Let us go through these arguments. The first argument does not suggest that a person involved in business should disregard any ethical obligations. One can economically survive in business without violating the norms of morality. Moreover, as Beverluis argues, "we are in a real sense 'doing' business ethics. For what is a 'right'? If one puts forward the claim to have certain moral rights (as opposed to legal rights), one is willy-nilly engaged in the activity of business ethics . . . (ibid).
The second and the third arguments again are hypothetical and do not necessarily prove that one needs to disregard moral considerations. As Beverluis states, "[o]ne can (normally) survive economically without selling one's soul. One may not become rich but the argument turns on survival, not riches" (ibid). As for the fourth argument, it is again a hypothetical assumption. One can in the same way say that a person without honesty, law-abidingness, and fair-play cannot survive in a business environment, as the key to success is to follow these regulations in order to build one's reputation and avoid punishment (either in the form of government punishment or by losing customers because of the company's unethical activities). In fact, the latter argument is closer to reality in today's business environments. The examples of U.S. energy company Enron and the British oil company BP are testament to that. Furthermore, the fourth assumption may be contrasted with the views of business professionals who have a different opinion on this issue. Valentine and Rittenberg (2004) explored global differences in ethical evaluations, using a sample of 222 American and Spanish business professionals. "It would appear from the results that American executives prefer to support ethical actions resulting in fairness and are highly concerned about the moral outcomes of questionable business practices," they conclude. "The results support the idea proposed by some ethics scholars that the United States is a benchmark for business ethics" (p. 8). These results are especially significant since American businessmen are highly successful and a positive correlation between their successes and their support of ethical behavior emphasizes the importance of following honesty, law-abidingness, and fair-play rather than ignoring them.
John Kaler (2000), without specifically discussing ethical egoism, also provides arguments that justify ethical egoism. According to Kaler, the major reason for being "ethical" in business is self-interest and that there are "different sorts of prudential reasons for behaving ethically" (p. 161). As some people put in everyday business conversations, "good ethics is good business" and "ethics pays." Kaler argues that there is no ground for withholding the adjective "ethical" in describing behavior motivated by self-interestedness as it is in describing altruism. "Apart from anything else, there is the apparently undeniable fact that behavior is invariably a mixture of prudential and altruistic reasons," he argues. "So to insist on altruism alone is to leave very little that counts as 'moral," and since "it is defined by a notion of the 'common good,' the prudential would seem to be an essential component of the moral" (p. 162).
Kaler further argues that a relationship between businesses and the public (which includes the government, campaigning organizations, and consumers) positively influences the development of business ethics among people engaged in business, particularly managers. Because the government represents the people in liberal democratic societies such as the UK and the U.S., it is in the interest of businesses to cooperate with the government and obey the laws. The businesses today, Kaler argues, are also trying to cooperate with campaigning groups and labor unions because in this way they improve their reputations. By cooperating with these groups, businesses surely have to behave more ethically toward their employees and consumers. And finally the relationship between businesses and consumers is a direct one, and as such businesses have a vested interest in being ethical towards consumers lest they lose their consumer base. In this business environment, Kaler concludes, "we may be witnessing a 'virtuous spiral' whereby rising public expectations of morality in business lead to ever increasing moral commitments by business that then cause those expectations to rise still further" (p. 161). Ethical egoism is obviously at play here, as these businesses are pursuing their self-centered goals without disregarding business ethics and society's moral considerations.
In discussing business ethics, a common error, as pointed out by Primeaux (1997), is that business ethics are normally defined not by objectives, assumptions, and principles of business itself, but by "superimposing the tenets of religion, philosophy, or law" (p. 315). No one evaluates the morality of philosophical, religious, or judicial tenets by applying the principles and objectives of business; it is the other way around. While philosophy, religion, and law are important in formulating business ethics, Primeaux argues, we can "identify the basic assumptions, principles, and objectives of business itself as a valid, sui generis enterprise; and, from that perspective, identify the ethics of business" (p. 315). Philosophy, religion, and law here serve as analytical tools that provide criteria for self-criticism in business ethics. Business ethics needs to be defined "as originating in business theory and practice" and be expressed "for business in the language of business" (p. 316).
One of the defining characteristics of business ethics is the importance of profit, Primeaux proposes. Profit is more important in defining business ethics than the basic tenets of morality in philosophy, religion, or law. Profit, however, should not be understood in a narrow sense, referring only to "numerically-correct accounting procedures" (p. 316). Profits are not the end means in business, Primeaux argues, but they reflect and symbolize what people want, what people are willing to pay for what they want, and reflect consumers' rankings of goods and services they want. In Primeaux's words, "profit represents human achievement and social good. It symbolizes the contribution of business to communal and personal well-being" (p. 316). Therefore, profit is an essential component of business ethics. In that sense, pursuing profit does not simply represent businesses' self-interest, but also the ethical dimensions of individual and organizational behavior. In societies where ethics is highly valued, individuals and organizations engaged in business are likely to generate more profit if they behave ethically. Thus, in its broader sense, profit represents ethical behavior. "At one and the same time, it enriches human life by providing what people want and rewarding those who provide it," Primeaux states. "It also reflects efficient use of scarce resources, and a respect for all of the factors of production: raw natural resources, personal well-being, invested capital, and human potential" (p. 318).
As Primeaux further argues, profit maximization likewise is not necessarily unethical. Rather, it reflects economic efficiency and thus is tied to ethics. But these ethical dimensions of business activities cannot be understood when we simply subjugate business ethics to the principles, assumptions, and objectives of philosophy, law, and religion. Therefore, "business has its own inherent moral absolutes." One of these absolutes is the "realization that anything and everything which enters the production process is a scarce resource. Land, capital, labor-time, and creativity/entrepreneurship are finite and limited." And thus, "the efficient or inefficient use of these factors within production is an ethical consideration, but an ethical consideration based in economics rather than in philosophy, religion, or law" (p. 317). It also goes without saying that the ultimate goal of business is providing goods and services to consumers: "Consequently, the more of these goods and services, the better. That is, ethically good. The less goods and services, the worse. That is, ethically bad" (p. 318).
To sum up the arguments of this paper, ethical egoism is a concept which emerged out of philosophical debates about egoism and has later entered the academic discussion of business ethics. Both from philosophical and business standpoints, ethical egoism is a legitimate philosophy/theory and is morally justifiable. Morality is a complicated concept at the heart of which lies the dedication to help the society. Ethical egoism, which entails pursuing self-centered interests without disregarding moral outlook of a rational human being, is compatible with classical definitions of morality. Like ethical egoism, business ethics is also a consistent and morally justifiable theory, and is also tied to ethical considerations in human and organizational behavior. In today's globalized era when business activities are increasingly evaluated in moral and ethical terms, it is businesses' prudential self-interest to be ethical. The theory of business ethics cannot be subjugated to the basic tenets of philosophy, religion, and law. Business ethics should be formulated in business language and originate in business practice. When business ethics originates from business practice where philosophy, law, and religion offer secondary analytical tools for self-criticism, the ethical dimension of business ethics become clearer. And finally, since business is essential for everyday human behavior in today's globalized world, and since business activities are being increasingly evaluated in moral and ethical terms, ethical egoism is the only credible ethical project for individuals and businesses in contemporary times.
Beverluis, E.H., 1987. Is There "No Such Thing as Business Ethics"? Journal of Business Ethics, (6),…