Kantian Business Ethics

Kantian Business Ethics

Critical Perspectives

Edited by Denis G. Arnold and Jared D. Harris

In this original collection of essays, a group of distinguished scholars critically examine the ethical dimensions of business using the Kantian themed business ethics of Norman E. Bowie as a jumping off point. The authors engage Bowie’s influential body of scholarship as well as contemporary themes in business, including topics such as: the normative foundations of capitalism; the applicability of Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and pragmatism in normative business ethics; meaningful work; managerial ethics; the ethics of high leverage finance capitalism; business ethics and corporate social responsibility; and responsibility for the natural environment. The contributors to this volume include both scholars sympathetic to Bowie’s Kantian business ethics and scholars critical of that perspective.

Chapter 5: Corporate Duties of Virtue: Making (Kantian) Sense of Corporate Social Responsibility

Jeffery Smith

Subjects: business and management, business leadership, corporate social responsibility


Jeffery Smith Central to Norman Bowie’s Kantian perspective on business ethics is a basic, but enduring, observation. Business firms are neither merely complex forms of property owned by investors nor simply a nexus of mutually beneficial contracts between a firm’s stakeholders. Business firms are moral communities (Bowie 1991, 1999). The term ‘moral community’ is an admittedly broad theoretical notion. At its base, however, is the idea that activities undertaken by and within business firms are not merely instrumental in nature, serving a related set of economic objectives; rather, business firms involve forms of activity that have (and should have) moral ends as their purpose. Business firms are sites of moral action: they can promote or hinder the satisfaction of human needs; express human virtue and vice; promote social welfare; and are forms of social organization where individuals can show respect – or disrespect – toward humanity. For some, the idea that firms are communities in this sense seems natural, if not obvious. For others, it challenges a well-received view of the business firm as a form of social organization that permits individuals to dispense with moral concerns to greater and lesser degrees (Boatright 1996). In what follows, I will explore the extent to which Bowie’s notion of the business firm as a moral community remains meaningful some 20 years after its first appearance. Although such an assessment cannot be done in one essay, I hope to motivate the plausibility of Bowie’s idea by highlighting an important feature of his description of the...

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