This is a most important question today, for it is sometimes said that the pursuit of profit ought not to be the primary and dominant goal of a business firm but rather must be balanced by concern for customers, employees, or society. In order to see what the standards for proper managerial conduct might be, we need to understand what is meant by "free market society."
Within a free market society, it is generally thought that the primary goal of a business organization is the attainment of profit. Though businesses often consider other objectives (service to customers, employee needs and well-being, assistance to the needy) it cannot be denied that the attainment of profit is the overall and guiding objective of the business organization. Thus, the first question that managerial ethics should consider is whether or not it is ethically proper to make the attainment of profit the objective of a business firm. This is a most important question today, for it is sometimes said that the pursuit of profit ought not be the primary and dominant goal of a business firm but rather must be balanced by concern for customers, employees, or society. In order to see what the standards for proper managerial conduct might be, we need to understand what is meant by "free market society" and "profit," and what ethics has to say about such a society and goal (DuPlessis, et al. 2011).
The Free Market Society and Profit
The terms "free market society" are not solely descriptive. They signify a set of economic and social arrangements that presupposes a certain ethical perspective. For example, "Murder Incorporated" would not be regarded as a business firm in such a society but would instead be viewed as criminal that ought not and must not be allowed to operate. Similarly, the term "profit" does not mean merely a return on an economic exchange that is over costs; it also involves a certain type of exchange; namely, a free or voluntary exchange. In order to understand the ethical perspective from which the terms "free market society" and "profit" derive their particular meaning, we should consider the notion of "individual rights." "Business ethics -- while sometimes but not always coextensive with legal requirements are also increasingly important to running a successful business" (DuPlessis, et al. 2011).
A free market society is a society based on the recognition of individual rights. "Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law." They determine what matters of morality; what ought to be, are to be matters of law; what must be. The view of rights that a free market society is based on is one that holds that every person has the right to life and its corollaries: liberty and property. These rights are rights to actions -that is, the right to take all the actions necessary for the support and furtherance of one's life, and the right to the action of producing or earning something and keeping, using, and disposing of it according to one's goals. To have a right in this sense morally obligates others to abstain from physical compulsion, coercion, or interference. Such actions may only be taken in self-defense and only against those who initiate physical compulsion, coercion, or interference. The right to life also morally sanctions the "and "profit," and what ethics has to say about such a society and goal. Freedom to act by means of one's voluntary, uncoerced choice for one's own goals. Thus, the activities of producing and exchanging goods and services in a free market society are both protected and governed by this conception of individual rights.
Ethics, the Free Market Society, and the Pursuit of Profit
Within the legal framework of a free market society, is the managerial decision to make the attainment of profit the overall and guiding objective of the business firm ethically justifiable? Are the principles in terms of which the legal framework of a free market society developed (that is, the foregoing account of individual rights) ethically justifiable? The answers to these questions cannot be discovered by managerial or business ethics alone. These questions require the more fundamental disciplines of ethics and political philosophy. The standard for proper managerial conduct cannot be derived independently of those ethical principles that determine how human beings ought to live their lives and those political principles that determine the ethical principles by which human beings must live their lives, that is, be a matter of law. The standard for proper managerial conduct must be in accord with what the principles of ethics and political philosophy advice; it cannot contradict the overall frame of reference that the more basic disciplines of ethics and political philosophy provide.
DuPlessis, Enman, Gunz, O'Byrne (2011). Canadian Business and the Law. Nelson Education.
Shepard, J.M., Shepard J., & Wokutch, R.E. (2005). The problem of business…