Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business
 

review

Business ethics and the 21st century organization

March 2006

Peter Whates (editor). BSI Business Information. 234 pages. £40. Paperback.

Martin Luther King’s observation that ‘the law can’t make a man love me’ is a sage truth for the world of business ethics, as this collection of 13 essays is at pains to point out.

Phil Rudolf makes that view abundantly clear in an excellent opening chapter on the experience of ethics legislation in the US, arguing that rules create a tick-box mentality at best and a temptation to cheat at worst.

Much of what follows is therefore devoted to picking over the body of alternative ‘soft’ regulatory initiatives that have emerged in place of the statute book. While too many chapters veer towards directory-style lists or overly theoretical argument, one of the main strengths of the book is its scope. Editor Peter Whates has carefully selected the authors so as to bring perspectives from the multilateral, regional and national levels, as well from across the sectoral divides.

But the temptation of business ethicists is often to concentrate on their theories and processes instead of the facts on the ground. The general paucity of practical company case studies in this volume underlines that failing, with the one exception being Justin O’Brien’s informative chapter on Citigroup.

So why do measures to improve business ethics, be they voluntary or mandatory, so often fail? In part, the book argues, the obsession with quarterly returns provides a poor breeding ground for corporate angels. The decision to devote three chapters to ethical issues in financial markets is therefore well justified. In equal part, however, many business people slide towards the easy, rather than the ethical, option. Chapters on the teaching of ethics in business schools indicate how this might change.

This book, however, makes clear that the benefits of ethical business practice are not yet sufficient to jettison a rules-based framework. The law might not inspire a man to virtue, but, as King pointed out, ‘it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.’

Oliver Balch



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