How Cognitive Neuroscience Informs a Subjectivist-Evolutionary Explanation of Business Ethics

Abstract

Most theory in business ethics is still steeped in rationalist and moral-realist assumptions. However, some seminal neuroscientific studies point to the primacy of moral emotions and intuition in shaping moral judgment. In line with previous interpretations, I suggest that a dual-system explanation of emotional-intuitive automaticity (reflexion) and deliberative reasoning (reflection) is the most appropriate view. However, my interpretation of the evidence also contradicts Greene’s conclusion that nonconsequentialist decision making is primarily sentimentalist or affective at its core, while utilitarianism is largely rational-deliberative. Instead, I propose that current research on the human brain, in conjunction with converging experimental evidence, hints at moral subjectivism and its evolutionary basis as the most persuasive explanation of morality. These anti-realist conjectures have far-reaching implications for a wide range of topics in business ethics, as illustrated with the specific case of corporate social responsibility as a potentially tribal conception of the good.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that this paper does not endorse an alternative, nihilistic meaning of "anti-realism," which denies the existence of all moral properties (Joyce 2009).

  2. 2.

    Throughout the paper, emotions, affects, and intuitions are assumed to be cognitions, too (Haidt 2001).

  3. 3.

    Stressing this positive impact of deontological decision making on business performance implies that deontology does not ignore the consequences of decisions. Kant did argue, though, that "nothing in the world […] can possibly be conceived which can be called good without qualification except a good will" (Kant 1785/1959, p. 9). Good will arises from acting out of moral obligation or duty, which in turn is determined by Reason. According to deontology, moral worth is independent of the consequences of an action.

  4. 4.

    It should be noted that Freeman and his colleagues also grounded stakeholder theory in feminist ethics, libertarianism, and pragmatism (Freeman 1994, 2012; Freeman and Phillips 2002; Wicks et al. 1994). Later, Freeman (2008, p. 163) suggested that no "normative foundational justification" would actually be needed for stakeholder theory after all.

  5. 5.

    Especially in Moral Tribes, Greene (2013) casts great doubt on intuition (e.g., on pp. 63, 127, 131, or 352). This distinction between reason and intuition follows Greene's characterization; other cognitive scientists view reason and intuition differently (e.g., Bucciarelli et al. 2008, p. 123), as was noted by an observant reviewer of this paper.

  6. 6.

    It must be emphasized here that the anti-realism embraced in this paper is strictly limited to moral claims of right/wrong and morally good/bad. The argument in this paper is not as comprehensive as the (pragmatist) anti-foundationalism and "anti-realism" (of sorts) contained in Rorty (1979). Therefore, I want to leave it an open question here whether anti-realism also extends to facts in the physical, natural, and social sciences. For the record, I believe anti-realism is a far less plausible epistemological assumption in those areas of inquiry.

  7. 7.

    For example, "you can have your metaethical contractualism and constructivism as long as you are open to the possibility that the right ground-level theory is utilitarian and decidedly undeontological. As long as starving children get helped and people get shoved in front of speeding trolleys, that’s all I care about" (Greene 2008a, p. 117).

  8. 8.

    Moll et al. (2008b) suggested guilt, pity, embarrassment, shame, pride, awe, contempt, indignation, moral disgust, and gratitude as excellent candidates in their taxonomy of moral emotions. However, this taxonomy was critiqued for not being sufficiently grounded in normative ethical theory (Casebeer 2008).

  9. 9.

    Moral subjectivism may not survive if pitted against moral realism because moral realists, convinced that they found and know the objective truth, will show great missionary zeal to impose that Truth on others. In that sense, belief in Truth—moral or otherwise—is much closer to religious fundamentalism than the view endorsed in this paper (see also Feyerabend 1975, 1987).

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Acknowledgments

With this paper, I owe a special debt of gratitude to the exceptionally constructive comments of the Guest Editors and the reviewers. All remaining errors, oversights, heuristics, and oversimplifications are mine.

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Orlitzky, M. How Cognitive Neuroscience Informs a Subjectivist-Evolutionary Explanation of Business Ethics. J Bus Ethics 144, 717–732 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3132-8

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Keywords

  • Anti-realism
  • Intuition
  • Moral emotions
  • Moral realism
  • Rationalism
  • Subjectivism