For years, many have noticed something disconcerting with business ethics. In 1993, Stark raised the question, “What is the matter with business ethics?” (1993, 38). Suspecting that business ethics is “largely irrelevant for most managers” (ibid.), he could not help noting “how often articles in the field lament a lack of direction or poor fit with the real ethical problems of real managers” (ibid.). Besides observing the “gap between business ethics and the concerns of most managers,” Stark also sensed an ethics/business dichotomy:

Business ethicists have two basic problems with the enlightened self-interest answer to the question of why managers should be ethical. First, they disagree that ethical behavior is always in a company’s best interest, however enlightened. “There are no vanilla solutions,” writes Bentley College ethicist W. Michael Hoffman in his article, “The Cost of a Corporate Conscience.” “To behave ethically can cost dearly.” In other words, ethics and interests can and do conflict.

Second, they object that even when “doing good” is in the company’s best interest, acts motivated by such self-interest really can’t be ethical. Moral philosophy tends to value altruism, the idea that an individual should do good because it is right or will benefit others, not because the individual will benefit from it. For many business ethicists, motivation can be either altruistic or self-interested, but not both. A participant in a symposium called “Do Good Ethics Ensure Good Profits?” (recently sponsored by Business and Society Review) put it as follows: “To be ethical as a business because it may increase your profits is to do so for entirely the wrong reason. The ethical business must be ethical because it wants to be ethical.” (ibid.)

The peculiar implication is that “business ethics means acting within business for nonbusiness reasons” (ibid.). However, that was nearly thirty years ago. What is the matter with business ethics today? To find out, and get a status update, we took a look at contemporary business ethics texts. Alas, what we found was that little has changed. If anything, it is even worse today than it was in the early 1990s. Paraphrasing Stark, we found that business ethics means acting within business for anti-business reasons. Precisely, we learn that much of current business ethics is based on moral assumptions antithetical to the profit motive.Footnote 1

Consider this ominous preamble to our findings. In most business ethics texts, amoral or immoral businesspeople doing wicked deeds are at the forefront. The texts are riddled with real and imagined business scandals and scoundrels. Some business ethicists, writing these texts, cannot bring themselves to cite even one example of a moral businessperson (Stewart 1996, xi). So instead of mainly learning from the world’s most successful and valuable companies, textbooks will as a rule zero in on businesses poisoning babies, marketing deceptively, cooking the books, defrauding customers, deliberately exposing employees to deadly risks, and so on. More, there is a tendency to generally denigrate and disparage businesspeople; a businessperson is, for instance, “not expected to be quite as fair and honest as in other walks of life” (Agalgatti and Krishna 2007, 33). Business ethicists are often caught “moralizing” businesspeople (ibid., 34). “In the current literature in business ethics, business is assumed to be at best an amoral enterprise,” observes Hicks (2003, 3), “and the expectation is often that business practice is more likely than not to be immoral.” On the rare occasions when business ethicists will even bother with a “positive” example intended to inspire us, they may bring up businesses that stand out because they sacrifice profits for others but rarely, if ever, businesses simply excelling at making money. Indeed. Merely running a profitable operation will never earn you any moral recognition from most business ethicists. As will be discussed, the focal point of mainstream business ethics is on damage control, not maximizing profits; that is, the emphasis is on morally shackling business, not morally gearing them for profit-making. This article will show that contemporary business ethics not only is prejudiced against business but also that these manifestations stem from deep-rooted moral premises.

Context and Impetus

Imagine that you are a utilitarian, and you discover, to your great surprise and dismay, that business ethics texts are, for the most part, based on a Kantian framework. Given your utilitarian outlook, the Kantian-centric business ethics texts will appear to not only be twisted but wrong in their overall approach. Moreover, even many non-utilitarians will likely find it perplexing and worrying that the utilitarian viewpoint is largely, if not entirely, ignored.

Of course, this is only fantasy. Still, we put forward that something similar has happened in business ethics. Except it is not utilitarianism that has been neglected but ethical egoism.Footnote 2 And we would notice because we approach the subject from a frame of reference diametrically opposed to that of the dominant trend of the field. Unlike most recent business ethicists’, our ethical orientation is egoistic, not altruistic. To be exact, we are sympathetic to rational egoism.Footnote 3 Like the proverbial fish out of the water, we reacted accordingly. Indeed, what we experienced can only be described as a culture shock. Given an egoist frameworkFootnote 4 we submit that most business ethics texts will strike readers as biased against and, at times, even hostile to business and its for-profit essence.Footnote 5

Considering our thesis, it is significant that egoist business ethics is not only often overlooked, and dismissed, but also virtually absent in the texts. After all, this article shows that the underlying moral premises of much of contemporary business ethics conflict with the for-profit nature of business. In contrast, an egoistic business ethics would be more consistent with it. This want of an egoist perspective is, therefore, arguably to the detriment of the subject and business practitioners. By and large, businesspeople lack a morality sanctioning them in their endeavour: business. Fortunately, there is a serious business ethics of rational egoism that demands rationality and a concern for other people (Woiceshyn 2011, White 2020). In fact, scholars such as (Locke 1993, 2000a, b; Locke and Woiceshyn 1995; Locke and Becker 1998), Woiceshyn (2011), Hicks (2003), Agarwal (2016), Agarwal and Snider (2017), and White (2020), and successful businesspeople such as Allison (2009, 2016), have been lecturing or writing on the subject for decades. Yet, the business ethics literature building on the framework of rational egoism has been mostly disregarded in the mainstream literature.

Over the years, many have critically analyzed business ethics’ premises. As we start our contribution to the conversation, let us first establish some of the context. Since Stark (1993), many others have questioned and challenged various fundamental aspects and assumptions of business ethics. Sorell (1998) observes, for instance, that “business goals [e.g., making money] can look dubious to ethicists; and where they do not, they can look less weighty than moral goals even when what is in the balance is the survival of a business” (ibid., 17). Nevertheless, he thinks that there is a way to bring mainstream ethics and business together. In contrast, others, such as Jones et al. (2005), believe that ethicists let businesspeople off easy. In their view, modern business ethics is “at best window dressing and at worst a calculated lie [to make things look a whole lot better than they actually are]” (ibid., 1). Business ethics, they believe, teaches businesspeople that as long as they obey the rules of ethics, their business is ethical—even though they are, in the authors’ view, working for morally dubious goal (making money) within an immoral system (capitalism): “Simply because someone did not cheat at chess, and never drove above the speed limit does not make them ethical, any more than following orders is always ethical” (ibid., 175). Although there are differences, Sorell, Jones, Parker, and Ten Bos end up at almost the same place. Whereas Sorell (1998) holds that mainstream ethics is compatible with business (ibid., 23–24), Jones et al. (2005) maintain that while that is (or superficially seems) true, that is precisely what is wrong with current business ethics: “The emphasis [in business ethics] is on working with and within contemporary business organisations in order that their worst [self-interested] excesses can be tempered” (ibid., 19). Today’s business ethicists are not going far enough; they should be willing to morally challenge the profit motive and capitalism (ibid., 82–88, 111, 175–176). Given our article’s delimited subject and theme, we will not even attempt to address their specific claims and arguments for obvious reasons directly. But we will comment on both indirectly. Contra Sorell, we will show that conventional business ethics is fundamentally incompatible with the profit motive and, thereby, business. Consequently, we will, contra Jones, Parker, and Ten Bos, suggest that contemporary business ethics is morally in conflict with business.

Method and Structure

The main finding and contribution of this article is that there is an anti-business bias in business ethics. To show this, we will look at what thirty business ethics texts have to say about the subject. Specifically, we will review twenty textbooks and consult ten other relevant books. When analyzing the texts, we will ask questions such as: According to the authors, what is ethics about? What do they mean by “good” and “bad”? And why should we care about business ethics?

Why these questions? Business ethics is supposed to be about ethics and how it relates to business. So when going over the texts, it is only reasonable to raise logical and relevant questions that will help us discern the authors’ broad ethical framework. Logically, the authors’ ethics will, as we will see, also shape their views on business. Our goal, in other words, is to identify the authors’ stated and unstated moral assumptions. To borrow an analogy from the world of education, we are looking into the “the hidden curriculum” of business ethics texts. The unofficial, incidental moral messages that are communicated to students in business ethics texts (Glossary of Education Reform 2015). Consequently, we will mostly pay attention to what the authors themselves say about ethics and business, and not so much to which moral theories they summarize or fail to mention. The authors’ moral premises must often be inferred from what they say (or fail to say) and how (Hughes et al. 2015, 310–312; Peikoff 1981; Binswanger 2001).

When we say that most current business ethicists, as indicated by their texts, are biased against business because of their moral framework—which, as this paper will show, is anti-egoist and, thus, anti-profit—it is not because they fail to mention, discuss or evaluate various theories, including egoism, the stakeholder theory, or Adam Smith’s argument for free enterprise. Most texts do cover these and other viewpoints. The overviews often have their issues, but they are there. If the question were, “Do business ethics texts include an overview of theories such as X, Y, and Z?” most would likely come across as impartial. However, this article will not cover the theoretical representation in business ethics texts. Conducting a study on this could be valuable when identifying the business ethicists’ implied moral premises; still, we will not undertake it due to practical constraints. Such a study would involve attempting to discursively gather the interpreters’ moral postulates from their interpretations of others’ theories. It can be done, and it can provide further evidence. We deem such a project to be an unjustifiable and unnecessarily convoluted roundabout to establish what could be inferred and confirmed more directly from their own statements on morality. Accordingly, this article will not interpret the interpretations of the interpreters.

Why these texts? From our perspective, the texts were randomly chosen as we took almost everything available at our university libraries. Presumably, business ethics teachers use them and make them available for borrowing because they believe that they say something true and relevant about business ethics. Most, if not all, texts have been authored by recognized experts in relevant fields. Most have been around for years and are now in their nth edition. Many are Amazon bestsellers (Amazon 2021).

This article will show that the moral premises, underlying much of contemporary business ethics, conflict with the profit-oriented essence of business. This conflict will, among other ways, reveal itself as a tendency to associate ethics with self-sacrifice and dichotomize ethics and self-interest.Footnote 6 Logically, many business ethicists are morally wary of the self-interestedFootnote 7 profit motive and, thereby, of businesspeople and business in general. To prove this, we will (1) document and identify the altruist perspective’s prevalence in business ethics; (2) explain its ramifications for the profit motive; (3) elaborate on how it informs the seen need and justification for business ethics (to constrain businesspeople’s profit pursuit); (4) address objections: (a) isn’t ethics good for business? (b) is everyone in business ethics biased against business?; (5) discuss problems with the anti-business bias.

What Is Business Ethics About?

What is ethics about? What do business ethicists mean by “right” and “wrong”? “Good” for what? That is, what is the stated or implied standard of moral value? “Good” for whom? Put differently, who is the proper primary and ultimate beneficiary of our actions?

In 18 of 20 business ethics textbooks (see Table 1), the message is that to be ethical is to be other-regarding. Specifically, ethics is about benefitting or sparing others. The “other” is society, stakeholders, general welfare, the public good, the public, the people, the community, generic human well-being (Velasquez 2006, 9–10, 35, 41; Crane and Matten 2004, 77; Mellahi and Wood 2003, 7, 146; Audi 2009, 19; Stewart 1996, 9; Weiss 1998, 7, 5–6, 82, 252; Peterson and Ferrell 2005, 4–5; Spinello 2019, 13; Hoffman et al. 2014, 2; Jennings 2009, 74; Shaw and Barry 2015, 5, 16–17; Hartman et al. 2017, 17; Collins 2012, 26, 31; Grace and Cohen 2010, 5, 27, 67–68; Bowie and Werhane 2005, 3, 103–104; Fraedrich et al. 2011, 17; Buchholtz and Carroll 2011, 248; Treviño and Nelson 2007, 25). Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis ([1952] 2009, 19): To say that one should do what is good for society is to say that one should be unselfish as “society” (or any other such aggregate or collective) only means “other people.” That being the case, any text using such language teaches the ethics of “other-ism,” i.e., altruism.Footnote 8

Table 1 Selective business ethics quotes

That many business ethicists uphold altruism is unsurprising: “In the moral philosophy of the last two centuries, altruism of one kind or another has typically been regarded as identical with moral concern” (Badhwar 1993, 90). Smith (2000, 153) reminds us that: “philosophers widely assume that morality, by definition, is contrary to self-interest.” There is a reason “to be selfish,” is “one of the most common terms of moral condemnation” (Seglow 2004, 1). Since business ethics is the application of ethics to business, the consequences of this conventional altruistic perspective will propagate. Consider this indicative formulation: “It is often suggested that business managers are morally different from other people. In a way, this is correct in that business has one variable that is absent from other situations: the profit motive” (Crane and Matten 2004, 268).

Some business ethicists take issue with the assumption that most want to maximize their good. This attitude is wrong; instead, we should put others first (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 6). Ethic’s “bedrock” is that our actions promote “general welfare,” not solely our benefit (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 146). Private gain is only acceptable insofar it is subservient to others’ needs and benefits. Yet, in business, we tend to get so invested in our “personal advancement” that we fail or refuse to look above or beyond the bottom line (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 7). As an ethical starting point, businesspeople should look beyond profitable production (Crane and Matten 2004, 37). That is, they should go above and beyond the egoistic desire for gains.

In many of these texts, self-interest and ethics are dichotomized and compartmentalized. Self-interest routinely comes up as a foil to morality (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 5; Velasquez 2006, 9–10, 37–38, 40–41; Schwartz 2017, xix-xx, 22; Audi 2010, 49; Spinello 2019, 45; Weiss 1998, 82). Egoism is often explicitly discarded as an inherently amoral or immoral perspective (Stewart 1996, 10–12; Grace and Cohen 2010, 5–6, 27; Brenkert and Beauchamp 2010, 5; Spinello 2019, 45; Hartman et al. 2017, 17). We better distinguish moral considerations and motives from (what they see as) nonmoral considerations and motives such as self-interest and, by extension, the desire to make profits (Velasquez 2006, 9; Treviño and Nelson 2007, 24–25; Schwartz 2017, xix-xx; Collins 2012, 18–20, 31). Morality negates self-interest (Velasquez 2006, 10; Grace and Cohen 2010, 40; Schwartz 2017, 22). Briefly, ethics is not about you; on the contrary: “Ethical considerations … function as a constraint on pursuing one’s own interest” (Grace and Cohen 2010, 27).

To be moral is to be disinterested as morality demands impartiality, not interest (Velasquez 2006, 10; Shaw and Barry 2015, 58–60; Grace and Cohen 2010, 5–6, 40–41; Solomon 2007 19; Spinello 2019, 45; Hartman et al. 2017, 17). Practically, disinterest means that we should consider others’ needs and interests as much or more than your own. Egoism, i.e., the idea that we should pursue our own self-interest, is “obviously antithetical to morality” (Solomon 2007, 26).

Granted, self-interest and morality may coincide (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 5–7; Treviño and Nelson 2007, 24; Audi 2009, 22; Crane and Matten 2004, 81; Velasquez 2006, 5, 9–10, 35, 37, 40–41). Similarly, the selfish profit motive and morality may overlap. Ultimately, however, morality or ethics is in one realm, and making money is in another. Business ethics pertains to “morally right and wrong, as opposed to, for example, commercially, strategically or financially right and wrong” (Crane and Matten 2004, 8). “For individuals, sometimes doing the morally right thing works in one’s interest, but not always. The situation for business is no different” (Grace and Cohen 2010, 27). The problem, therefore, is how to handle businesspeople’s inability to “moderate” themselves for “the sake of the common good or public welfare” (Spinello 2019, 13).

Many business ethicists reject self-interest without any qualifications. However, a few distinguish between normal and “excessive” self-interest (Schwartz 2017, 29; Crane and Matten 2004, 81; Solomon 2007, 27–28; Grace and Cohen 2010, 42). At times they call the “excessive” version of self-interest “selfishness” or “greed.” Leaving aside that it is unclear what sets “excessive” self-interest apartFootnote 9 and that the public does not make this distinction as proven by dictionary definitions (reflecting the public’s word usage), the basic point remains: morality curbs self-interest.

As expected, business ethics calls for “self-policing,” “self-discipline,” “self-moderation,” and “self-regulation” (Mellahi and Wood 2003, 8; Goodpaster and Matthewes 2014, 169; Spinello 2019, 20). Morality is a “containment” of self-interest (Goodpaster and Matthewes 2014, 169). Remember that containment is what we do to keep “something harmful under control or within limits” (Lexico 2021c). Logically, ethics also demands the “confining,” “balancing,” or defining the “parameters” of the profit motive (Weiss 1998, 7; Buchholtz and Carroll 2011, 248; Fraedrich et al. 2011, 7; Peterson and Ferrell 2005, 4–5; Jennings 2009, xiii).

Principles are like pregnancies: absolutes; either/or. There is no such thing as “moderate” justice or honesty. There is no “middle way” between vice and virtue.Footnote 10 That being so, there can be no compromise on principles (Rand 1964, 79-ff.; Peikoff 1993, 262–265; Smith 2006, 188–192). Any formulation suggesting the need for a “balance” between self-interest and self-sacrifice amounts to the complete concession of the principle of egoism, after which the only issue is what, and how much, to sacrifice for others, not whether.

Since many business ethics texts endorse unselfishness and oppose selfishness, naturally, they also think that business ethics is about restraining the selfish desire for financial gains. But so far, we have mostly summarized our observations. Next, we will take a closer look at how this logic typically plays out. For illustration, we will analyze Velasquez’s discussion in Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (2006).

Ethics Overrides Profits

For Velasquez (2006, 10), morality overrides “nonmoral” considerations like self-interest. By implication, business ethics is not about advancing the self-interested, i.e., nonmoral, profit motive. Indeed, “if a person has a moral obligation to do something, then he or she is supposed to do it even if this conflicts with other, nonmoral values or self-interest” (10). It is not “always wrong to act on self-interest,” but it is always “wrong to choose self-interest over morality” (10). You should not prioritize yourself but be “impartial”; you are no more important than your neighbor (10).

As we will shortly see, putting morality first means in this context: putting the needs and interests of others first; in effect, “morality” equals “altruism.”

Velasquez recognizes that: “Pundits sometimes quip that business ethics is a contradiction in terms because there is an inherent conflict with ethics and the self-interested pursuit of profit” (5). One reaction to this is to argue that business is incompatible with ethics. For that reason, businesspeople should focus on making money and not get distracted by “good works” (35). Another reaction is to argue that letting businesspeople concentrate on making money will serve society best, making their pursuit moral (35). Velasquez rejects both approaches. He thinks that businesses should care about ethics and alleges that you can profit to society’s detriment. There is no guarantee you will serve society best by profitably producing goods and services (35) due to the market economy’s (supposed) flaws. A business may help most, but some, like the poor, will always be left behind (35–36). Reading between the lines, we infer his unstated moral standard: “that which benefits society is good and that which harms it is evil.” Society and the needy, not you, are the proper primary and ultimate beneficiary of your actions. Consequently, Velasquez dichotomizes the self-interested profit motive and ethics. So if you argue that “managers should devote themselves to the single-minded pursuit of profits,” you are really saying that “ethics does not matter” (36).

In principle, self-interest is morally wrong; therefore, just like it is morally wrong of you to act on the self-interested profit motive, it is also wrong of you to work for the same motive of others (e.g., the business owners): “If it is morally wrong, then, for a manager to do something out of self-interest, it is also morally wrong for the manager to do it in the interests of the company even though the manager has agreed to serve the company” (37). Business ethics is, therefore, not about guiding businesspeople to commercial success.

What, then, does it mean to apply ethics in business? Velasquez cites Merck and Company:

The management of this company spent tens of millions of dollars developing a product [river blindness medicine] that they knew had little chance of ever being profitable because they felt they had an ethical obligation to make its potential benefits available to people. In this, at least, a large and very successful business chose ethics over profits. (5–6)

Hence, to be ethical means putting ethics over profits by sacrificing profits for others. However, most companies are uninterested in unprofitable projects: “Every day newspapers announce the names of companies that choose profits over ethics” (6). While being ethical (and thus willing to sacrifice for others) can (somehow) be good for business (40–41), it can also “prove costly to a business” (6). And: “Such occasions are common in the life of a company, and we will see many examples in this book” (6). As we can see, Velasquez’s discussion shows how basic moral premises shape one’s approach, and attitude, toward business.

Why Business Ethics?

Why do we need business ethics? And given the authors’ moral premises, what is the problem that business ethics is supposed to solve? In 15 of 20 textbooks, one takeaway is that when left unchecked, self-interest leads to wrongdoings (Stewart 1996, 10–12; Crane and Matten 2004, 81–82; Velasquez 2006, 35, 37–38, 40–41; Spinello 2019, 13–14, 20, 40; Grace and Cohen 2010, xii; Collins 2012, 4–8, 18–20; Treviño and Nelson 2007, 3–6; Jennings 2009, xiii; Fraedrich et al. 2011, 8–10; Shaw and Barry 2015, vii; Hartman et al. 2017, 4, 17; Mellahi and Wood 2003, 6–7; Peterson and Ferrell 2005, 40; Schwartz 2017, 4, 17; Wicks et al. 2010, 33–35, 50–51). To illustrate the relationship, many textbooks ritualistically recite scandals to show what happens when the morality of altruism does not thwart businesspeople. The early days of American capitalism were allegedly also plagued with scandals for the same ‘selfish’ reason (Henderson 1992, 2–4).

Briefly, we need business ethics for the same reason some believe business ethics is an oxymoron. People associate business with “selfishness and profits,” and ethics with “altruism and concern for others” (Jones et al. 2002, 25). Since most believe that to be selfish is to be inconsiderate and that it is in one’s interest to lie, steal, and cheat,Footnote 11 it is plausible to blame “greed” for scores of headlines on business disasters—Enron and onward. Ethically indifferent businesspeople cut corners (Zimmerli et al. 2007, 1; Shaw and Barry 2015, 17; Stewart 1996, 6). Business ethics is necessary to avoid the (alleged) evils that businesspeople may do by subduing their self-regarding pursuit of profits (Jennings 2009, 74; Fraedrich et al. 2011, 7; Peterson and Ferrell 2005, 5; Mellahi and Wood 2003, 6). The implication is that were it not for business egoism, there would be few or no scandals; and were it not for all the scandals, there would be little or no need for business ethics. Paraphrasing Madison (1788): If businessmen were angels, no business ethics would be necessary.

Given the above, some textbooks contain some rather revealing formulations. Wicks et al. (2010) claim that the reason “many people see ethics as incompatible with business is that they associate ethics with avoiding harm to others” (4). In other words, many associate business with harming others. And, since businesses are bigger today, they can also do greater harm, hence the correspondingly greater need for ethics (Crane and Matten 2004, 12–13). Arguably, businesspeople cause so much harm that we could condense business ethics to three words: “avoid unnecessary harm” (Schwartz 2017, xviii; emphasis in original). Business ethics, then, is more concerned with avoiding “harm,” than with making money.

Some note that business ethics picks up where the law leaves off (Crane and Matten 2004, 9; Jennings 2009, 4–5). Without internal moral “constraints,” businesspeople will be “selfish,” and prone to “predatory greed,” and “self-centered conduct” (Spinello 2019, 13–14). Therefore, business ethicists must consider whether legal business actions are “acceptable” (Fraedrich et al. 2011, 5; Jennings 2009, 74). Again, this phrasing is telling; it is the bad and undesirable that needs acceptance and tolerance, not the good and desirable.

What is the “harm” businesspeople allegedly cause? It is a mistake to think that “harm” only or mostly consists of bodily or mental injury. “Harm” also refers to immoral or unjust effects (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 2016). This is particularly true in a moral context. With that pivotal distinction in mind, recall that business ethicists tend to share the prevailing view of morality as other-regarding, i.e., altruistic. This altruistic way of thinking suggests that self-interest is inherently harmful and wrong.

Audi (2009, 21) contends, for instance, that ethics qua altruism demands more than leaving others uninjured; it is “ethically deficient” to “retain my profits” instead of sacrificing some of it to the needy. Accordingly, some feel that others are entitled to everything from affordable goods and services to jobs and benefits (Spinello 2019, 40; Mellahi and Wood 2003, 7; Audi 2009, 21–22). Needless to say, denying others what they are morally entitled to is to harm them.Footnote 12

Take the case of Martin Shkreli. Shkreli did not lie, steal or cheat. He broke no bones or laws. He violated no one’s rights. Yet, he was reviled universally.Footnote 13 Businesspeople like Shkreli are supposed to remind “us about the central importance of ethics” (Spinello 2019, 40). Why? Because he raised his prices in order to make more money: “executives must not just consider economic and legal issues but also ask whether a price increase of this magnitude is fair to those who depend on this drug” (ibid.).

If morality is about altruistically sparing others, he should not raise his prices. If morality is about altruistically benefitting others, he should lower his prices and, we assume, raise his workers’ wages. (What of the bottom line? That is a selfish, i.e., nonmoral consideration.) If businesspeople were to take the altruistic business ethics to heart, there would be little or nothing they could do to advance their interest without causing some direct or indirect “harm.”

It is not just that self-interest causes business scandals. Many go further and deeper, arguing that business ethics is not supposed to help us in our self-interested pursuit of profits. They declare that to be motivated by self-interest is not to be motivated by morality. Self-interest is an invalid base for any moral consideration. While many believe that good ethics also happens to be good for business, they nevertheless dismiss this as a valid rationale for business ethics (Weiss 1998, 16; Grace and Cohen 2010, 40–41, 67–68; Shaw and Barry 2015, 16–17, 58–60; Hoffman 2014, 524). Those who act on “self-interest alone, no matter how enlightened, could not be said to be acting ethically” (Stewart 1996 10–12). Responsible members of society believe they should do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not to make money (Fraedrich et al. 2011, 17–18). To believe that morality and self-interest do not ultimately conflict is not only engaging in “wishful thinking but also shows a lack of understanding of morality” since the very reason we (allegedly) need morality, in the first place, is to “restrain our purely self-interested desires” (Shaw and Barry 2015, 16).

Again, ethics may correlate with profits, but that is not why we should care about business ethics (Weiss 1998, 15–16; Audi 2009, 129–130, 213; Velasquez 2006, 6; Grace and Cohen 2010, 40–42, 67–68). Some even argue that if self-interest were “congruent” with typical non-self standards (e.g., “the common good”), morality would likely be “unnecessary” (Goodpaster and Matthewes 2014, 171). It is precisely because self-interest and ethics, deep down, are incongruent that morality is necessary (Hoffman 2014, 524).

In most textbooks, we get the message that business ethics is about running a business in a morally tolerable way. Business ethics is not so much about helping businesspeople make money, but curbing them and, thereby, curtailing the (alleged) harm their greed will cause. Business ethics is necessary to restrain or harness businesspeople’s self-interest for the sake of others. In short, then, we need business ethics to make businesspeople put ethics above profits.

The Exceptions That Prove the Rule

Are we saying that everyone in business ethics is morally skeptical of business? No, but most are. Suppose you were to go to your local library (or bookstore) and pick a business ethics text at random. In that case, the chances are that the book will argue for a business ethics at odds with self-interest and, thereby, the profit motive. In truth, of the thirty books we laid our hands on, we only found two that clearly seemed to offer a slightly different take on the subject. Alas, they, too, proved the rule.

Vallance (1995) and Sternberg (2000) set themselves apart from most business ethicists because they explicitly and confidently hold that the defining and proper purpose of business is to make money (Vallance 1995, 29) or maximize business owner value (Sternberg 2000, 32). At first, it seems like Vallance and Sternberg are morally defending the self-interested profit motive. However, a closer look suggests otherwise.

Vallance and Sternberg maintain that businesspeople often struggle to explain how something good for business can be ethical (Vallance 1995, 3; Sternberg 2000, 93). They are aware of why people raise this question and why businesspeople grapple with it; because most associate ethics with three things (which tend to go together): altruism, religion, and suffering (Sternberg 2000, 71–75; Vallance 1995, 23–24). Since a (religious) ethics of altruism and suffering is incompatible with business egoism, it is only logical that businesspeople often do not know how to morally justify doing what is good for the business. Logically, many see business as “intrinsically immoral” (Sternberg 2000, 57).

Sternberg remarks that when business owners pursue their enlightened self-interest, that will likely also maximize long-term business owner value. But since a business owner must care about others (e.g., stakeholders) to maximize long-term owner value, other-regarding ethics is often good business (56–57). Thus, she implicitly frames business ethics in altruistic terms. She also notes that if business is immoral because it promotes owner value maximization (i.e., the business owner’s financial self-interest), not (moral) “goodness,” then business is “guilty as charged” (57). In this sense, business is “amoral” (58).

As we noted, she recognizes that many associate ethics with altruism, religion, and suffering. To dislodge that association, she denies the necessary connection between doing good, altruism, and suffering. For example, you can lie, steal and cheat for altruistic reasons, and you can suffer for all kinds of reasons unrelated to ethics. Moreover, she says that what matters are actions, not motives (95). Thus, she concludes that business can be ethical (94). Obviously, if you declare that motives are morally irrelevant, you do not have to address the morality of the (self-interested) profit motive.

While morality—which she defines as justice and fairness plus a ban on lying, cheating, and stealing (77)—is good for business, that is not the justification for business ethics. We should do the right thing even when that decreases business owner value (79). And a person who does good “only out of self-interest. .. will not deserve the same moral credit as the one who does the right thing because it is right” (95; emphasis in original).

Vallance (1995) largely agrees with Sternberg. Still, she arguably goes to even greater lengths to dichotomize selfishness and the profit motive with ethics. She says, for instance, that rational egoism is not a moral theory and that if businesspeople were aware of ethical theories, they would probably make other “different and perhaps more sophisticated judgments” than that one ought to only be concerned with “maximizing profits” (13–14). And, Milton Friedman’s view that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profit, “may be seen as a profoundly immoral statement” (17). Like Sternberg, she avoids the need to morally justify the profit motive by taking it for granted that motives do not matter when judging actions. Nevertheless, she grants that when judging businesspeople as “moral agents,” we should pay more attention to motives than actions (23–24). Curiously, she does not clarify what that entails for the moral evaluation of businesspeople.

Is Ethics in Our Interest?

Many business ethicists hold that ethics is not supposed to advance one’s interest. In fact, most think that it is profoundly wrong to base ethics on self-interest. Nevertheless, some like to insist that ethics can be in our interest. If this is true, what does that suggest for our thesis?

How, then, do some argue that it is in our interest to act against (indifferently toward) our interests? They usually do it by (discreetly) switching from a controversial position that is harder to defend to a commonsensical position that is easier to defend. Typically, they present a stripped-down minimalist ethics as a substitute for, say, Kantian ethics of self-denial for duty’s sake (Kant [1785] 2017; Peikoff 1982, 74–84; Norman 1998, 90; Svanberg and Svanberg 2021).

Again, Velasquez’s (2006) discussion happens to provide us with a helpful illustration. When arguing that “the pursuit of ethics” is consistent with “the pursuit of profits” (38) and that ethics “should be brought into business” (39), he presents an argument based on “the prisoner’s dilemma” (39). He wants to show that even egoists should care about ethics (note, again, how he dichotomizes ethics and self-interest). Yet, ethics as such, is according to Velasquez’s conventional understanding, altruistic, not egoistic. Like most business ethicists, he holds that the non-self should primarily and ultimately benefit from our actions, not the self.

That said, ethics may coincide with self-interest, but whenever there is a clash (and there will be), you should sacrifice your good for others. To remind Velasquez of his own words: “if a person has a moral obligation to do something, then he or she is supposed to do it even if this conflicts with other, nonmoral values or self-interest” (10). So how does he square the circle? By suddenly reducing ethics to a few rules such as “do not steal, do not lie, do not injure, keep your promises, do not cheat” (40). If breaking “the rules of ethics (e.g., by stealing or cheating),” is not in our interest, he can say that ethics pays and that even egoists have a reason to care about it. (Implicitly if not explicitly, we find the same thinking in Stewart 1996, 17–18; Gini and Marcoux 2011; 56–59, 65, 67-ff.; Collins 2012, 6–10; Audi 2009, 19, 30–31; Fraedrich et al. 2011, 17–22; Sternberg 2000, 77; Vallance 1995, 46–47; Treviño and Nelson 2007, 25–32.)

But it is one thing to say that it is in one’s interest to keep one’s paying customers alive (ethics qua rules), and another thing to say that it is in one’s interest to give up one’s profits for others (ethics qua altruism). And it is misleading to equate them. In reality, ethics is more than a few rules conveniently removed from the anti-egoist/pro-altruist context they share (Svanberg and Svanberg 2021).

Others have also noticed that many business ethicists prefer to suddenly reduce ethics to basic precepts such as the golden rule and sayings like ‘honesty is the best policy.’ Michael Bayes (Lippke 1991) calls them “mid-level moral principles” (368). Lippke (1991) remarks that they tend to treat these “mid-level principles” as free-standing: “When authors employ diverse mid-level principles it is desirable that they indicate the grounds for these principles and that they integrate them into a coherent framework. Some authors neglect to do either” (372–373). Using Norman Bowie’s and Thomas Donaldson’s textbooks as examples, Lippke complains that both:

seem more interested in urging corporations to satisfy at least minimal moral responsibilities than in pursuing the contentious issues of moral and political theory. Neither spells out any sort of underlying rationale for the substantive positions he takes on the issues on social justice that pervade his analysis. Both sketch frameworks for analysis that are, at best, eclectic, and, at worst, ad hoc. The impression one gets is that both are adding on and patching up as they go. (373–374)

Lippke observes that business ethicists Alan Goldman, Patricia Werhane, and Richard DeGeorge seem to settle for “moral considerations of a relatively basic and uncontroversial sort” (374) and to find a “minimum floor” (376) for moral responsibility. (For more on this phenomenon, see Jones et al. 2005, 175–176.) This minimalist ethics, consisting mostly of such “mid-level moral principles,” is less burdensome than the “disinterest” of, say, Utilitarian ethics. Again, asking businesspeople to sacrifice their margins for the greatest happiness, as Mill (1863) and Singer (2015) would recommend, is more demanding than asking them to cherish their paying customers.

Case Studies

The case method is standard in business ethics (Goodpaster 2002, 117–141), which is why many texts devote many pages to case studies (Ferrell et al. 2010; Henderson 1992; Weiss 1998; Donaldson et al. 2002; Jennings 2009; Mellahi and Wood 2003, Crane and Matten 2004). Thus, we want to briefly comment on a few case studies and what they seem to signify. Since we never meant to make a full survey on case studies for space reasons, we will confine our remarks to our limited sampling. That said, it is notable that our rangebound findings consistently supports our thesis. Consider:

  • Weiss (1998) discusses the case of Dow Corning, which allegedly lied in public about their silicone breast implants’ safety, supposedly leading to many women suffering medical problems as a result. Like this one, most cases in the book show businesses acting questionably.

  • Crane and Matten (2004) cover, among other things, the allegation that McDonald’s promotes unhealthy food, treats animals poorly, exploits its workers, and damages the environment; the closing of BMW’s plant in England, destroying thousands of jobs in the process; Nick Leeson and John Rusnak’s trader crimes; the allegation that Nestlé sold infant formula that killed babies.

  • Velasquez (2006) writes on the chocolate industry’s use of slaves; the Enron scandal; Unocal’s investments in Burma’s brutal dictatorship; the pharmaceutical industry’s drug prices hurting Africa’s AIDS victims; Microsoft’s monopoly.

  • Wicks et al. (2010) discuss, among other things, Yahoo’s cooperation with the dictatorship of China; General Electric’s profiteering on misogynic abortions; Walmart’s outsourcing, use of “sweatshops,” low wages, and impact on “Mom and Pop” stores.

  • Collins (2012) cites cases, including BP allegedly cutting corners resulting in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster; Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; Goldman Sachs’s role in the financial crisis of 2008.

To the degree these examples are representative, we learn that the typical case study involves a business doing something wrong in order to make money. Reading between the lines, we take the message to be that acting on the profit motive tends to lead to immorality. Are these case studies representative? Again, we cannot say, but we are not alone in noting the same trend. Stewart (1996, xi) testifies:

I had been teaching business ethics for several years when a student came up to me after the class and asked, ‘Why don’t we ever talk about cases of ethical business behavior?’ The question surprised me. Not only did I realize that the text I was using featured only bad examples of corporate conduct, I had to admit to myself that I could not ever remember bringing into the class discussion a case of ethical business behavior.

Stewart wanted to prove to himself, that “the literature was dominated by examples of ignoble business behavior” because “we can learn best from mistakes.” And he kept telling himself: “I could find some good examples of ethical business behavior if I wanted to.” However: “The latter task proved more difficult than I had imagined. Most of the business texts contained the usual litany of corporate misconduct” (xi).

In his textbook, Stewart promises “good examples.” Among the “good examples,” he cites the Dayton Company because they donate money to charity (36); Ben & Jerry’s because it donates to charity, puts a cap on executive pay, and “puts the welfare of employees above everything else,” and pays premium prices to its dairy suppliers to save them from bankruptcy (57); Fastenal whose corporate culture “stresses decentralization and equality among management, stockholders, and employees” (62); L.L. Bean Company that allows its customers to return anything, at any time, if they are unsatisfied (126); Saturn Corporation, an automobile manufacturer where employees are treated as “ends and not as means” because they are authorized to make management decisions to improve quality (158); Shorebank, a financial institution that is credited for stopping “urban decline” and replacing it with “neat single-family homes, clean streets, and hope” (189) and other businesses that exemplify “caring capitalism” such as Patagonia, Smith & Hawken, Celestial Seasoning, Espirit de Corpo, Apple, Walmart, and others. Unlike most, these companies stick out with their “uncommon commitment to people” (190). They have “a conscience” (191). They are noteworthy because they “create products that are restorative, natural and beneficial to our society on many levels,” and sacrifice profits to various causes and charities (193–194).

What can we learn from such “good examples”? Simply running a business is not a good cause. Clearly missing on every list of “positive” cases, is businesspeople’s ability to create valuable goods and services and voluntarily trade them with others for a profit. Simply put, business acumen and productive ability are not morally admirable, worth studying and learning from.

The Bias Is Unfair

As argued, many business ethics texts fail to provide a fair and balanced presentation. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that it is skewed and slanted; prejudiced against business. As such, it gives an unfair and misleading representation of capitalists, managers, and entrepreneurs. If taken seriously, people will draw invalid conclusions.

If we wrote cookbooks like many business ethics textbooks, we would remind everyone what can go wrong when cooking and enjoying food. We would go on and on about food poisoning, allergic reactions, choking, and obesity. We would endlessly discuss what not to eat and what not to do when preparing a meal. Maybe, in the very end, as an afterthought, we would offer a few boring recipes for some bland food. With no knowledge of the contrary, readers could reasonably take this to mean that the authors of such odd and peculiar cookbooks are biased against food and cooking. Such authors would also be guilty of giving the wrong impression of food and eating and, by extension, cooks, and chefs. Frankly, that would not be a cookbook but a hysterically moralizing food safety manual.

As seen, a common procedure in most business ethics textbooks is to list real (or imagined) evils and to insinuate that businesspeople are generally not trustworthy because of their greed. Accordingly, business ethics must focus on morally taming businesspeople’s selfish desire to make money. If that sounds innocuous, substitute “businesspeople” for any other historically denigrated group, and the injustice should become apparent (Marx 1844; Watkins 2016).

There are immoral businesspeople just like there are immoral nurses and teachers. However, we are saying that a fair treatment that accounts for all the pros and cons would conclude that businesspeople are essentially good, just like nurses and teachers. Most pharmaceuticals have side effects. But that does not justify exaggerating the side effects and omitting or trivializing the positive effects of drugs. Such a presentation would be unfair. Similarly, bad businesspeople doing bad things do not justify exaggerating the evil and downplaying or ignoring good businesspeople doing great things. Such a presentation would also be unjust.

To justify the view that we need business ethics to confine the profit motive: It is almost a must to anchor it with a narrative on the evils businesspeople have committed because of their self-interest. Thereby, business ethics textbooks are (intentionally or not) poisoning the well of business and insinuating guilt by association. Why else base the business ethics narrative on businesses such as Enron and WorldCom instead of Apple and Amazon—as if the former were more relevant and representative than the latter? Why repeatedly recite the list of instances of business misconduct if it lacks general relevance? And, if we are really only talking about a “few bad apples,” why do we talk as if they were the norm? Regarding this, Agalgatti and Krishna (2007, 33) make a relevant observation:

The amoral nature of business is discounted by the very fact that scandals and wrong-doings of businessmen are given high publicity for their ‘sensational’ value. As the journalistic maxim goes, if a dog bites a man, it is no news. But, if a man bites a dog, it becomes news. Thus, the very reporting and sensationalising of business scams proves the fact that these are exceptions and not everyday occurrence.

While the evils of bad businesspeople deserve attention, this cannot and should not be the focal point of business ethics. Not in any attempt at an unbiased account. In an even-handed discussion, one must consider the total context, including all relevant facts, views, and arguments, not just those that support one’s preconceived notions. We must look at all costs and benefits, not only some of the costs and none of the benefits, or vice versa. One can get a sense of how one-sided business ethics texts tend to be by considering some of the relevant points that a more even-handed effort would highlight. If mentioned and stressed, they would add some perspective and allow the reader to see the whole truth. Here are, for illustration, a few facts that are rarely mentioned (and then, at most, only briefly in passing):

The private business sector produces 70% to 90% of the goods and services we need to survive and enjoy our lives (OECD 2014). Directly, private businesses create 70% to 95% of the jobs enabling us to buy and enjoy all the goods and services (OECD 2019). Indirectly, the private sector creates all government jobs via tax funding. For many, work is a source of meaning and self-esteem (Branden [1969] 2001; Csikszentmihalyi 2008; Weir 2013; Cowen 2019). Businesspeople mostly earn their money by producing for the masses, not only a “privileged” elite (Snyder [1940] 1972; Hayek [2003] 1954; Mises [1979] 2006; Folsom [1987] 2013; Reisman 1996; Baumol et al. 2007; Tanenbaum and Holstein 2019). By creating wealth, businesspeople have virtually erased extreme poverty in the West and will, at this pace, soon do the same in the rest of the world (World Bank 2015; Rosling et al. 2018; Ridley 2010; Norberg 2016; Pinker 2018; Roser and Ortiz-Ospina 2013). For the first time in human history, half the world is now middle class or wealthier, and by 2030 the middle class is expected to dominate (Kharas and Hamel 2018). In context, the wrongs of some businesspeople pale in comparison.

As the facts above suggest, businesspeople make an enormous positive difference in the lives of others. And one would think that if “doing good for others” is what counts, mainstream business ethicists would do nothing but heap praise on business. The literature would be full of businesspeople morally credited for benefitting millions or billions of customers around the world. Indeed, the data above suggests that business has lifted more people out of poverty and into a comfortable middle-class existence than all charities combined. Instead, most of them cannot bring themselves to mention any of these benign results, let alone to give businesspeople any moral recognition for them. As we have seen, their emphasis is on how to morally handcuff all businesspeople as if they were all moral suspects, as if the mere potentiality of wrongdoing is enough to treat them all as guilty until proven innocent. Why? The short answer is that interest taints the motives, actions, and outcomes of business morally. In light of everything said up to now, most business ethicists believe business’s beneficial workings lack moral worth when coming from the wrong motive; the self-interested profit motive. Accordingly, the literature is full of “bad examples” while many business ethicists struggle to find what, in their altruistic view, is a “good example.” This conundrum encapsulates how the anti-egoist assumptions of contemporary business ethics cause the anti-business bias.


In 1993, Stark noted, among other things, a business/ethics dichotomy in business ethics. Today, after reviewing thirty business ethics texts, we have identified a moral prejudice against business, a bias that unfairly misinforms people’s perception of businesspeople and business. As seen, many, if not most, business ethicists share the general view that ethics is about unselfishly living for others. As evinced, this altruistic outlook implies an unfavorable view of self-interest and, with it, the profit motive and business. As explained, self-interest is, from the altruist viewpoint, inherently harmful and dangerous. Therefore, business ethics is generally more about getting businesspeople to serve others unselfishly than helping them earn profits selfishly. To restrain businesspeople’s “greed,” not help them make money, is the fundamental justification for business ethics. The emphasis is more on morally subjugating the next Kenneth Lay, Bernard Ebbers, and Bernie Madoff, and less on morally empowering the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. The message is not, ‘Do this if what you seek is long-term success,’ but “When in doubt, don’t” (Gellerman 2003, 60). This morally prejudiced approach to business is a problem that deserves acknowledgment, scrutiny and, ultimately, correction.