Seek the Good Life, Not Money: The Aristotelian Approach to Business Ethics
45 Pages Posted: 9 Aug 2004
Date Written: August 2004
Nothing is more common in moral debates than to invoke the names of great thinkers from the past. Business ethics is no exception, with scholars in that field constantly referring to moral theories like utilitarianism and deontology, raising the ghosts of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. Yet insofar as business ethicists have tended to simply mine abstract formulas from the past, they have missed out on the potential intellectual gains in scrupulously exploring the philosophic tradition.
This paper seeks to rectify this shortcoming by advocating a close reading of the so-called great books, beginning the process by focusing on Aristotle, the founder of virtue theory. Contrary to the leading advocate of the Aristotelian position in business ethics, Robert C. Solomon, we do not find Aristotle implying a theory of the virtues based on the embeddedness of individuals within particular communities. Instead, The Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics points to Aristotle's emphasis on tying business morality to a universal conception of the good life. This conception defines personal happiness to chiefly consist in practicing the virtues, with a good deal of this involving the control of desire, and with the pursuit of wealth relegated to a secondary role.
More specifically, the model Aristotelian businessperson takes well-calculated risks, though more to express their superiority over fear than to make money. Such an individual limits their consumption and savings opportunities through the practice of self-control and generosity, at the same time reserving most of their energies to a few grand projects. While respecting voluntary agreements, the Aristotelian businessperson rewards individuals more on their moral and intellectual qualities than their productivity. When doing business abroad, he or she does not seek to impose a single norm, but pragmatically adjusts their behavior and expectations in line with local conditions.
According to Aristotle, virtue reaches its height with the exercise of the intellectual virtues of prudence and wisdom - the first manifest in the leadership of organizations, and the second in the philosophic search for truth. From an Aristotelian point of view, therefore, the greatest ethical imperative for business is to give individuals opportunities to thoughtfully participate in the management of company affairs and to contemplate the ultimate meaning of things.
Keywords: Business ethics, Aristotle, virtue, happiness, wealth, philosophy
JEL Classification: A13, B1, B3, B11, B31, I31, N01
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation