Campus Tilburg University hoogleraren

PhD Defense K.M.T. Meijer MA

Date: Time: 13:30 Location: Aula

Impossible and Inevitable: Reconstructing the Critique of Business Ethics

  • Location: Cobbenhagen building, Aula
  • Supervisor: Prof. G.W. Dubbink
  • Co-supervisor: Dr. R.B.J.M. Welten

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Public summary

Business ethics is a booming subject. Most universities and business schools offer business ethics courses, and many larger businesses have an ethics program in place. Nevertheless, business ethics has a troubled history. The field has been criticized as shallow, simple, and, worst of all, hypocritical. Why, then, is business ethics met with such criticism? Is there something amiss with business ethics in particular, or do other fields of applied ethics face the same criticism? This study set out to address these questions by analyzing the academic critique of business ethics. This examination helps us to develop a better understanding of business ethics itself; that is, of the attempt to apply ethics to business settings. 

The study starts with a reflection on the early development of business ethics as a ‘practical’ approach to ethics that aimed to appeal strongly to the business world. I show that this development made the field vulnerable to criticism. I then employ a literature review to reconstruct the academic critique of business ethics and to highlight five of its ‘central problems.’ These problems mostly revolve around an alleged misunderstanding of ethics in business ethics. There are critics who frame these problems as specific for business ethics; as if these problems occur in business ethics only. In so doing, business ethics appears to be depicted as the ‘black sheep’ of applied ethics.  I, however, hypothesize these problems are related to ethics in general. A problem of ethics in general can be related to each attempt to apply ethics and, therefore, to all fields of applied ethics.

Two methods are used to support this hypothesis. A comparative analysis of the critique of business ethics and the critique of bioethics shows that similar problems are related to the latter field. Following this, a hermeneutical study of the philosophical views of Emmanuel Levinas (on the ‘trauma’ of ethics) and Simone de Beauvoir (on the ‘ambiguity’ of ethics) shows that these are indeed problems of ethics in general. Therefore, I conclude these critics are largely mistaken to frame these problems as specific for business ethics and, thus, to depict this field as the ‘black sheep’ of applied ethics. And yet, these critics are not mistaken for bringing these problems to our attention; and for arguing that business ethicists should take these problems seriously. I conclude that it is impossible to resolve these problems but, at the same time, inevitable for fields of applied ethics – such as business ethics – to develop approaches to them. Several conditions for approaching these problems are sketched in the epilogue to the study.