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Virtue at Work

Virtue at Work: Ethics for Individuals, Managers and Organisations

By Professor Geoff Moore

What’s the problem with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? Conceived originally as ways in which businesses could help to resolve social problems, some of which they themselves might have caused, it has increasingly become strategic in nature. The question usually asked of any social or environmental investment programme is whether it supports the overall strategy of the business and whether it is likely to have a payback. This is an instrumental approach, which conceives of ethics as strategy, and has the effect that a business will be good only if it pays.

Businesses will also be more concerned with being seen to be good than with actually being so – ‘greenwashing’ in relation to environmental issues, as it is often known. One even more critical argument is that CSR is merely a means of propping up the shareholder-centric model, apparently providing some legitimacy to businesses while actually leaving them largely free to extract value from other stakeholders and the natural environment for the sole benefit of their shareholders. In that sense, CSR has been ‘captured’ by business for its own ends.

It was because of these kinds of concerns that I began a journey to try to find an alternative way of ‘coming at’ what business is (or could, or perhaps should be) all about. I came to the conclusion that ‘virtue ethics’ might hold some helpful answers, and this led to a number of conceptual and empirical papers which explored this approach.

Others were also working in this area, and it came to the point (about 20 years after starting) where the ideas were sufficiently well developed, and there were sufficient empirical examples, to write a book about it. Virtue at Work. Ethics for individuals, managers, and organizations is the result. I didn’t want to write a book for academics (they can read the original papers), so this is written specifically with a managerial/general audience in mind. It’s an attempt to make these ideas accessible.

Virtue ethics is an answer to the perennial question ‘How, then, should we live (and work)?’ which focuses on the development of character, on who we have and might become as individuals, on the virtues and vices we have and might develop. It also focuses on purpose, on what ‘ends’ we think are worth pursuing. It makes a distinction between two different kinds of ‘goods’ – internal goods being those which are worth pursuing for their own sake, and external goods, those we pursue for the sake of something else.

In an organisational context, internal goods are to do with the excellence of the products or services the organisation provides and the flourishing of employees in the process of providing these. External goods, by contrast, are things like money or profit, reputation or, perhaps most generically, success. External goods are, therefore, not ends in themselves but means to the end of achieving internal goods. And, enabled by the virtues, the pursuit of internal goods from all the practices we are typically involved in (family life, leisure, political and community activities, as well as organisational life) is what constitutes our purpose(s) in life.

At the organisational level, this asks questions about the purpose of the organisation – why does it exist, how do its internal goods (excellent products or services, the flourishing of its employees) contribute to the common good of society? And one obvious outcome of this approach for business organisations is that the maximisation of profit can never be the purpose of the business – profit is only ever a means to the end of the further pursuit of its internal goods.

One effect of this approach is that it provides an integrated framework with implications at the individual, managerial, organisational and societal levels. In the book, I work out in detail what this means for individuals in their lives in general but particularly in their working lives; for managers; and for organisations across a broad spectrum and for occupations such as accounting, banking and HR.

Reference: Moore, G. (2017) 'Virtue at work : ethics for individuals, managers, and organizations.', Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The article was first published in IMPACT Magazine in January 2018.

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