Key Elements

Advocates of  Virtue Ethics suggest the fundamental question of ethics is

  • NOT “What should I do?”
  • BUT “What kind of person should I be?”

There are some key elements that reflect this mode of thinking.

First, virtues are essentially good habits. In order to flourish, these habits must be practiced, and the uninitiated managers in the organisation must learn these virtues.

This point has powerful implications for managers, including the notions that:

  1. firms can become virtuous only by engaging in ethical activities and that
  2. organisations have to teach managers precisely what the appropriate virtues are.

In other words, companies have the responsibility to foster ethical behaviour.

Wharton professor Thomas Donaldson says that, “Aristotle tells us that ethics is more like building a house than it is like physics. You learn to be an ethical manager by managing, not by reading textbooks on philosophy.”

Professional philosophers sometimes view the practice of business ethics as a theoretical pursuit, continues Donaldson. “It’s not. It is an art. It can’t be reduced to a science.” For an Aristotelian, it is impossible for a company to be too ethical.

A second dimension of virtue ethics is that admirable characteristics are most readily discovered by witnessing and imitating widely acclaimed behaviour.

Aristotle, while focusing on the individual rather than the organisation, listed such virtues as

  • truthfulness
  • justice
  • generosity and
  • self-control

as characteristics to which the noble person should aspire.

In the theory of virtue, much attention is placed on role models.

The insight here is that to be an ethical person is not simply an analytical and rational matter. It takes virtuous people to make right decisions and virtue is learned by doing.

Put another way, the ultimate test and source of ethical conduct is the character of the actor. Aristotle often discussed the lives of obviously good Athenians in order to teach ethics.

One learned the right thing to do by observing good people and by doing what they did. Such lessons reinforce the importance of top management serving as role models in the formation of an ethical corporate climate. Who has been a mentor or role model in your life?

Companies that are acclaimed for their ethical corporate culture most often can trace their heritage back to founders intent on developing an organisation that respected human dignity and insisted on a humane way of life.

Founders of such companies as Johnson & Johnson shaped their organisation so that they embodied the values and virtues that proved personally rewarding.

The way of life in the company  was not a result of an abstract code of conduct; rather, such statements were later used to spell out exactly what was at the heart of the existing corporate culture.

For example, the top management of Levi Strauss (www.levistrauss.com) put forth four guiding values/virtues:

  1. empathy
  2. originality
  3. integrity and
  4. courage.

Third, a key to understanding virtue ethics and the discipline it requires is based on the ethic of the mean.

Applied to virtue ethics, the mean is an optimal balance of a quality that one should seek. An excess or deficiency of any of the key virtues can be troublesome, as Aristotle effectively argued.

For example, an excess of truthfulness is boastfulness. A deficiency of truthfulness is deception. Both of these outcomes (the excess or the deficiency) are unacceptable.

The Swedish language has a word, lagom,that means “not too much, not too little, but just enough.”

The virtuous manager, then, strives for a balance among the qualities it takes to be an effective manager. For example, she should not be so directive as to be authoritarian or so easygoing as to abdicate her leadership role.

Golfers may appreciate the analogy that one’s goal in the sport is to stay in the fairway and out of the rough. This is the way a manager should behave, that is, by not going to extremes.

Obviously, there is disagreement about exactly which characteristics should appear on a list of virtues to which an organisation should aspire. Over the years, different philosophers have compiled many different lists. Business executives and professors have enumerated virtues that they feel are most important for international business.

Whether a particular corporation elects to foster those virtues is another issue.

However, let’s assume for a moment that an organisation accepts the virtue ethics approach to corporate conduct.

In other words, they subscribe to the belief that an organisation should be “all that it can be” in an ethical sense.

One logical objection to the application of virtue ethics in an organisational context is that it would sometimes be very difficult to agree on what in fact constitutes “the good.”

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