6.1 Conclusion

In this concluding chapter, I will provide a summary of the journey described in Chaps. 2, 3, 4, and 5; reflect on my earlier work indicating changes (and discoveries) in my thinking; discuss issues that have arisen during the 8 years since my becoming Emeritus Professor; and finally share some thoughts about the future of the field of business and applied ethics. Let us first summarize.Footnote 1

6.1.1 Summary

In the body of this book, and on my career journey, I have had four moments of insight. It is useful to recall that at the outset, in Chap. 2, I said the common denominator among definitions of insight was: to be able to discern something deeper (“what lies beneath”) or something larger (“a bigger picture”).

Thus, in my search for an understanding of conscience in Chap. 2, Royce’s moral insight provided the deeper departure point. In my view, conscience is what holds us together as human beings, despite the fact that moral relativism would see conscience as fragmenting us as a community.

It may be worth pointing out that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, conscience was originally understood as a common quality that individuals shared: “a man or a people had more or less conscience,” as groups had more or less science, knowledge, intelligence, and so on. The word came gradually to be used as a more personal faculty, so that “my conscience” and “your conscience” were understood no longer as “our respective shares or amounts of the common quality conscience” but as “two distinct individual consciences, mine and yours.” My entry under “conscience” in the Encyclopedia of Business Ethics and Society (2008) adds:

This individualization of the meaning of ‘conscience’ . . . signals a polarity at the core of our moral awareness: On the one hand, conscience is our subjective touchstone for ethical decision making. On the other hand, an appeal to conscience in moral argument (or dialogue) usually lays claim to common ground, a warrant for our ethical convictions that reaches beyond the merely subjective. Insofar as conscience must respond in actual decision-making situations, it has a certain private authority, both in relation to non-moral decision guides and in relation to the consciences of others. We can refer to this as the autonomy dimension of conscience. But because conscience can be ‘undeveloped,’ ‘neglected,’ or ‘out of touch,’ philosophers have looked to it for a broader kind of authority, less private and more rooted in human nature or reason. We can refer to this as the discernment dimension of conscience.

New York Times columnist David Brooks echoed this perspective in 2011 when he commented on a study of the ethical attitudes of young adults in universities across America:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

I am less pessimistic than those who would see this “privatization” of conscience as the death knell of a shared morality. I believe that Royce’s moral insight goes deeper than superficial differences to places where human values converge rather than diverge. It is for this reason that we often speak of individual consciences as “undeveloped,” “arrested,” “neglected,” or as Royce pointed out, “forgetful.” When philosophers anchor the idea of conscience in human nature or reason, they are suggesting a more widely shared (even if private) faculty. The work of Jonathan Haidt (2013) was particularly relevant in this connection.

Turning to the idea of corporations and corporate conscience in Chap. 3, I invoked Hugh Heclo’s work on institutions to suggest that there was an institutional insight that must accompany our understanding of business and the economic sector of society. It is an insight that enables business leaders to discern something deeper and larger (“a bigger picture”) in the purposes of their organizations. This means that leaders need to operate with a dual awareness—foreground and background—seeing their responsibilities both to their present organization’s success and to the success of business as an institution whose mission is to produce goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.

Chapter 4 introduced an aspect of normative thinking in business ethics that took us beyond the conventional debate about “stockholders and stakeholders.” The anthropological insight helps us to see that any normative account of personal, organizational, or societal ethics must carry with it—either up front or behind the scenes—a “comprehensive picture of man” (borrowing the phrase from John Paul II). Like the institutional insight, it is an insight that helps us to discern something deeper (what lies beneath) and larger (“a bigger picture”)—this means a view of what the good is for human beings, what happiness is for “the whole person and all persons” (Benedict XVI 2009). This is not optional, though it is often not made explicit by those invoking, say, “stakeholder capitalism.”Footnote 2

In Chap. 5, I described the case method pedagogy in the business school environment as well as the case method and “hypocrisy exercises” in the executive education environment. The Socratic insight brought us full circle, in the sense that it meant discerning something deeper about the role of the “ethics teacher” and something larger about the purposes of educational institutions. That “something deeper” is the dynamic of respect between the educator and the learner that the case method requires (Gragg 1940), and it was the genius of Plato in doing philosophy in the form of dialogues. This is the direct application of the moral insight to the educational process. The “something larger” is the ethical role of business and executive educational institutions in their respective environments.Footnote 3

6.1.2 Changes and Discoveries

As I look back over my earlier work for instances of change (or discovery) in my thinking, several things come to mind.

  1. 1.

    Milton Friedman’s skepticism about corporate leaders acting in the public interest (see Chap. 2)

  2. 2.

    The concerns of some critics that the Principle of Moral Projection will somehow undermine individual responsibility for business decisions (see Chap. 3)

  3. 3.

    The realization that my work actually progressed beneath my awareness (until now) from the moral insight to the institutional insight to the anthropological insight, and finally to the Socratic insight (see Chap. 4)

  4. 4.

    The further realization that these four insights were “bonded” in a significant way: the first three (moral, institutional, and anthropological) were needed to form a comprehensive understanding of business ethics (espoused values), while the fourth, the Socratic insight, was needed to educate (values-in-action) the next generation of business leaders with this understanding (see Chap. 5)Footnote 4

  5. 5.

    Finally, the realization that the “Four Avenues” of ethical analysis actually anticipated the “Four Insights” in a surprising fashion Milton Friedman Revisited

Reflecting now on my convictions three or four decades ago about Milton Friedman’s (1970) concerns about business leaders and “social responsibility,” I have to say that a recent development leads me to appreciate more than I did then the wisdom of his warnings. This development is social in nature: it is the tendency during the last 6 or 7 years for business leaders to substitute political partisanship for corporate conscience. Friedman was concerned about the legitimacy of corporations using their economic power without a “political license,” so to speak, untethered and unaccountable to the public generally (Nather 2019; Jamison 2018). Friedman’s warning then seemed a bit excessive, but today it seems almost prophetic (Goodpaster 1991, 2018). The drift on the part of many left-leaning companies toward political correctness and “resistance”—and the drift on the part of many right-leaning companies toward political “incorrectness” and conservative values—is becoming embarrassing, given any plausible distinction between the private and the public sectors.Footnote 5

So, as I look back on Milton Friedman’s famous essay warning against corporate leadership straying too far from its fiduciary duties to shareholders, I appreciate its wisdom more today than I did when I first read it. Friedman anticipated by 50 years the Business Roundtable Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation (2019) when he wrote:

I share Adam Smith's skepticism about the benefits that can be expected from “those who affected to trade for the public good”—this argument must be rejected on grounds of principle. What it amounts to is an assertion that those who favor the taxes and expenditures in question [corporate leaders] have failed to persuade a majority of their fellow citizens to be of like mind and that they are seeking to attain by undemocratic procedures what they cannot attain by democratic procedures. In a free society, it is hard for “good” people to do “good,” but that is a small price to pay for making it hard for “evil” people to do “evil,” especially since one man's good is another's evil. (Friedman 1970)

Sometimes the use of private sector resources by corporate leaders for the sake of controversial political causes in our contemporary environment does seem to represent “seeking to attain by undemocratic procedures what they cannot attain by democratic procedures.” Moral Projection and Personal Responsibility

During the 1980s, when I was defending the appropriateness of predicating responsibility of corporations, I received pushback from some respected philosophers who believed that attributing responsibility to corporations was tantamount to denying responsibility on the part of individual persons within corporations who made decisions for which they should be held accountable.Footnote 6 These objectors were convinced that attributing responsibility to corporations meant not attributing responsibility to individuals within the corporation. My response was to disagree—I insisted that both corporations and the decision-making individuals within them could be held responsible simultaneously (see Chap. 3, “Individual and Corporate Responsibility Simultaneously?”).

In twenty-twenty hindsight, I now see that it was not enough at the time to simply deny that there was a logical implication between attributing responsibility to a corporation and refusing to affirm responsibility to individuals working for the corporation. It is true (as I insisted at the time) that this logical implication does not exist, either from the organizational level to the personal level, or from the personal level to the organizational level. (That is, if a corporation is held responsible for a certain wrongdoing, individuals within that corporation can also be held responsible for their decisions that contributed to the corporate wrongdoing. Conversely, if an individual within a corporation is responsible for a certain wrongdoing, the organization itself may or may not be held responsible for wrongdoing at the same time.)

When I say “I now see that it was not enough,” I mean that I now believe that a full ethical understanding of organizational decision making calls for an appreciation of the reality that individual persons in their organizational contexts are acting both as sovereign persons and as participants in a person-like actor that has a moral-cultural life of its own. Somehow, persons, organizations, and (dare I say) organized social systems face moral accountability as a connected whole, not simply as discrete abstracted fragments. (See Fig. 6.1.) This is why it is not enough to simply deny that predications on one level fail to exclude predications on other levels. The reality is that the levels are not culturally independent of one another. They are culturally interdependent like the various pieces of a balanced mobile, all moving with a perturbation of just one.

Fig. 6.1
figure 1

Relationship among the levels in applied ethics (from Chap. 2) Progress Beneath My Awareness: The Four Insights

In reviewing my work over nearly 50 years for this book, I came to see patterns that were often beneath my awareness. Principal among those patterns are the “four insights,” around which I have organized Chaps. 2, 3, 4 and 5. The moral insight was defined by Royce as “the realization of one’s neighbor, in the full sense of the word realization; the resolution to treat him unselfishly” (Royce 1885).Footnote 7 This provided an account of conscience (Chap. 2). The institutional insight is the realization that one’s own institution—like all institutions—is part of a larger enterprise of forwarding the well-being of humankind. This means that business leaders must foster in themselves and in their leadership teams a vision and a concurrent peripheral vision about the purposes of their corporation (Chap. 3). Then the anthropological insight emerges as the realization that a satisfactory normative account of business (or organizational) ethics requires a comprehensive view of the good for the human person and ultimately of the common good for the human community—an anthropology—without which appeals to the interests of shareholders or stakeholders have no content. The inclusion of an anthropology is not an option in business ethics; it is a necessity. Thus, asking what “picture of man” is implicit in any given normative ethical action-guide for business is always a legitimate question (Chap. 4). Finally, weaving the three insights above into a unity, each calling for the other and all of them reaching for action in the marketplace, we have the Socratic insight. This insight guides the formation of the current and next generation of business leadership in our society (and often in other countries). It is the manifestation in the educational process of the moral insight in the general case of agents and recipients. It is the realization of the other (student, employee, executive) as one whose moral, institutional, and anthropological awareness can be elicited through respectful dialogue.Footnote 8 The Socratic insight applies the moral, institutional, and anthropological insights to the very methodology of business formation and practice, using the case method and certain other tools—because wisdom can’t be told (Chap. 5). Awareness (moral, institutional, and anthropological) without interaction is powerless, but (Socratic) interaction without awareness is blind. The Four Insights Enrich the “Four Avenues” Approach to Ethical Analysis

As I reflect on the progress beneath my awareness afforded by the four insights, it becomes clear to me that the “four avenues” approach to ethical analysis that I have been using with my students (described in Chap. 5) could and should be enriched using those four insights.

In discussing interest-based avenues of ethical analysis, the central idea was that the moral assessment of actions and policies depends on their practical consequences, and that the only consequences that really matter are the interests of the parties affected. This way of thinking can be enriched by the anthropological insight in the sense that the latter seeks to discern more deeply and more widely the content of the word “interests.” It calls for the “comprehensive picture of man” in the background. My answer to that call was to identify the “whole person and all persons,” interpreted from a “family of God” perspective.Footnote 9 Others, of course, will have a more secular picture.

In discussing rights-based avenues of ethical analysis, the central idea was that all individuals are accorded equal respect and equal voice in social arrangements and also accorded basic liberties, such as opportunities for self-development, work rewards, and freedoms including religion and speech. This way of thinking is enriched by the moral insight itself, in the sense that it emphasizes “the realization of one’s neighbor.” It calls our attention to human dignity and reminds us that we seek not only the good of all persons but also the good of each person.

In discussing duty-based avenues of ethical analysis, the central idea was that “ethics is about playing one’s role as part of a larger whole,” such as family obligations, obligations to local communities and various associations, and obligations to larger communities like the business community itself or the nation as a whole. Eventually, duty-based thinking can extend to humanity at large, as in the cases of pandemics and global warming. This way of thinking is enriched by the institutional insight, which calls for each of us to navigate ethically with multiple levels of awareness that correspond to the many intersecting communities to which we belong. Recall that the institutional insight asks business leaders to maintain at least a dual awareness of their obligations to the company that they lead and also to business as an institution for the common good. Expanding this dual awareness to include other intersecting institutions is a natural next step.

Finally, in discussing virtue-based avenues of ethical analysis, the central idea is that actions should be assessed by the degree to which they flow from or reinforce a virtue or positive trait of character. This way of thinking is enriched by the Socratic insight because that insight calls for the positive traits of character needed for effective dialogue. These traits include respect, honesty, prudence, humility, and courage.Footnote 10 As we have seen, the Socratic insight invites us to carry into practice the other insights—from espoused values to values-in-action.

6.1.3 The Last 8 Years

During the 8 years since I have retired to the role of Emeritus Professor at the University of St. Thomas, political and cultural polarization has increased in the United States at an alarming rate, culminating in the 2020 presidential election and the events of January 6, 2021, in which the nation’s Capitol building was breached by demonstrators. Frank Newport, Ph.D., a Gallup senior scientist and author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People, wrote:

Any functioning society needs to develop and maintain its social institutions—the widely agreed-upon ways in which society handles the core functions necessary for survival. But that agreement appears to be waning. Partisans on both sides increasingly see institutions in the U.S. not as beneficial and necessary, but as part of an effort by the other side to gain advantage and to perpetuate its power and philosophical positions. Liberals and Democrats today, for example, have lower trust in traditional family institutions, traditional religious institutions and the economic system. Republicans have lower trust in the scientific process, higher education, the mass media, and the role of the state (government). (Newport 2019)

This polarization found its way into workplaces and the C-suites of large publicly traded corporations and into the halls of most American colleges and universities. During the pandemic year of 2020, which was also a highly contested presidential election year and a year of intense social protest surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ideological clashes and political partisanship were on display across the country and even internationally. The intensity of the polarization led New York Times columnist David Brooks (quoted earlier in this chapter) to write in March 2021:

These days it’s hard to be blithely confident in the core American creed we used to be so proud about—e pluribus unum. Out of many one. We don’t seem like “one” today if you look at the facts. This general disillusion with e pluribus unum has caused many people to give up on patriotism altogether.Footnote 11 (Brooks 2021)

These events, combined with the comments by Brooks, led me to reflect on their implications for the discussion in this book (and throughout my career) of conscience, corporations, and the common good.

At a time of intense social and political unrest and polarization, it is difficult not to hear the echo of Josiah Royce’s prophetic description of the moral insight in Chap. 2: “It is the realization of one’s neighbor, in the full sense of the word realization; the resolution to treat him unselfishly” (Royce 1885).

But. . . [p]assion may cloud the insight after no very long time. It is as impossible for us to avoid the illusion of selfishness in our daily lives, as to escape seeing through the illusion at the moment of insight. We see the reality of our neighbor, that is, we determine to treat him as we do ourselves. But then we go back to daily action, and we feel the heat of hereditary passions, and we straightway forget what we have seen. Our neighbor becomes obscured. He is once more a foreign power. He is unreal. We are again deluded and selfish. This conflict goes on and will go on as long as we live after the manner of men. Moments of insight, with their accompanying resolutions; long stretches of delusion and selfishness: That is our life.Footnote 12 (Royce 1885)

In a time of “passion clouding insight” and opposing factions being characterized as “foreign powers,” the need for moral insight is as great as the forces that would obscure it.

And what is more, at such a time, it is difficult not to hear the echo of the institutional insight from Chap. 3, the need for leaders to operate with a dual awareness: foreground and background—seeing their responsibilities both to their present organization’s success and to the success of business as an institution whose mission is to produce goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.

Corporations that guide themselves by an inner compass using the institutional insight will be less likely, in my opinion, to dive headlong into the political and ideological fray, as so many seem to have done. In this regard, and under these circumstances, it is tempting to be drawn into what I have called “counterfeits” of corporate conscience or corporate responsibility. Counterfeits of Conscience

What most of these counterfeits have in common—like counterfeit currencies—is the use of a substitute in place of the “real thing.” Many have pointed out that corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and even Amazon adopted policies during 2020 that were calculated to disadvantage the right and advantage the left by “canceling” many conservative communications, tweets, books, etc.Footnote 13 While these policies (when acknowledged) might have been rationalized using moral or ethical categories, it seems clear to dispassionate observers that this behavior did not stem so much from corporate conscience as from corporate political gamesmanship. And similar observations could be made regarding corporations not in the information business when their leaders decided how to allocate political monetary contributions.Footnote 14 What may be happening in such cases is that corporate conscience, guided by the institutional insight, is being muted and outsourced to political expediency, a set of norms external to and only contingently related to the company’s considered values.Footnote 15

In Conscience and Corporate Culture (2007), I discussed another possible source of this counterfeit phenomenon in connection with what I called the paradox of paternalism: “It seems essential for sustaining a group conscience, yet coercive, to seek to dictate the value orientation of others, whether inside the corporation or outside.” I argued that corporate leaders could insist on a low degree of value congruence in their organizations or a high (“lock step”) degree—or a golden mean between these two. I said that the “high range is too dogmatic to be respectful, while the low range is too relativistic to be stable” for the culture over time. This is the way to manage (if not resolve) the paradox of paternalism. Corporate leaders who speak and allocate/withhold resources in a partisan way, however, tend to disrespect members of their own corporate community (employees) whose views about politics may be very different.Footnote 16 Other Counterfeits

There are other instances of “outsourcing conscience,” of course. Socialism is one well-known counterfeit that would simply put the public sector itself in the place of private sector conscience—and law and regulation in the place of markets. Sometimes “compliance” is interpreted along these lines, but not always. We saw in Chap. 4 that “stockholder thinking” and “stakeholder thinking,” if unspecified regarding “a comprehensive picture of man,” amount to counterfeits as well.

One other recent counterfeit comes to us from the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The more sophisticated robotics, self-driven automobiles, and mining big data become, the more software engineers (and their managers) are faced with the challenge of programing “decision trees” that are ethically value laden, that favor certain outcomes over others depending on the preferences of the manufacturers (Murawski 2019). AI-based manufacturing is analogous to “building in” (or “freezing in”) to the decision-making software of an “autonomous” system various prescriptions or norms, meaning that those “built in” decisions may or may not represent the organization’s judgments at the moment of the automaton’s decision.Footnote 17 While AI can build into automatons “consciences” that are unreflectively sourced to the ethical views of the software engineers at the time of manufacture, stepping back, we might say that political partisanship can easily display the unreflective outsourcing of corporate conscience to an external political party. Either way, there is a kind of alienation of the moral and institutional insights, a reverting—as Jean Piaget might say—from an ethic of core values to an ethic guided by the rules of another (“heteronomy”).

6.1.4 The Future of the Field—Can the Insights Find Traction?

It is tempting to be pessimistic in the face of the societal divisions that have intensified over the past decade, especially if one believes, as I do, that the four insights described in these pages depend importantly on a basic spirit of community behind our inevitable differences.Footnote 18 The moral insight, when it is not lost or forgotten, invites reciprocity and respect. The institutional insight carries with it a recognition of the common good as an underlying purpose of the economic sector. The anthropological insight calls for finding common ground in our views about humanity. The Socratic insight calls for our pedagogy itself to mirror the ethical message of conscience, personal and institutional, in service of the common good.

Severe polarization threatens our ability to live out these ethical aspirations, even our ability to formulate a coherent normative ethics for business. Are there any signs of hope in such circumstances? My answer to this question is an emphatic affirmative. For one thing, thoughtful reflection can and does reveal more common ground than one might expect regarding the virtues we recognize in our “comprehensive picture of man.” As Yale professor Steven Smith observes: “American patriotism at its best does not rely on indoctrination but on teaching and supporting the virtues of civility, respect for law, respect for others, responsibility, honor, courage, loyalty, and leadership—all virtues worth having and keeping.” Smith says further that “among the themes that constitute our national symphony,” we should include equality, liberty, human dignity, limited government, pluralism and respect for diversity, love of culture and the arts, positive attitudes toward invention and discovery, economic development and opportunity, faith and hope, and individualism and exceptionalism (properly understood) (Smith 2021).Footnote 19 No doubt Smith’s two lists above will occasion some energetic debates, but they provide a platform for hope, I think, that the idea of common ground—and thus a “common good”—is attainable even in a time of serious division.

Another reason for my emphatic affirmative answer to the question about signs of hope is the founding and flourishing of a non-profit organization called Braver Angels.Footnote 20 This is a grassroots organization that originated from a simple idea in one state and spread to all fifty of the United States and beyond. The simple idea was that the principles and techniques of family counseling might be “writ large” to help in practical ways to heal the divisions that plague an entire nation.Footnote 21 To quote from the Braver Angels website:

[T]oday, there is evidence to suggest that we are now as polarized as we have been since the Civil War. We are in what some are calling a “cold civil war” right at the moment when a spreading pandemic, vast economic trouble, and other national and global challenges call upon us to support each other like never before.

At Braver Angels we do not accept this division. . . . Our work is about restoring civic trust in the USA. It is about healing the wounds between left and right. It is about challenging institutions to be better, building community together, and discovering what it means to be American in our time. . . . At Braver Angels, our work is about building a house united.Footnote 22

Using an army of trained volunteer moderators, the organization puts on “Red/Blue” and “Skills” workshops (Depolarizing Within, Families and Politics, Bridging the Divide); hosts general debates attended by thousands of citizens, college debates, book discussions, film discussion clubs, Zoom webinars; curates a library; and much more. Braver Angels is just one of many efforts underway at the time of this writing (though it is a particularly striking one) that are signs of hope in difficult times.

Another striking sign of hope deserves mention in this context. In 2019, Arthur C. Brooks published an extraordinary book entitled Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. Brooks observes that:

From the philosophers of ancient Greece to the world’s great religions to our own Founding Fathers to the psychology research of the modern era, we are exhorted to choose our heart’s true desire: love and kindness. All warn unambiguously that division, if allowed to take permanent root, will be our misery and downfall. (p. 37)

Brooks emphasizes, however, that “unity does not necessarily mean agreement” and that “unity is always an aspiration; we will never be 100 percent unified.” Nevertheless, he reminds his readers of the response that the Dalai Lama gave to his very personal question “Your Holiness, what do I do when I feel contempt?” The response was: “Practice warm-heartedness” (p. 40). The rest of the book gives practical meaning to this strong, not weak, reply: “Warm-heartedness is not for the faint-hearted.” In my opinion, this is a strong sign of hope!

6.2 Message to the Reader

This concludes my reflections on nearly 50 years of teaching and research in applied ethics, most of those years in business ethics at three institutions: the University of Notre Dame, Harvard Business School, and the University of St. Thomas. The record of my published work appears as Appendix 1 to this volume, and Appendix 2 contains three of my articles that are especially relevant to the narrative. I reprint them here with the permission of their publishers to round out the retrospective and prospective thoughts in this volume.

  • “Toward an Integrated Approach to Business Ethics,” Thought, Volume 60 (June, 1985), pp. 161–180.

  • “Tenacity: The American Pursuit of Corporate Responsibility,” Business and Society Review (118:4, 2013), pp. 577–605.

  • “Human Dignity and the Common Good: The Institutional Insight,” Business and Society Review, (March, 2017), pp. 27–50.

Figure 6.2 above indicates the flow of chapters in this tale of my career journey, ending for me in a period of challenge with hopeful signs—but beginning for you to carry forward with these same hopeful signs. Thank you for joining me on my journey, and on yours, I wish you the very best.

Fig. 6.2
figure 2

Awareness without interaction is powerless, but interaction without awareness is blind