Business Ethics 101

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Business ethics is a study of moral standards and how these apply to the social systems and organisations through which modern societies produce and distribute goods and services and to the behaviours of the people who work within these organisations. Business ethics, in other words, is a form of applied ethics. It not only includes the analysis of moral norms and moral values but also attempts to apply the conclusions of these analyses to that assortment of institutions, organisations, activities and pursuits that we call business.

As this description of business ethics suggests, the issues that business ethics covers encompass a wide variety of topics. To introduce some order into this variety, it helps if we distinguish three different kinds of issues that business ethics investigates: systemic, corporate and individual.

Systemic issues in business ethics are ethical questions raised about the economic, political, legal, and other social systems or institutions within which businesses operate. These include questions about the morality of capitalism or of the laws, regulations, industrial structures and social practices within which businesses operate.

Corporate issues in business ethics are ethical questions raised about a particular organisation. These include questions about the morality of the activities, policies, practices or organisational structure which an individual company takes.

Finally, individual issues in business ethics are ethical questions raised about a particular individual or particular individuals within a company and their behaviours and decisions. These include questions about the morality of the decisions, actions or character of such individuals. It is helpful when analysing the ethical issues raised by a particular decision or case to sort out the issues in terms of whether they are systemic, corporate or individual issues.

Often the world presents us with decisions that involve a large number of extremely complicated and...
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