The uses of moral talk: Why do managers talk ethics?

Abstract

When managers use moral expressions in their communications, they do so for several, sometimes contradictory reasons. Based upon analyses of interviews with managers, this article examines seven distinctive uses of moral talk, sub-divided into three groupings: (1) managers use moral talk functionally to clarify issues, to propose and criticize moral justifications, and to cite relevant norms; (2) managers also use moral talk functionally to praise and to blame as well as to defend and criticize structures of authority; finally (3) managers use moral talk dysfunctionally to rationalize morally ambiguous behavior and to express frustrations. The article concludes with several practical recommendations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  1. Austin, John: 1958, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Barth Karl: 1961, Church Dogmatics, Vol. III, Part IV, translators A. T. Mackay, T. H. L. Parker, Harold Knight, Henry A. Kennedy, and John Marks. Edinburgh: T. T. Clark.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Barry, Vincent: 1970, Moral Issues in Business, Burlingame, Calif.: Wadsworth, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Baumhart, Raymond: 1968, An Honest Profit: What Businessmen Say about Ethics in Business, New York: Holt.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bendix, Reinhart: 1956, 1974, Work and Authority in Industry, Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bird, Frederick and Waters, Jim: 1987, “The Nature of Managerial Moral Standards”, Journal of Business Ethics 6, 1–13.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bowie, Norman: 1982, Business Ethics, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Fingarette, Herbert: 1963, The Self in Transformation, New York, Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Geertz, Clifford: 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Gouldner, Alvin: 1976, Dialectic of Ideology and Technology, London: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Hart, H. L. A.: 1968, Punishment and Responsibility, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Hirshmann, Albert O.: 1970, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. LaCroix, W. L.: 1979, Principles for Ethics in Business (revised edition), Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich: 1939, The German Ideology, ed. by R. Pascal, New York: International Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Marx, Karl: 1973, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. by Martin Nicolaus. London: Allen Lane.

    Google Scholar 

  16. McCoy, Charles: 1985, Management of Values. The Ethical Difference in Corporate Policy and Performance, Boston: Pitman.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Mintzberg, Henry: 1973, The Nature of Managerial Work, New York: Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Nielsen, Richard P.: 1987, ‘What Can Managers Do about Ethical Management?’, Journal of Business Ethics 6(4), 309–320.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Nietzsche, Friedrich: 1927, 1954, Geneology of Morals in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, trans. by B. Samuels. New York: Modern Library.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Perrow, Charles: 1972, Complex Organizations, Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Forseman and Co.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Scott, John Finley: 1970, Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Searle, John: 1969, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Stone, Christopher D.: 1975, Where the Law Ends: Social Control of Corporate Behavior, New York: Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Sutton, Francis X., S. E. Harris, C. Kaysen, and J. Tobin: 1956, The American Business Creed, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Taylor, Mark L.: 1980, A Study of Corporate Ethical Policy Statements, Dallas: The Foundation of the Southwestern Graduate School of Banking.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Toffler, Barbara Ley: 1986, Tough Choices: Managers Talk Ethics, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Velasquez, Manuel G.: 1982, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Waters, James A.: 1978, ‘Catch 20.5: Corporate Morality as an Organizational Phenomenon’, Organizational Dynamics, pp. 2–19.

  29. Waters, James A.: 1988, ‘Integrity Management: Learning and Implementing Ethical Principles in the Workplace’, in S. Srivastva (ed.), Executive Integrity, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Waters, James A. and Frederick Bird: 1987, ‘The Moral Dimension of Organizational Culture’, Journal of Business Ethics 6(1), 15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Waters, James A, Frederick Bird, and Peter Chant: 1986, ‘Everyday Moral Issues Faced by Managers’, Journal of Business Ethics 5(5), 373.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Weick, Karl E.: 1987, ‘Organizational Culture as a Source of High Reliability’, California Management Review XXIX(2), 112–127.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Westin, Alan F. (ed.): 1981, Whistle Blowing: Loyalty and Dissent in the Corporation, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Westley, Frances: 1988, ‘Strategic Conversation: Dynamics of Middle Management Inclusion in Strategic Processes’, Administrative Sciences Association of Canada: Proceedings.

  35. Westley, Frances and Bird, Frederick B.: 1988, ‘The Social Psychology of Organizational Commitment’, Unpublished paper.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Additional information

Frederick Bird teaches Comparative Ethics at Concordia University, where he is an associate professor. He has recently written a text on the comparative sociological study of moral systems as well as a number of articles on business ethics and contemporary religious movements.

Frances Westley is an Assistant Professor of Policy at McGill University in Montreal. She publishes in the area of visionary leadership, organizational culture and change, and strategic communications.

James A. Waters was Dean, Graduate School of Management at Boston College. His research interests concerned the process of strategy formation in complex organizations, organizational change and development, and ethics in organizations. His work has been published in such journals as Organizational Dynamics, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, Strategic Management Journal, California Management Review, Business Horizons, Journal of Applied Psychology, Business and Society, Canadian Journal of Administrative Science, Advanced Management Journal, Journal of Business Ethics, Organizational Behavior Teaching Review, and numerous anthologies. He died January 4, 1989.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bird, F., Westley, F. & Waters, J.A. The uses of moral talk: Why do managers talk ethics?. J Bus Ethics 8, 75–89 (1989). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00382019

Download citation

Keywords

  • Economic Growth
  • Defend
  • Practical Recommendation
  • Moral Justification
  • Relevant Norm