, Volume 90, Issue 4 Supplement, pp 447-460
Date: 04 Sep 2010

Adam Smith’s Vision of the Ethical Manager

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Abstract

Smith’s famous invocation of the invisible hand – according to which self-interest promotes the greater good – has popularly been seen as a fundamental challenge to business ethics, a field committed to the opposite premise that the public interest cannot be advanced unless economic egoism is restrained by a more socially conscious mindset, one that takes into account the legitimate needs of stakeholders and the reciprocity inherent in networked relationships. Adam Smith has been brought into the discipline to show that his authority cannot be summoned to fully support the free market sceptics of business ethics. Little has been done, however, to illustrate that Smith’s moral writings actually contain the fundamentals of a business ethics teaching for managers who necessarily work within a variety of networks. This article analyses his moral thought to infer a Smithean framework of business ethics for managers. Smith believes that self-interest should be subordinated to moral imperatives, even in the business world. However, Smith rejects the principles of corporate social responsibility on the argument that benevolent impulses cannot be expected to prevail in the commercial arena. Instead of consciously trying to advance the social good, Smith’s ideal manager will endeavour to personally live up to the standards enforced by an impartial spectator of his conduct, a theoretical entity reflecting the ethical requirements posed by the manager’s social networks and stakeholder relationships. While this internalized onlooker expects a limited degree of benevolence, the overriding demand is for the manager to abide by the dictums of justice and prudence.