Philosophical History

In the philosophical approach we take a grand sweep of the history of our Society and see it in global, world historical terms. What is the Society’s place in history, seen from the perspective of as large a picture as you wish to paint: is it an insignificant speck or is its mark and its reach truly world historical and global? A more modest historian would put it in the former category—as would, I suppose, most people who have never heard of the Society for Business Ethics. But, for purposes of this history, I’d like to start with the big picture and paint on a broad scale.

Like all big paintings, one has to start somewhere, with the first brushstroke on a blank canvas. Yet with history the canvas is never blank. In the Hegelian view, the world spirit runs the show and we are just actors, or maybe even puppets, that bring about events. The same is true in the Marxist view, except the driving force is not spirit but economic conditions. On both views individuals tend to be less important than events. Consider Newton and Leibnitz. Both developed or invented the calculus at about the same time. The debate about priority is one that they thought important. But to us, it makes little difference. What is important is that the calculus was developed. That it was developed when it was developed shows that the conditions were ripe for its development. Mathematics had developed sufficiently that stumbling upon or coming up with the calculus seems almost like the next logical step; and the fact that both Newton and Leibnitz came up with it at the same time provides at least some reason to believe that if they had not done so, someone else sooner or later would have done so. We attach their names to its first appearance, but what is important is the calculus not the name of the first to bring it forward.

We can say the same, I suggest, about the Society for Business Ethics. The names of the people who had a hand in its founding and nourishment are to some extent unimportant. What is important is the Society, and if those who started it hadn’t done so, it is likely that others soon thereafter would have. For the time was ripe.

In fact the second half of the 1970s was a remarkable period for business ethics. In 1971 John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice had broken the stranglehold of meta-ethics in philosophy departments. Medical ethics had emerged in the 1960s and presented something of a model for business ethics to emulate. There was certainly something in the air, for a surprising number of individual, separate initiatives took place that very quickly coalesced and out of which the Society emerged.

November 1974, a date which Norman Bowie cites as the birth of business ethics, saw the first conference in business ethics which resulted from a conversation I had with the Dean of the University of Kansas Business School at lunch one day at which we both lamented the business scandals of the day. We published the papers in what was the first text in the area, Ethics Free Enterprise and Public Policy, and it appeared in 1978. The conference was evidently distinctive enough to catch the eye of NEH which called us up and asked us to present a grant proposal integrating business and the humanities. Under the grant I wrote a 91 page outline for a course in business ethics and made it available for free. To my surprise I received over 900 requests for it. About the same time, in 1977 Norman Bowie, who was then Executive Secretary of the American Philosophical Society began a three year project to draft guidelines for a courses in business ethics, which he also made available. Contemporaneously and independently, a number of people were working on texts, since so little was available for courses.

In 1979 three anthologies in business ethics appeared: Tom Beauchamp and Norman Bowie, Ethical Theory and Business; Thomas Donaldson and Patricia Werhane, Ethical Issues in Business: A Philosophical Approach; and Vincent Barry, Moral Issues in Business. In 1982 the first single-authored books in the field appeared: Richard De George, Business Ethics; and Manuel G. Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases. The books found a ready market and courses in business ethics both in philosophy departments and in schools of business developed rapidly. As they did the number of textbooks increased exponentially.

Social Issues in Management courses developed in the 1960s and were already in place in business schools. Why did we need business ethics courses and what was the difference between them? That is what a lot of people in business schools, in business, and in philosophy departments asked. Almost all the names I have mentioned so far were the names of philosophy teachers. What this group first individually and then collectively saw as lacking was ethics—which for them meant some grounding in ethical theory, some philosophical analysis of issues, and some structured way of discussing the ethical issues in business. This they found lacking in the social issues approach.

The marriage of business and ethics was like the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. The upstarts who were engaged in this endeavor in the late 1970s were generally not accepted as doing real philosophy by philosophy departments and colleagues, and business school faculty looked down on them as ignorant of and probably antagonistic to business. Although the activity was primarily by separate individuals, it is remarkable that somehow the individuals knew or met each other. Tom Donaldson had been at the University of Kansas as a graduate student in my department. Norm Bowie as Executive Secretary of the American Philosophical Association knew a number of the philosophers interested in the field. I had been a consultant to several business schools under an NEH program, and Mike Hoffman in 1976 had started and was the Director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College, with an annual conference. Tom Donaldson and Pat Werhane were colleagues, faced with teaching a business ethics course for which there was little material: hence their collaboration on material that became their book. Each also had contacts with a few others working in the area. There was truly something in the air, and the time was ripe. Although the Social Issues in Management Division had emerged in 1976 in the Academy of Management, that was not the venue those in philosophy sought. So the Society for Business Ethics appeared on the world scene in 1980.

The claim of a world historical event is not entirely hyperbole and self aggrandizement on behalf of the Society. Georges Enderle (from Switzerland) and Henk van Luik (from The Netherlands) had both attended meetings of the SBE and joined forces to start the European Ethics Network in 1987, which in tum encouraged the establishment of national societies for business ethics in nine countries in Europe. In 1988 Georges, Henk and I decided to start the International Society for Business, Economics and Ethics, which held its first organizational meeting in Columbus in 1992 and its first World Congress in Japan in 1996. In 1993 the Japan Society for Business Ethics (JABES) was started, and the 1996 World Congress led to the establishment of societies for business ethics in Latin America and to the Latin American Business Ethics Nerwork (ALENE) in 1997: to the Business Ethics Network of Africa in 2000, which includes members from 22 countries; to the Australian Business Ethics Network; and to societies for business ethics in India, in China and in other parts of the world. Nor is it simply a matter of post hoc ergo propter hoc, since we can trace the causal connections. These societies have each influenced the teaching of business ethics, the education of students in business education, and to some extent the continuing education of those engaged in the practice of business itself. The total influence of all of these on business is incalculable, but, even considered superficially, it is impressive. It is enough to make even Hegel proud. Nonetheless, even the world spirit needs its individual actors to do the work.