unity.

    The Moral Backgroundoffers both an original account of the history of business ethics and a novel framework for understanding and investigating morality in general.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5034-1
    Subjects: Business, Economics, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-27)

    In January 2011, the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States made public its final report. This commission “was established as part of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act” of 2009. Chaired by Democrat Phil Angelides, it “reviewed millions of pages of documents and questioned hundreds of individuals—financial executives, business leaders, policy makers, regulators, community leaders, people from all walks of life—to find out how and why it [the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression] happened.”³ Surely the commission was confronted with a most difficult question and a most...

  4. 1 The Moral Background
    (pp. 28-70)

    What is the moral background? How does it differ from other familiar moral objects, such as moral judgments, beliefs, and norms? Let me begin to address this question by means of an analogy between science and morality. Consider a journal article in molecular biology or political science, which advances the empirical claim, “X causes Y.” According to a traditional conception of science, this claim aims at the truth, understood roughly as correspondence to the world. Science makes progress by accumulating more and more truths about what the world is like and how the world works. In the history of molecular...

  5. 2 Ethics as a Business Proposition
    (pp. 71-114)

    Business ethicists of all eras and persuasions have vocally held that businesspeople should not cheat, lie, or steal. So have organizations and state agencies concerned about business ethics and their consequences. They have time and again exhorted businesspeople to conduct their affairs in an ethical fashion—in their relations with customers, competitors, employees, the state, the community, the public, and the environment. They have asked businesspeople to refrain from falsifying financial statements and insider trading; from “[mingling] mahogany saw-dust with the cayenne pepper,”³ and from “mixing . . . starch with cocoa,” and “[diluting] . . . butter with lard.”⁴...

  6. 3 Christian Motives
    (pp. 115-160)

    The previous chapter looked at business ethicists’ approach to a pesky question: why should a businessperson be ethical at all? Business ethicists are not theoretical but practical moralists, who work for the improvement of ethics in business in various ways. So, their job requires that they deal with this pesky question. If you are going to go out and tell businesspeople to do what business ethics recommends, you should probably be prepared to tell them, too, the reason or reasons why they should do what business ethics recommends. Just in case somebody asks. In addition, being able to explain why...

  7. 4 The Good of American Business
    (pp. 161-206)

    On June 5, 1926, a strip titled “The Pesky Calf” appeared inNation’s Business, the official organ of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States. Tellingly, the strip accompanied an article penned by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. “BUSINESS” is represented by a pesky, misbehaved calf, which crawls through a fence it should not crawl through. This act of the calf allegorically represents the avoidance of “legitimate methods” and “square dealing” in business—i.e., unethical business practices. The cowboy, who represents the U.S. government, is then compelled to intervene. He will “fix” the pesky calf. The fix is a...

  8. 5 The Good of American society
    (pp. 207-259)

    In the evening of April 27, 1931, Nicholas “Miraculous” Butler, president of Columbia University, addressed the Alumni Association of the Columbia School of Business. The occasion was the annual dinner of the association, which took place at the Columbia University Club on 4 West 43 Street in Manhattan.³ Butler, Columbia’s president from 1902 to 1945, was a well-known public intellectual, who that very year received the Nobel Peace Prize. The subject of his address that evening was “business as a university subject,” and he reflected on the relationship between practical subjects and higher education. The “medieval university” concerned itself not...

  9. 6 Standards of Practice
    (pp. 260-305)

    The moral background is a conceptual tool that allows us to see the history of business ethics in a new light. As any social science concept, one of its criteria of success is utility: whether it helps us perceive and understand phenomena that we had not properly perceived and understood before. According to my conceptual framework, first-order morality comprises individuals’ behaviors, understandings, views, and judgments, as well as society’s norms and institutions. These are the sorts of facts that scientists of morality have investigated up to now. In this book I argue that this first-order, surface level is enabled, supported,...

  10. 7 The Christian Merchant
    (pp. 306-356)

    November 24, 1848. New York City. The merchant Jonathan Goodhue passed away at sixty-six years of age. Goodhue was regarded as “one of the first merchants in New-York” for two kinds of reasons:

    We and many others—all indeed who knew him, either personally or by reputation—have been wont to regard him as one of the first merchants in New-York; and not solely by reason of his extensive mercantile operations, or of the enterprise and intelligence by which they were guided, but equally, and even in a greater degree, by the integrity, the large and liberal spirit, the enlightened...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 357-386)

    Businesspeople are not particularly known for their appreciation of poets’ work (and vice versa). There is one poem, though, originally published in January 1917, which did attain a surprisingly wide circulation in the business press. Penned by Wisconsinite poet Berton Braley, it first appeared inNation’s Business, the official organ of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The poem’s title is “Business is Business,” and it goes like this (see figure C.1).

    The first stanza, the “Little Man,” represents the ordinary sense of the phrase, “business is business.” This is probably what most people understood by it. Business pursuits are shielded...

    (pp. 387-388)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 389-400)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 401-402)