This weekend offered an interesting opportunity to discuss, dissect and reflect on the state of the art of business ethics research and some of its future trajectories. At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania a small group of business ethics scholars gathered from all around the globe to celebrate and honor the work of one of the faculty members, Professor Thomas Donaldson. Donaldson, a philosopher by training, can be considered one of the pioneers of the business ethics field and one of its most longstanding and certainly most influential voices over the last four decades.
Some of the speeches at the event focused on appraising and celebrating Donaldson’s impressive body of work, including many humorous interjections on Donaldson as a person by some of his contemporaries such as Norman Bowie, George Brenkert, Ed Freeman, or Pat Werhane. Most of the day though was dedicated to work by scholars who build on, extend, refine, and continue some of Donaldson’s work, including also entering a critical dialogue with his ideas.
Taking a step back after reflecting on Donaldson’s work for 1½ days, it strikes that next to his solid contributions it is both his approach and his choice of topics decades ago which have maybe the strongest potential to inform work in business ethics for decades to come. Donaldson deserves credit for breaking out of the extant consensus in both, the narrower business ethics field as well as the general gist in management studies with an innovative take on at least three core research topics.
What is the unit of analysis in business ethics?
For most of its short history, certainly until the mid 1990ties scholarly work in business ethics was mostly looking at the organizational level, or even below that, at the level of individual decision-making. What is to admire about Donaldson as a scholar is that he broke out of that consensus, most remarkably when publishing his book and papers around ISCT. The basic tenet of ISCT is that whatever happens in terms of ethical or unethical behavior in businesses is intricately linked to the outside world of business, to institutions that govern business, to wider socio political processes that incentivize or constrain whatever businesses – let alone individuals within them – are doing.
There are solid grounds to argue that this approach to researching ethical issues in business is still of highest relevance today. On the opening panel of the conference Professor Margaret Blair gave a somewhat sobering account of recent court decisions in US corporate law. Blair, a longstanding authority and critic of the current shareholder dominated view of the firm, gave a short tour d’horizon of court rulings reflecting shareholder dominance as being stronger as never before (Ebay vs Newmark, Trado, CitizensUnited, Hobby Lobby). When the strongest institutions (in this case the law) governing business advocate a model of the firm which flies in the face of much of the basic tenets of the field of business ethics it appears that the odds are very much stacked against any of the aspirations of the field ever coming to fruition in the real world.
The inspiration then from Donaldson’s work for business ethics scholars may be to further and refine some of the ‘Donaldsonian Themes’ (so the title of the conference); but it is fair to argue that the vision, courage and intellectual entrepreneurship to come up with new approaches of conceptualizing business in its wider societal context is maybe the biggest example and benchmark Donaldson has left for a next generation of business ethics scholars. Be it the relation of business and politics, be it the role of business in economic inequality, or be it the role of business in new technologies and big data – these are all new ethical challenges which ask for wider and deeper conceptualizations of the role of business and its embeddedness in wider society.
Business ethics is not an epiphenomenon
For most of its history, and to some degree still today, business ethics has been considered as a subfield of management that deals with side-effects of business, with fringe occurrences, with phenomena, that maybe are of interest to the odd practitioner here and there. Certainly many scholars in the core disciplines of management, such as strategy or finance would echo such a view.
During the conference many colleagues highlighted that Donaldson throughout his career has worked in overcoming this categorization of business ethics work. That includes a lot of his writings but also his service to the academic community of management scholars. He was actively leading the subgroup ‘Social Issues inManagement’ of the Academy of Management but also engaged in a number of ‘field constituting’ ventures. Most notably his time as Associate Editor of Academy of Management Review (the top journal for management theory) in the mid 2000s has led to a spate of work originating from scholars in the business ethics field, which was developed under his editorship into papers that speak to the core of the management discipline.
The purpose of the firm, the effect of business on the ecology, the role of business in development or peace – just to name a few examples of business ethics topics – are no longer side-shows. Many of these questions - certainly post financial crisis – are topics that touch the core of the management discipline. Donaldson has left a great example that business ethics scholars have to raise their voice louder and speak to a wider community. Business ethics has something to bring to the party, and Donaldson in is writing and service, has shown how to do this really well.
Management research is a multi-disciplinary venture
One of the things that stands out when looking at Donaldson’s work over four decades is that research in management as an applied discipline is best when it is phenomenon driven. That partly explains the enormous variety of issues he has taken on. The intellectual rigour, theoretical precision and an impressive skill at interesting and accessible writing is what has set a benchmark for ongoing scholarly work. What strikes most is his success – together with other colleagues – to establish philosophy as a legitimate core discipline in management research.
Many management scholars still consider economics to be the main theoretical foundation of management studies – a view maybe still strongest reflected in some of the management studies communities in Europe. In the 1960s, certainly with the rise and growth of marketing and parts of organizational behavior research, we can now consider psychology as a legitimate member of the canonized disciplines of management inquiry.
But this project of widening the theoretical and disciplinary avenues to management research is not over yet. In his writing Donaldson has certainly elevated philosophy as a strong candidate; in his editorial work at AMR he has contributed to make approaches from political science, sociology and others more familiar to the core community of management researchers. We can argue that continuing to widen the disciplinary focus of research in management is truly a ‘Donaldsonian Theme’ and a task for current and future generations of business ethics scholars.
To conclude then, just this week Rolling Stone magazine ran a story on the influence of the Koch brothers on American politics. So as an afterthought - at the end of the conference there was arguably one topic conspicuously absent during the discussion: namely the phenomenon of power (corporate or political, alike). Looking at contemporary debates on, for instance, income inequality or on the roots and fallout of the financial crisis, this seems a somewhat conspicuous omission. One explanation though could be that – as Richard DeGeorge, chair of the philosophy department during Donaldson’s PhD studies, pointed out at the conference – Donaldson as a student did not take too much liking in Karl Marx’ writings…
The good news then is that this weekend’s conference was not a celebration of Donaldson’s retirement. He will continue as Wharton faculty to be an active scholar and thus surprise, challenge and inspire us hopefully for many more years to come.
Top photo by frankrizzo805, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.