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The Language of International Corporate Ethics

  • Thomas Donaldson
Chapter
Part of the Issues in Business Ethics book series (IBET, volume 5)

Abstract

This chapter identifies six basic languages of morals and shows that while in general it is impossible to say that one moral language is innately better, some languages are better for the purpose of characterizing international corporate responsibility. In particular, moral languages that imply minimum rather than perfectionist standards of behavior, and which are not overly dependant on analogy with human moral psychology, are better than ones ranging broadly over both the minimum and maximum standards and requiring analogy to human beings. Languages based in rights and duties, avoidance of harm, or social contracts are better for understanding international corporate ethics than ones based in virtues, self control, or the maximization of human happiness.

What we say drives what we do. If money may be said to be the basic medium of business, so language is the basic medium of ethics, and the language we use in discussing ethics in international business has dramatic implications for the health of, and quality of life within, international commerce. If we conceive international corporate responsibility in terms of “virtues” or “self-restraint” we imply a vastly different moral structure for international business ethics than if we utilize concepts of “rights” or “avoidance of harm. ”

I wish first of all to make clear that in analyzing the language of business morals I do not mean to highlight spoken languages, and the differences between, say, Japanese, French, English, and Spanish. I mean to confront something deeper, something one step removed from spoken languages, which, while related to them, concerns the fundamental structures through which we conceive ethical reality. An analogy to geometry may be helpful. The geometry that most of us learned in primary school has its roots in the teachings of the Greek geometrician, Euclid. But since the nineteenth century, other non-Euclidian geometries have arisen, usually maintaining most of the postulates of Euclid but changing critical ones. One such geometry alters Euclid’s famous “parallel” postulate, and assumes, contrary to Euclid, that parallel lines meet at infinity. English, Japanese, French, and Spanish all have ways of expressing such geometrical postulates. Each has a word for “parallel.” Each also has a way of representing “triangularity.” But the difference between the Japanese word for “triangle” and the English word for “triangle” is less significant to geometers than the difference between a Euclidian and a non-Euclidian concept of “triangle. ”

The analogy to ethics should be obvious. The deeper difference from the standpoint of international corporate ethics lies not between the English and the Japanese words for “corporate responsibility, ” but in the sets of ethical concepts we use to express “corporate responsibility. ” Just as different geometries can be used to express familiar geometric relationships, such as triangularity, different sets of ethical concepts can be used to express notions of “corporate responsibility. ” And, just as it is difficult to say that Japanese is a “better” language than English, it is difficult to say that either geometry is better in general or that one set of ethical concepts is better.

However, while in general it is impossible to say that one moral language is better, some languages may be better for some purposes. This brings me to the mission of this article. I wish to show that some moral languages are more appropriate for defining corporate responsibility. In particular, deontological or consequential ethical languages that can be used to establish minimum rather than perfectionist standards of behavior, and which are not overly dependent on analogy with human moral psychology, are better than ones ranging broadly over both minimum and maximum standards and requiring analogy to human beings. To be specific, this means that we are better off defining international standards for corporate conduct in terms of rights and duties, or avoidance of harm, or the terms of a hypothetical general consent (the social contract), than we are in terms of virtues, self-control, or the maximization of human happiness.

Keywords

Social Contract Moral Agent Corporate Responsibility Social Contract Theory Ethical Concept 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas Donaldson

There are no affiliations available

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