Editorial introduction: where is business ethics?


Where is business ethics today? And with this, where are business ethics today? Where do we find them? Are there enough? These questions strike us today, and present us with our starting points. First of all in considering how business ethics has evolved, and what state it is in. But also, in asking where business and ethics are today and how and where they might be in the future. Starting out with these seemingly innocent questions, we face a set of somewhat more troubling questions about the location of business ethics. For some, business ethics is quite easy to locate. When seen as a business function, an academic discipline or a part of business school education, business ethics is often taken as something that obviously has a location. If business ethics is readily locatable, then it can be disciplined, generalised, taught and instituted as part of best practice and corporate strategy. But are business ethics so easily locatable? Are they a ‘something’ characterised by a ‘thingliness’ that might allow them to be taken in hand and put to use? If business ethics are not open to such reification, then we might find that ethics in business involves a basic dislocation relating to phenomenal experiences arising when things are out of place. Business ethics would then take place when, as was sensed by Hamlet, things are ‘out of joint’. The experience of whistleblowers and the victims of corporate malfeasance is certainly one of deeply felt dislocation. If we find business ethics in these practices, might ethics also be found in other spaces of dislocation?

That is how our invitation to the 13th European Business Ethics Network UK conference, held in Bristol, 6–8 April 2009, commenced. The conference took place at a time in which the global financial crisis was still unravelling, and the invitation to the conference was motivated by two considerations in particular. On the one hand, it seemed as if, after the tragedy of 9/11, which signified liberalism's death as political doctrine, we were now witnessing liberalism's death as economic theory (Z̆ižek 2009). While this crisis itself represented a failure of business ethics, the farce consisted of the way in which it unravelled, but also of the way in which it was responded to; namely, with very little. If 3 years after the crisis, very little has changed (Elliott et al. 2010), then what space is there for business ethics in the neoliberal economy, if it can't even seize on the dislocations caused by the crisis to create spaces for ethics in business? On the other hand, business schools were to take at least some blame for the global financial crisis, as their narrow teaching and research had eschewed wider social and political questions (Corbyn 2008). During the conference a further article in the Guardian circulated in which business schools were considered ‘academies of the apocalypse’ (James 2009), and the teaching of business ethics was considered at least a partial remedy.

The set task for the conference was therefore to think through the limitations imposed on business ethics by neoliberal capital, while focusing on the spaces in which business ethics might nonetheless be taking place. The keynote by Mark Fisher reiterated the bleak outlook already introduced by Z̆ižek (2009): what Fisher (2009b) calls ‘capitalist realism’ describes the cultural logic of neoliberal capital which presents itself as the only game in town: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Moreover, while some might look towards the anti-capitalist movement as an inspiration or extreme variety of business ethics, Fisher (2009a) in his keynote argued that the ideology of neoliberal capital is already anti-capitalist, as demonstrated by the movie Wall-E, whose anti-capitalist message merges perfectly with its commodity form. This emphasis on the frightening continuity and persistence of neoliberal capital at the expense of business ethics also featured in other contributions to the conference. For example, Campbell Jones (2010) argued that ‘the subject supposed to recycle’ itself more often than not presupposes ‘the economic system supposed to not recycle’ (37, emphasis omitted). If our own recycling contributes to reproducing an economic system programmed not to recycle, then it doesn't signify an opening for business ethics, but must instead be kindly refused. In another presentation, Casper Hoedemaekers (2011) explored how viral marketing plays with jokes that go too far, and in doing so captures a certain jouissance of transgression that could otherwise serve to undermine the economy of desire of neoliberal capital, rather than sustaining it. If we can't even laugh without reproducing capital, what space is left for business ethics?

The contributions to this special issue selected from the conference continue these lines of enquiry. They can broadly be categorised in two or three sections. Where the first three contributions (Brei and Böhm, la Cour and Kromann, Veldman) show how the corporation in its legal form and through its managing of social responsibility eschews genuine business ethics, the latter three contributions (Dempsey, Woźniak, ten Bos) search for openings in the discipline and personal practice of business ethics. And where the first set of contributions (Brei and Böhm, la Cour and Kromann) represents two specific studies and critiques of how corporate social responsibility works as ideology, and the second set (Veldman, Dempsey) looks beyond the abstractions of the field of business ethics for openings within it, the third set (Woźniak, ten Bos) turns to philosophy for business ethics that does not start from abstraction but from the bodily and experiential. In this issue we therefore move from critique through reconfiguration to new spaces for business ethics.

Vinicius Brei and Steffen Böhm demonstrate how we can understand corporate social responsibility as cultural meaning management. They disentangle the marketing of ‘ethical’ bottled water to show how these campaigns, which turn a fundamentally banal product into one in which we can invest our ethical desires, are part of the legitimation and reproduction of neoliberal capitalism. If these initiatives can be seen as part of an ethical response by capitalism to its critics, one which Brei and Böhm present as part of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005), then they are yet another example of how ethics and responsibility have been subsumed under the capitalist accumulation process. Brei and Böhm invite us to look elsewhere for ethics, and contribute to this search by providing a vocabulary with which to unravel the way the cultural meaning of commodities is constructed, and by emphasising the necessity of a re-politicisation of these processes.

The contribution by Anders la Cour and Joakim Kromann proposes yet another exploration of the linguistic and symbolic gymnastics of contemporary capitalism. La Cour and Kromann read corporate social responsibility reports in order to show how company involvement in philanthropy relies essentially on the use of euphemisms to paint over the hypocrisies involved in appealing, simultaneously, to purely economic and purely philanthropic discourses. While la Cour and Kromann show how this polyphony of the corporation avoids it getting caught in acts of hypocrisy, they emphasise that this procedure is not one of the dissolution of hypocrisy, but of its displacement. If CSR reports then manage mostly successfully to brush over the dislocations produced by corporate practice, we need to look elsewhere for places where contradictions and hypocrisies become visible and thus may be contested.

If the papers by Brei and Böhm and by la Cour and Kromann show how corporate social responsibility in many ways forecloses business ethics, the contribution by Jeroen Veldman considers how it might be possible to ascribe agency and ownership, and thus responsibility, to the corporation. Highlighting the importance of different legal representations of the corporation for business ethics, Veldman shows how both natural and artificial entity theory underlie the modern concept of incorporation. He outlines different positions of legal scholars on issues of governance that result from the contradictions between the two theories. While for Veldman the term ‘corporate’ has lost most of its meaning in corporate governance, to think of the corporation as a separate legal entity only serves to engender inconsistent positions. Nonetheless, the notion of incorporation produces dangerous fictions, and Veldman invites us to consider how these are implicated within the political economy of the corporation.

The contribution by James Dempsey, in a different context, also warns of abstractions, not the dangerous fictions of the corporation that Veldman is concerned with, but the abstractions of integrative social contracts theory. Dempsey argues that this theory has been undervalued as a resource for rethinking business ethics, as its reception has been marked by an emphasis on the concept of ‘hypernorms’ to the detriment of a consideration of the role that moral free space plays in theory advanced by Donaldson and Dunfee. Dempsey proposes a re-reading of their theory, via Rawls, ‘as a genuinely pluralistic approach to business ethics in the tradition of pluralistic theories of political philosophy’. Where a focus on hypernorms leads to a theory concerned mostly with abstract norms, for Dempsey the radicalism of integrative social contracts theory lies precisely in the way it differs from the abstract and universal nature of traditional theories of moral philosophy. It is the concept of moral free space with its radically pluralist implications that holds the key to understanding this theory's potential.

Where Dempsey seeks to recover a space for a renewed business ethics from within the ruins of the existing discipline, Anna Woźniak's strategy is to look outside and towards the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard for a critique – again – of the abstractions of the field of business ethics. Woźniak demonstrates how critical theorists in business ethics have fallen prey to the dangers of speculative thinking by removing the link of abstraction in thought to their own existence. Woźniak proposes that the ethical is not to be found in thought that seeks to grasp the world-historical, but rather in its opposite. The focus on reflexivity in our discipline is for Woźniak not a solution but yet further proof of the ways abstract thought has led us astray. Rather than gazing at our own pure abstract subjectivity in the act of reflection, for Woźniak it is a matter of ‘making oneself infinitely interested in one's own existing’. She also draws – some might think surprisingly in this context – on the arguments of Milton Friedman to suggest that ethical responsibility should not reside in any anonymous system but must always remain with the individual. One is ultimately accountable to oneself.

The last contribution, by René ten Bos, based on his keynote at the conference, complements this attack on abstraction and this turn to philosophy by exploring the moral significance of gestures. ten Bos warns against language and its abstractions and proposes a focus on the physicality of morality. For ten Bos ethics is profoundly bodily and gestural, yet it is this dimension of ethics that is most easily foreclosed in business ethics' quest for the systematic. Against the way language is dressed up in business ethics (as we see in the first two contributions to this special issue) ten Bos presents the nakedness of gestural ethics. For ten Bos it is only by rediscovering these lost gestures and reaffirming misgivings about the possibility of moral language that we might save business ethics. The issue therefore ends with a plea for a return to the body and the self. Yet an eerie reminder of the reflections on the state of neoliberal capital remains: how is it to be accounted for in its very abstraction and fictitiousness?

To return to our opening question: where is business ethics? If not definitive answers, then we trust at least that readers will find plenty of rich intellectual provocation and stimulation in the pages that follow.