I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard this question over the last 25 years. I could retire tomorrow!
Why do so many keep bringing up this tired cliché when we clearly know that "business ethics" is not a contradiction in terms? Obviously, this cliché does point to something true about joining "business" and "ethics." At the same time, I think this cliché conveys something very misleading that can derail corporate ethics initiatives. It's time to separate the truth from the error.
People never will stop repeating this cliché because, deep down, we know that it's not always easy to be ethical—in business or anywhere else in life! Sometimes it's hard to know what the right thing to do is. Because modern life is complex and fast-moving, we sometimes are honestly perplexed about what ethics require in a particular quandary.
Other times, when it is crystal-clear what we should do, we still may stumble because there can be powerful obstacles to acting ethically. For example, in the short term, acting ethically can sometimes be very expensive.
So, calling "business ethics" an oxymoron rightly recognizes that ethics is a challenge. This much is true. That said, I think that this cliché also betrays a deep error in the way that many think about ethics in business. This error can be costly for business and it should be cleared up once and for all.
Calling "business ethics" an oxymoron conveys the misguided assumption that ethical commitment and conduct have to be 100% in order to be valid. In other words, if you're going to be ethical you have to be a saint. Like being pregnant, being ethical is thought to be an all-or-nothing proposition: you either are or you aren't!
It's certainly not bad to strive for ethical perfection, but it can be very destructive to insist upon it. Demanding 100% ethical perfection can have the unintended reverse consequence of discouraging people from trying to be ethical at all. When faced with the impossible, sometimes people just give up.
The hard realities of business require give-and-take among people as they strive for pragmatic solutions. These solutions aren't always perfect, but they often represent the best we can achieve. So, we shouldn't give up, by saying it is impossible to join "business" and "ethics," simply because it is sometimes hard to put our ethics into practice.
The implications for business are serious. Just recently, there were stories in the news media about how certain socially responsible investment funds had fallen short in their goals to achieve ethically clean portfolios. Much of this coverage cynically suggested that investors shouldn't even try to apply their ethics to investment decisions because of the difficulty of avoiding "dirty hands" in the market place.
I oppose this kind of cynical response. Instead of concluding that ethics and investments don't go together, we should be seeking even more sophisticated and thoughtful ways to link our values to our wallets.
Business schools and leading companies support the idea of "continuous improvement." This means that any business practice can be improved upon. Effective businesses cut victory laps short in order to improve quickly upon their successes. Entrepreneurs in particular understand that "sitting still" is the same as "slipping backwards."
But continuous improvement also entails the frank admission that we're not perfect—not ever. If we were perfect, there'd be no room to improve. There's no shame in being less than perfect. The shame would come only from giving up on doing better.
Continuous improvement as a business philosophy makes good sense. Why should it not also make sense as an ethical philosophy? There's no such thing as an ethically perfect manager, or an investment fund, or a company. If perfection is the impossible standard we're applying, then indeed we might as well conclude that "business ethics" is an oxymoron.
It makes no sense to impose this unrealistic standard on business or anything else. Instead, every company should examine its own practices and policies, and ask, "How can we improve what we're doing? Is our ethics code adequate? Do we train our people as well as we can? Do we treat our customers and other stakeholders as we should?"
The answer, of course, is that we can always do better. But far from being a reason for cynicism, this answer is actually good news. "Business ethics" is not an oxymoron; it's an opportunity.