One of the strangest things I’ve discovered in teaching business ethics is the priority ethics has to have in an organization. Most of my students tell me that they think the primary function of a business is to make money for shareholders. So naturally, they think, ethics should play a second fiddle to profit-making. This is probably the source of the popular claim that business ethics is an oxymoron.
By the end of my class, though, I usually have them thinking that ethical business is good business. There are plenty of good business models that stand up to ethical scrutiny. But then I spring the trap: if a company does want to be ethical, I argue, it has to make ethics not just one of many factors in a decision. As long as the company allows other concerns to trump ethical concerns, the business will find itself cutting all the wrong corners. In fact, the final question about any business decision has to be “Is this ethically acceptable?” If ethics is a priority, then it has to be the priority. An ethical business has ethics as its bottom line.
I like this argument a lot because it sounds something like a categorical imperative applies to business: ethical obligations aren’t trumped by any other concern. But of course this isn’t a true categorical imperative because my argument is just that if a company wants to be ethical, then certain duties apply to it. That kind of arrangement is just a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is only binding if you have a certain end. For example, you have an obligation to do your homework only if you want to succeed at college. If instead you want to be a famous jello wrestler, you likely don’t have an obligation to do your homework.
I haven’t considered here whether business are rational beings to whom the categorical imperative could apply or whether they can act and set ends for themselves. But even if ethical duties are just hypothetical imperatives for businesses, they are pretty interesting hypothetical imperatives. It’s not every hypothetical imperative which, if you happen to possess its motivating desire, has to be the final arbiter of all your decisions. If I want to be a famous jello wrestler, I’m going to have to run my life in a certain way. But I don’t have to ask myself of every action: will this further my end of becoming a jello wrestler? If I want to be an ethical person, this affects every other end that I have. I shouldn’t adopt any that come into conflict with ethical living.
It would be nice to have a name for this kind of imperative, so until I learn the name someone else has for it I’ll call it a focusing hypothetical imperative or constitutive hypothetical imperative. And I’ll submit that business ethics is one of these focusing hypothetical imperatives. Perhaps there are others as well.