Business Ethics and Moral Motivation a Criminological Perspective

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Journal of Business Ethics (2008) 83:595–614 DOI 10.1007/s10551-007-9641-8

Ó Springer 2008

Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective

Joseph Heath

ABSTRACT. The prevalence of white-collar crime casts a long shadow over discussions in business ethics. One of the effects that has been the development of a strong emphasis upon questions of moral motivation within the field. Often in business ethics, there is no real dispute about the content of our moral obligations, the question is rather how to motivate people to respect them. This is a question that has been studied quite extensively by criminologists as well, yet their research has had little impact on the reflections of business ethicists. In this article, I attempt to show how a criminological perspective can help to illuminate some traditional questions in business ethics. I begin by explaining why criminologists reject three of the most popular folk theories of criminal motivation. I go on to discuss a more satisfactory theory, involving the so-called ‘‘techniques of neutralization,’’ and its implications for business ethics. KEY WORDS: character, deviance, moral motivation, techniques of neutralization, white-collar crime

One of the peculiar features of business ethics, as compared to other domains of applied ethics, is that it deals with a domain of human affairs that is afflicted by serious criminality, and an institutional environment that is in many cases demonstrably criminogenic (Braithwaite, 1989, pp. 128–129; Coleman, 1989, pp. 6–8; Leonard and Weber, 1970; Sutherland, 1968, p. 59). The oddity of this state of affairs is sometimes lost on practitioners in the field. It is common, for instance, at business ethics Joseph Heath is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Communicative Action and Rational Choice (MIT), The Efficient Society (Penguin), and with Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell (HarperCollins).

conferences for the majority of presentations to be concerned, not with ethical issues in the narrow sense of the term (where there is often some question as to where the correct course of action lies), but with straightforward criminality. In this respect, all the talk of ‘‘ethics scandals’’ in the early years of the twenty-first century has been very misleading, since what really took place at corporations like Enron, Worldcom, Parmalat and elsewhere was, first and foremost, an outbreak of high-level, large-scale white collar crime. Each illegal act was no doubt surrounded by a broad penumbral region of unethical conduct, yet in each case the core actions all involved a failure to respect the law. The high incidence of crime in the corporate environment is, in itself, something of a mysterious phenomenon. Most well-adjusted adults would never consider shoplifting from their local grocery store, or stealing from their neighbor’s backyard, despite having ample opportunity to do so. Yet according to a United States Chamber of Commerce Study, 75% of individuals steal from their employer at some time or other (McGurn, 1988). Studies of supermarket and restaurant employees found that 42 and 60% (respectively) admitted to stealing from their employer in the past six months (Boye and Jones, 1997; Hollinger et al., 1992). The losses suffered as a result of this sort of ‘‘occupational crime’’ – crime committed by individuals against the corporation – greatly exceed the total economic losses suffered from all street crime combined (Snyder and Blair, 1989). Yet this does not even begin to take into consideration the losses suffered from ‘‘corporate crime’’ – crimes committed by individuals on behalf of the corporation. During the 1990’s the list of firms that were convicted of serious criminal offenses in the United States included (either the parent, a division or a subsidiary of)


Joseph Heath staple of the criminology...
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