The Case against the Business Case and the Idea of “Earned Reputation”

by Thielemann, Ulrich and Wettstein, Florian

“Ethics pays in the long run.” This still is the mantra of most practitioners and scholars in the field of business ethics. The paper at hand questions this widely held, instrumentalist view on the relationship between “ethics” and profits on epistemological and thus fundamental grounds. We will argue, first, that the positivist search for any correlation between “ethics” and profits, in order to prove, or even to refute, the “business case for ethics”, fails from the start, since “ethics” as such cannot be measured empirically. Further implicit assumptions of the “business case” are exposed and critically assessed, among them the belief that profit seeking, as such, is ethically neutral. We will show that the instrumentalist concept of business ethics implies an opportunist attitude and ultimately amounts to an ethics of the right of the powerful. The paper concludes with the notion that business integrity is a necessary prerequisite for business activity – or any other activity, for that matter – to be labelled “legitimate”. Moreover, integrity gives way to the possibility of a truly deserved, and justifiably earned corporate reputation, which in turn might form the basis for a successful business on legitimate grounds.

This paper is available online free of charge. It can also be ordered as a hard copy.

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