On The Possibility Of Serious Business Ethics. Business Ethics As Bullshit?

Akademische Arbeit, 2019

20 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Foundations
II.1. Frankfurts Theory Of Bullshit
II.2 Two Major Interpretations Of C
II.2.1 Interpretations Of The First Kind: (i) ‘Business Ethics as we have it is Bullshit‘
II.2.2 Subordinated Interpretations of (i)
II.2.3 Interpretations Of The Second Kind: (ii) ‘Business Ethics as such is Bullshit‘
II.2.4 Subordinated Interpretations of (ii)

III. Conditions Under Which Serious Business Ethics is Possible
III.1 General No-Bullshit-Conditions
III.2 Specific No-Bullshit-Conditions

IV. Concluding Thoughts

V. Literature

I. Introduction

Eventhough it is booming (Donaldson, 2000), business ethics is widely regarded as an oxymoron (Heath, 2004, p.1).

Confronted with this fact, two views are plausible: First, business ethicists can be seen as pitiable and misguided idealists aiming for a goal that will stay out of their reach. Second, they can be regarded as suspicious and probably dishonest communication talents, artfully hiding the fact that they are doing nothing – that it is for them as business ethicist in fact impossible to do anything. When the latter view is true, business ethics would appear in the form of a secret, since it keeps it a secret that it does not exist, as Niklas Luhmann notes (cf. Luhmann, 1993).

This and other notions of business ethics as dishonest refer to the broader claim: “Business ethics is bullshit”. This claim, which I will refer to as claim C , will be examined in this paper. The aim of this examination is to argue that we can describe the conditions under which serious business ethics is possible and to offer this description. The argument is grounded on a negative notion of ‘serious business ethics': Business ethics is regarded as serious if and only if it is not bullshit. What this means in positive terms and with regards to different notions of ‘business ethics’, and which conditions must be fulfilled for this not to be the case will also be discussed. The underlying broad notion of business ethics is “theory for use in practice“, dealing with the question “how to assert moral norms and ideals under the conditions of a competitive market economy“ (cf. Pies/Sardison, 2005).

The paper is organised as follows. First, in order to clarify the meaning of claim C, I am going to introduce Harry Frankfurts theory of bullshit. Second, I will apply this theory with regards to different notions of 'business ethics' in order to derive a set of different interpretations of C. Third, negating those interpretations, I will propose and elaborate a set of conditions under which ‘serious business ethics’ is possible according to the negative notion of ‘serious business ethics‘ just mentioned.

II. Foundations

II.1. Frankfurts Theory Of Bullshit

In his famous essay “On Bullshit” (Frankfurt, 2005) Harry Frankfurt examines the characteristics of the phenomenom of ‘bullshit’. According to Frankfurt, the essence of bullshit lies in the bullshitter’s indifference for truth (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 10). While a lier must know the truth – or at least must believe he knew it – and is insofar respectful to truth, a bullshitter does simply not care about truth (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 16). If truth serves his purpose, it is fine. It is also unproblematic, if it does not The bullshitter only speaks in order to present himself in a certain way, to manipulate his surrounding, in short: to pursuit his own purpose (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 17).

Furthermore, the bullshitter is mindless. He does not even try to give a careful or precise description of reality. To explain this characteristic, Frankfurt refers to an anecdote about Ludwig Wittenstein: Fania Pascal, a Russian teacher who knew Wittgenstein in Cambridge, was in the hospital and described her condition as follows: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein was “disgusted” and claimed that she did not know how a dog that had been run over feels like. According to Frankfurt, in this anecdote Wittgenstein chides her for her mindlessness (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 7-9).

Moreover, the bullshitter is artistic or at least ‘ somehow-artistic’. This characteristic is inspired by the novel Dirty Story written by Eric Ambler, in which a character named Arthur Simpson recalls an advice he received when he was a child: “On of the first things [my father] taught me was, “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through“ (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 15). Frankfurt concludes that the bullshitter, compared to the lier, acts more freely and creatively. While the liar is “inescably concerned with truth-values“, a bullshitter „has much more freedom“ and is „more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play“, which makes bullshit „less a matter of craft than of art“ (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 16). What the bullshitter “does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characterist is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to“ (ibid).

Finally, Frankfurt refers so St. Augustin‘s essay “Lying“, in which Augustin distinguishes eight types of lies: “Lies of seven of these types are told only because the are supposed to be indispensable means to some end“, while “[those in] the remaining category (…) are told simply for their own sake – i.e., purely out of a love of deception“ (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 17f). Since the bullshitter, in contrast to Augustine‘s ‘pure liar‘ does not reject the authority of truth and opposes himself to it, but pays no attention to truth at all, the bullshitter is “a greater enemy of the truth than lies are“ (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 18).

In short, bullshit can said to be a truth-indifferent, mindeless, artistically and truth-threatening way to pursuit one’s purpose, including the deception of observers about one‘s enterprise. The characteristics of bullshit offered by Frankfurt can be summarised as follows:

(a) Truth-Indifference
(b) Mindlessness
(c) Artistic Misrepresentation Of One‘s Enterprise (Deception)
(d) Threat To Truth

In the course of this paper, this list of characteristics will at times, when referrring to different in notions of ‘business ethics‘, be used like a list of conditions that have to be fulfilled for somethin to be bullshit. Accordingly, I will refer to them as “Bullshit Conditions.” Nevertheless, it remains a list of characteristics rather than independent conditions. But as far as I can see, treating them like conditions is the best way to ensure that ‚something‘, i.e. the notions of business ethics that will be examined, is ‘bullshit‘ in the sense of Frankfurt‘s theory. Also, these ‚Bullshit Conditions‘ should not be confused with the ‚No-Bullshit-Conditions‘ which I will develop in the third section. They should be understood as actual conditions in the strict sense, that if and only if a business ethical conception fulfills them it is serious.

II.2 Two Major Interpretations Of C

Taking Frankfurt‘s theory of bullshit into account, claim C – ‘Business Ethics is Bullshit‘ – can be roughly interpreted as follows: Business ethics is a truth-indifferent, mindless, artistical and truth-threatening way to pursuit one’s purpose in business, including the deception about one‘s enterprise. Mostly, this ‘purpose in business‘ will be the maximization of individual or organisational profits (cf. Kunz/Schröder 2011, p. 11). In this sense, ‘business ethics‘ is comparable to certain forms of advertisement which try to manipulate the consumer in order to increase the consumption of advertised goods or services without directly lying.

But what this rough interpretation means in particular is not obvious. Especially the term ‘business ethics‘ is ambiguous: It refers to an occupation as well as to a set of distinct philosophical theories. Further, C has a conceptional and an empirical level, either referring to ‚business ethics as we have it ‘ as an empirical and ‚business ethics as such ‘ as conceptual notion.1

Thus, two major interpretations of C have to be distinguished: (i) “Business ethics as we have is bullshit“ and (ii) “Business ethics as such is bullshit“. The first interpretation is limited to distinct conceptions of business ethics that are actually defended or applied, i.e. the empirical level; the latter refers to to every possible conception of business ethics, i.e. the conceptual level. While interpretations of the first kind can be justified or rejected by showing real-existing counterexamples, interpretations of the second kind must be rejected on the conceptual level, for instance by showing that it is possible to develop conceptions of business ethics that do not satisfy the conditions related to a distinct interpretation. In the following, (i) and (ii) will be extended and subordinated interpretations will be derived and examined.

II.2.1 Interpretations Of The First Kind: (i) ‘Business Ethics as we have it is Bullshit‘

Interpretations of the first kind refer to the view that ‘business ethics as we have it’ generally fulfills Frankfurt's Bullshit Conditions, namely in the sense that it is ‘applied‘ or ‘performed‘ in a truth-indifferent, mindless, artistic, truth-indifferent way, including the deception about the enterprise of the agent that it ‘performing‘ or ‘applying‘ business ethics.

Note that ‘business ethics as bullshit’ should not be confused with ‘business ethics as lying.‘ Examples for this be certain cases of ‘greenwashing’ in order to charge higher prices or to acquire new customers. In these cases, an enterprise pretends to have a certain ethical quality – sustainability – which it, as a matter of fact, does not posses. Avoiding the lie and reducing the risk to be caught lying, ‘business ethics as bullshit ’ is a different and probably more advanced possibility to aim at the same goal. Generally, for ‘business ethics as we have it‘ to be bullshit – for interpretations of the first kind to be true – it has to be the case that:

(a) Truth-Indifference. An economic agent (organisational or individual) is truth-indifferent. Rather than telling lies and being insofar ‘respectful‘ to the authority of truth, the agent pays no attention to truth at all.
(b) Mindlessness. The agent does not even try to give a precise description of reality.
(c) Artistic Misrepresentation Of One‘s Enterprise. Doing so, the agent acts artisically, namely creativly and more freely than the lier would do, since the lier is necessarily concerned with truth-values (cf. Frankfurt, 2005, p. 16). In contrast, the bullshitter necessarily deceives the observer about his enterprise. (ibid).
(d) Threat-To-Truth. Being indifferent to truth, the agent is a bigger threat to truth than the lier.

II.2.2 Subordinated Interpretations of (i)

Hereinafter, different instances for interpretations of the first kind (i) will be examined. Note that none of these views is defended here.

(i.1) “Business ethics we actually have is bullshit, since the concept of ‘ethics‘ is abused to suit the company‘s purpose.“

According to this interpretation, companies abuse business ethics – now understood as an obligation – to pursuit an economic purpose. Abuse means that an agent does not apply ethical concepts in an appropriate way, that it is disrespectful or, in Frankfurt‘s terminology, indifferent towards moral truth (a). Further, the agent does this in a mindless (b) and artistic way (c) which allows them to deceive the oberserver about their true enterprise, which is an economic purpose, for instance customer acquisition, customer loyality or cheapness. This makes it extremly difficult to distinguish between true and false and insofar it as threat to truth (d).

For instance, an enterprise from the critical industry can detail its sustainability report, combined with a social media strategy including emotionally attractive pictures or videos, feeding the public with a huge amount of information about the enterprise‘s sustainability. Still, the enterprise can remain silent about other ethical fields in which it is less sucessful or not even engaged, especially about the harmful consequences of its products. Different economic purposes are possible: The enterprise can aim at avoiding regulation or at polishing up its corporate image. Note that in this case the enterprise – more precisely, its communication department – is not lying, at least not in the sense of Augustin that Frankfurt is referring to (cf. Frankfurt (2005) p. 17). It does not even have to feel confident that it knows the truth about how ‘ethical’ it is (ibid). Instead, the agent is simply drawing the attention away in order to appear in better light. It is trying to „bullshit its way through” (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 17).

(i.2.) “Business ethics as we actually have it is bullshit because business ethicists have neither an incentive nor a mandate to aim for any kind of ‘corporate morality‘ that conflicts with their principal‘s aim.“

Technically, this interpretation includes two aspects: a mandate- and an incentive-aspect. The first aspect refers to the view that managers owe special loyality to the shareholder and are insofar not allowed to aim at any other goal than “to make as much money for their stockholders as possible“, as Milton Friedman notes (cf. Friedman, 1970). The second aspect refers to the view that even if a company employs business ethicists, it is practically impossible for those ethicists to suggest anything that would not have been applied either way. Both are closely related to the idea that the virtual point of business has nothing in common with ethics, such that ‘business ethics’ is both forbidden (mandate-aspect) and practically unlikely (incentive-aspect).

Mandate-Aspect: Business ethics – again understood as an obligation – can give the manager moral advice. Business ethicists can tell the manager how to act from the ‘moral point of view’, especially with regards to legitimate stakeholder interest. The mandate aspect states that, nevertheless, managers can only follow this advice within the limits of their obligations towards the stockholder. Accordingly, Goodpaster notes: “(…) in their role as managers, with a fiduciary relationship that binds them as agents to principals, their basic outlook subordinates other stakeholder concerns to those of stockholders“ (cf. Goodpaster (1991) p. 58). This suggests that, whenever morality conflicts with stockholder interest, the stockholder interest must win, at least from the manager‘s point of view. Insofar business ethics disregards this fact, but has to hide it in order not to appear superfluous, business ethics must be thought to be truth-indifferent, mindless, artistic and truth-threatening.

Incentive-Aspect: Furthermore, it remains unclear why business ethicists, for instance in the role of a consultant or CSR-Manager, should recommend their employer anything that would economically ‘hurt‘ them. In order to sell their service, they must rather keep their advice within the limits just mentioned. But if, as i.2 suggests, the only ‘business ethics‘ that is applied is equivalent to any stockholder-friendly policy that would have been applied either way, serious business ethics cannot occur. According to the incentive-aspect, business ethicists act in a mindlessness and artistic way (b,c) in order to hide the fact that they are incapable of changing any organisation‘s policy, in Luhmann‘s terminology, to hide the fact that they do not exist (cf. Luhmann, 1993) with no respect for the truth of their non-existence (a).They do so, because they are pursuiting an economic purpose. Finally, since the ‘ethical‘ activites create a sensation, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between ‘real‘ and ‘pretended‘ ethical engagement. In this sense, also (d) is fulfilled. Managers referring to business ethics are still not actually ‘lying‘ about the status of business ethics. Again, they are rather trying to “bullshit [their] way throught“ (cf. Frankfurt (2005) p. 15).

(i.3) “Business ethics as we actually have it is bullshit because it only exists to suit the purpose of a small academic circle talking about business ethics to foster their academic career.“

Structurally, this interpretation is similar to (i.1). But in this case not the enterprise, but the business ethicist himself is the culprit. Referring to an understanding of business ethicists as “largely irrelevant for most managers“ (Stark, 1993, p. 1), it suspects them to aim not at any moral improvement of our economic life, but primarily for academic fame and attractive positions (‚pursuit of purpose‘). If truth fits their purpose, it is fine, if not, it is also unproblematic; again, they will „bullshit [their] way throught“ (cf. Frankfurt (2005) p. 15) either way (a). According to (i.3), they do this in a mindless and artistic way, for instance by using an incomprehensibly technical or maverick style (b, c) which is able to hide the fact that the application of their demands remains totally unclear. Finally, ethicists of that kind endanger truth, since the amount of bullshit they produce makes it impossible to distinguish between tenable and indefensible or even nonsensical ethical claims (d). As in the case of (i.1), ethics is only an instrument that is used or rather ab-used by an agent to pursuit his purpose: his career in this case, economic goals in case of (i.1).

(i.3) applies especially to those business ethicists suspected to be “too preoccupied with absolutist notions of what it means for managers to be ethical, with overly general criticisms of capitalism as an economic system, with dense and abstract theorizing, and with prescriptions that apply only remotely to managerial practice” (Stark, 1993, p. 2). These ethicists‘ normative demands can hardly be expected to be realised. For instance, Peter Ulrich writes about his business-ethical approach: “(…) that integrative business ethics does not include any »applicable« solution for concrete issues of economic or political activity“ (Ulrich, 2008, p. 14). Paying high attention to the justification of business ethical norms and normative statements, Ulrich seems to be relativly indifferent towards the question how the actual economic life can be ethically improved (ibid.) This makes him suspicious of bullshit in the sense of i.3.2

II.2.3 Interpretations Of The Second Kind: (ii) ‘Business Ethics as such is Bullshit‘

Interpretations of the second kind (ii) refer to the view that business ethics is per se bullshit. Instead of directly lying to the public, for instance about the impossibility of serious business ethics, acccording to this interpretation the agent rather tries to “bullshit [his] way through” (cf. Frankfurt (2005)). Interpretations of the second kind can either mean that ‘business ethics’ is impossible or that it is not possible to apply it in a serious manner. In the following, subordinated interpretations or instances for interpretations of the second kind will be developed. In the terminology of modal logic: The existentially quantified formula, „there exists an x, such that x is business ethics and x is serious”, is false when at least one of the conjuncts is false.

II.2.4 Subordinated Interpretations of (ii)

(ii.1) ‘Business ethics is bullshit because ethics is bullshit’

This interpretation attacks the very fundamentals of ethics. According to ii.1, ethics must be thought to be inherently truth-indifferent, mindless, artistic and deceiving the observer about its true enterprise. If that is the case, then what is true for ethics must also hold true for ‘business ethics.’ This view is related to an understanding of the ethicist as an creative, mindless manipulater, who is artfully talking people into engagements and projects they otherwise would never have approved of. The ethicst’s sucess is based on rhetorical supremacy rather than on advantageous arguments. Probably, there is nothing like ‘moral truth‘ to which ethical arguments can refer to. According to such non-cognitivistic views, ethical statements are like statements about unicorns or Santa Claus – referring to non-existing entities. Reversely, for ethics not to be bullshit, it must respect truth, more precisely, it must be possible for ethical statements and arguments to be related to moral truth or, as Habermas describes it, a truth-analogue (Habermas, 1986, p. 11). In terms of metaethics, for business ethics not to be bullshit, some variant of cognitivism must be true.


1 To be exact, there is still another ambiguity: C can be either existentially or allquantified. It can either mean ‘ All kinds of business ethics are bullshit‘ or ,There exist instances of business ethics that are bullshit.‘ The latter seems to be less controversial than the first. Since only allquantified interpretations deny the possibility of of serious business ethics and since it is my goal to show this possibility, I will focus on the more controversial allquantified interpretations. However, this does only hold for interpretations of the first kind. Interpretations of the second kind are necessarily allquantfied.

2 Note again that I am not defending any of these views, but rather use them as an example in order to clarify different interpretations of C.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 20 Seiten


On The Possibility Of Serious Business Ethics. Business Ethics As Bullshit?
Universität Bayreuth  (Kulturwissenschaftliche Fakultät)
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possibility, serious, business, ethics, bullshit
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Philipp Neudert (Autor:in), 2019, On The Possibility Of Serious Business Ethics. Business Ethics As Bullshit?, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1119521


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