Contextual Ethics, or Ethical Relativism

Oct 21

Ethics in business is a game, not unlike poker, argues Albert Carr in a 1968 paper entitled “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”. Throughout his paper he argues that there is an ethical divide between personal ethics and business ethics, and that what may be unacceptable in personal matters, is not only acceptable in business matters, but expected. About 15 years later,┬áNorman Chase Gillespie published a counterpoint to Carr’s paper entitled “The Business of Ethics”. Gillespie’s position is that there should not be as much license for business matters as Carr proposes, however, he stops far short of arguing for an absolute.

Context drives the turning points in each argument from Carr and Gillespie. One main difference between their arguments is found in the assertion by Gillespie that morals represent an absolute that applies in all contexts, while implying that Carr throws morals out when promoting business ethics as a game. Carr does discuss morals, but not in their impact on business, instead taking the position that in the business context, the dominant guiding principle is law, not morals. What is right in business is determined not by morals or conscience, but by what is lawful. Carr does cede that  in circumstances where non-legislative stakeholders, such as clients, take a deep interest in a matter, that can also sway the business outcome. In this case, the choice is not made based on any right or wrong, but instead based on what is prudent and economically sound.

Relativism enters into Gillespie’s arguments as he introduces the concept of a “moral rule”. When he originally published his paper in 1983, society may have had a narrower view of what moral rules applied to groups of people, so that some of the relativism observed in Gellespie’s arguments may be a reflection of contemporary society and culture. For example, he argues that lying to save a life is acceptable. He also argues that putting the driver of another car at risk is better than threatening oncoming traffic or sacrificing one’s self to preserve the safety of others. These examples are far from absolute and he provides no justification as to why his moral conclusions ought to be shared by others, which weakens his arguments.

Dilemma is common between both papers and provides the desired thrust for their arguments. Each choose several scenarios in which someone must choose between two or more undesirable outcomes. In this moment of pressure a natural window opens, showing a man’s true character. Ultimately, both authors are making arguments and judgments about men’s character. The difficulty about dilemma is that it requires so much background and may have many subtexts. As ethics is the moral consideration of behavior, and there has been no effort by either author to establish a compelling moral agreement beforehand, it’s difficult to adequately judge whether or not the character’s they present appropriately addressed the dilemma presented to them.

While not addressed directly, each paper touches on the potential conflicts between public good and personal conscience. From a business perspective there are different cultural ideas about who represent stakeholders. Does a business have an obligation beyond it’s shareholders? Does that ethical obligation extend to the community, or the state or the country or even beyond? The scope of the perceived ethical obligation will inform the morals that should factor into any decision. It then remains to find a balance in the circumstances when there is a gap between the perceived public good and personal conscience.


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