Date of Award


Document Type

Senior Scholars Paper (Open Access)


Colby College. Philosophy Dept.


Yvonne R. Fisher


The problem of semantics is inherent in any discussion of ethics. The general term "ethics" is itself commonly confused. In addition, systems of ethics must be built upon assumptions, and assumptions are necessarily subject to lengthy debate. These two problems are encountered in my investigation of the ethical practices of the modern business community and to remedy the situation I have taken two steps: the first being an attempt to clarify the meaning of terms used therein;-and the second being a clear description of the assumptions utilized to further my analysis. To satisfy those who would disagree with these assumptions, I have attempted to outline the consequences of differing premises. The first assumption in my discussion is that the capitalistic economy is powered by the motivation supplied by man's self-interest. We are conditioned to basing our courses of action upon an orientation toward gratifying this self-interest. Careers are chosen by blending aptitude, interest, and remuneration. of course, some people are less materially inclined than others, but the average member of our capitalistic society is concerned with the physical rewards derived from his employment. Status and happiness are all-important considerations in pursuing a chosen course of action, yet all too often they are measured in physical terms. The normal self-interest natural to mankind is heightened in capitalism, due to the emphasis placed upon material compensation. Our thinking becomes mechanistic as life devolves into a complex game played by the rules. We are accustomed to performing meaningless or unpleasant duties to fulfill our gratifications. Thought, consequently, interferes with the completion of our everyday routines. We learn quickly not to be outspoken, as the outspoken one threatens the security of his fellow man. The majority of the people are quite willing to accept others views on morality, and indeed this is the sensible thing to do as one does not risk his own neck. The unfortunate consequence of this situation has been the substitution of the legal and jural for the moral and ethical. Our actions are guided by legal considerations and nowhere has this been more evident than in the business community. The large legal departments of modern corporations devote full time to inspecting the legality of corporate actions. The business community has become preoccupied with the law, yet this is necessarily so. Complex, modern, capitalistic society demands an elaborate framework of rules and regulations. Without this framework it would be impossible to have an orderly economy, to say nothing of protecting the best interests of the people. However, the inherent complexities, contradictions, and sometimes unfair aspects of our legal system can tempt men to take things into their own hands. From time to time cases arise where men have broken laws while acting in good faith, and other cases where men have been extremely unethical without being illegal. Examples such as these foster the growth of cynicism, and generally create an antagonistic attitude toward the law on the part of business. My second assumption is that the public, on the whole, has adopted an apathetic attitude toward business morality. when faced with an ethical problem, far too many people choose to cynically assume that, if I don't do it someone else will. "The danger of such an assumption lies in that it eliminates many of the inhibitions that normally would preclude unethical action. The preventative factor in contemplating an unethical act not only lies in it going against the "right course of action", but also in that it would display the actor as one of the few, immoral practitioners. However, if the contemplator feels that many other people follow the same course of action, he would not feel himself to be so conspicuous. These two assumptions underly my entire discussion of modern business ethics., and in my judgment are the two most important causal factors in unethical acts perpetrated by the business community. The future elimination of these factors seems improbable, if not futile, yet there is no reason to consider things worse than they ever have been before. The heightened public interest in business morality undoubtedly lies in part in the fact that examples of corporate malpractice are of such magnitude in scope, and hence more newsworthy.


Ethics, Business ethics, Capitalism

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