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What are the Roots to the Background and Growth of Business Ethics?


It could be a surprise to some people that business ethics are not new at all. These are been discussed for millennia in one form or another. It is important to step back a moment and consider the roots of business ethics and how the concepts have progressed over time. This backwards looking analysis helps us better understand how ethics developed, and their importance in the modern business age.

Classical Business Ethics

Business did not escape the scrutiny of Aristotle. He discussed it in his treatise, The Republic and he commented at length about greed and the unnatural use of a person’s talent in pursuit of it. There are passages in Scripture that give guidance regarding business ethics as related to commerce in the classical world. Centuries passed before the question of business ethics per se was brought up by St. Thomas Aquinas. His discussion centered primarily on the condemnation of usury, and the sale of products for more than their true worth. Interestingly, Aquinas had no problem with borrowing for good purpose from anyone who might charge interest rates on the loan.

Other thinkers would follow and give their views on topics such as laissez-faire (Adam Smith), the exploitation of workers for profit (Karl Marx), and social justice in the marketplace (Pope Leo XIII). The 20th century would also see consideration of business ethics and alternating discussions about whether property or consumer mattered most in the economy. It is important to keep in mind that business ethics is an evolving subject. Changes happen that result in refocusing attention to other areas of the spectrum.

The Modern Business Ethics

New issues come to the forefront all the time. The oil spills of the Valdez and the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico have raised questions as to what procedures are in place to protect the environment. The financial world was fairly regulated and ethics were mandated in law up until the 21st century. It has been argued that a lack of concepts dealing with right and wrong resulted in the great recession of 2008. Issues of transparency and fiscal mismanagement are bringing new ideas into the area of ethics. These are in response to practices where designing a cover-up or meeting quarterly goals have become more important than traditional honesty.

Future Ethical Considerations.

The global economy is plowing fresh ground for business ethics. Outsourcing has become a popular means of getting the job done, but it opens up the possibility of copyright theft and blatant use of patented products for personal profit. It has been a way of life in some developing countries to use bribery and payoffs to conduct business. This is clashing with the perception that graft and corruption is not the proper way of doing business.

The Internet also opens up discussion for business ethics. Deliberate and vicious attacks on competitors has created the entire industry of reputation management. Discussion has centered on whether or not website administrators should be held liable for slander posted to their websites. Hacking into e-commerce no longer is extraordinary news. It happens all the time, and it is actually increasing.

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While it is possible to legislate the morality of the marketplace, it doesn’t always cover all of the bases. The roots of business ethics are centered in the concept of fair play and integrity. The new world of business is being faced with a lot of temptations, and the use of relativity thinking can persuade people to commit unethical acts. It is the responsibility of academia to emphasize that works of classical business ethicists are not simply quaint proverbs. They are meant to safeguard both the customer and other people in the business world. Walking away from business ethics is a dangerous trip to make. It can very easily turn commerce into a Darwinian forest were only the strongest, and perhaps the most devious, are going to survive. Nobody really wants that to happen.

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