Is Business Ethics Separate From Political Ethics?

Posted January 7, 2009 at 3:29pm

The current financial crisis has led me to reflect on years of teaching two different kinds of ethics classes. I taught business ethics at the university level for eight years, and political ethics for 12 years.

Whenever I told people that I taught business ethics, they laughed and invariably said the same thing: “Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Whenever I told people that I taught political ethics, I got the same response.

My students and I noticed that when we discussed topics in business ethics most of the subjects involved politics, and when we discussed topics in political ethics that most of these subjects involved business.

For example, in business ethics courses you frequently discuss the topic of consumer product safety. In the United States, that topic is essentially about the laws and regulations of producing and marketing these products.

In political ethics courses, you frequently discuss campaign finance reform. That topic is heavily, though not exclusively, about contributions from corporations.

If you drew Venn diagrams of business ethics and political ethics, the two would almost completely overlap.

Business ethics subjects such as consumer product safety, affirmative action, workplace compensation, sexual harassment, Social Security and Medicare, and advertising and lobbying would all overlap with topics on political ethics.

The political ethics subjects of campaign finance reform, lobbying ethics, negative advertising, conflict of interest in political consulting and elected officials, and bribery would all overlap with topics in business ethics.

This is why our current financial crisis, here in the United States and around the world, cannot be located firmly in either the field of political ethics or business ethics. The failure concerns politicians and members of the business community, and the solution concerns rules, regulations and laws that must be passed by politicians and upheld by business.

There are a few topics in each field that are relatively isolated.

Corporations, for example, may have an ethics code that applies only to behavior in their company and has no connection to other companies or any laws. Likewise, there may be some rules adhered to by staff members of a Congressional office or a lobbying firm that only refer to the conduct between and among members of that office.

But the distinction between business ethics and political ethics is, at bottom, quite misleading.

Perhaps we should jettison these terms and refer instead to “societal ethics.” We could then teach societal ethics in political science and applied politics programs and we could teach societal ethics in business schools and economics departments.

It may also be that these subject matters are more naturally separated in laissez-faire capitalist societies rather than societies with capitalist mixed economies.

Mix economies by their nature maintain a vast system of relationships between businesses and political institutions, which makes it almost impossible to talk coherently about separate business ethics and political ethics domains.

What seems plain is that we should stop laughing about the supposed oxymoronic quality of business ethics and political ethics and start seriously addressing one inseparable ethics issue before our economy and our political system are broken beyond repair.

David M. Anderson taught courses in business ethics and political ethics at George Washington University from 1995 to 2006.