A Better Way to Think about Business
by Robert C. Solomon
Oxford University Press, 1999, 240 pages, $23.50

Business gets a bad rap. That's why the term "business ethics" is a contradiction in terms to most people, says Solomon. Look at the way we talk about business. We militarize it through merger wars and corporate battles. We mechanize it through reengineering. We refer to it as a jungle, a snakepit, or shark-infested waters. We vilify business people in popular culture. (Want an example? Check out Oliver Stone's film Wall Street.)

We look for ulterior motives when companies do something nice. Texaco sponsors the Metropolitan Opera on radio, for example. That's nice. But what does Texaco get out of it? Surely it can't be doing it out of the goodness of its heart. Business, after all, has no heart.

That's how not to think of business, says Solomon. "Business has been and remains a civilizing influence," he writes. And, yes, it does have a heart. At this heart are the effort to satisfy people's interests and desires, the willingness to compromise and negotiate, and the recognition of certain virtues.

A Virtuous Profession

The author devotes an entire third of the book to extolling this "catalog of business virtues."Take, for example, honor. Solomon calls honor a supervirtue. Its flip side is shame.The basic concern: "to hold one's head up; to represent the good."

Honor helps you maintain self-respect. Like all virtues, however, you have to keep it in check. Too much turns you into a self-righteous snob. Too little leaves you scrambling for scruples.The acid test? "What, in your job, would you absolutely refuse to do?"Suppose, Solomon suggests, your boss asked you to lie to your best customer. Would you?

Take a look at the entire list of virtues, from ability to zeal. Use it to develop your own ethical style. But you're on your own; Solomon won't tell you how. As he says, "There are many ways of being virtuous, and there are many ways of being ethical."

Copyright © 1999 Soundview Executive Book Summaries