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Philosophy of Management

Volume 2, Issue 2, 2002

Crossing Frontiers

Phil Johnson, Ken Smith
Pages 21-35
DOI: 10.5840/pom2002224

Constituting Business Ethics
A Metatheoretical Exploration

Reviews of business ethics usually differentiate the field in terms of prescription as opposed to description: the application of normative ethical theory verses empirical analysis. Despite recent departures from this dualism, through the elaboration of what has been called postmodern business ethics, the metatheoretical basis of this (increasing) pluralism of business ethics remains opaque. This paper attempts to provide some reflexive clarification and, using codes of ethics as an example, to show that the diversity of business ethics is neither chaotic nor haphazard. It explores how variable metatheoretical assumptions about the epistemic status of ethical and social scientific knowledge systematically lead to the constitution of four distinct modes of engagement in business ethics: prescriptive ethics; descriptive ethics; postmodern ethics; and critical ethics. This diversity is illustrated, with examples from the relevant literatures, in terms of variation in: the aims of business ethics; its organisational focus; the role of the business ethicist; how corporate codes of ethics are construed; the internal contradictions and tensions that arise. We conclude by examining the pre-paradigmatic status of these four modes of engagement and speculating about their future.

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