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History of Business Ethics

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History of Business Ethics

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The term 'business ethics' is used in a lot of different ways, and the history of business ethics will vary depending on how one conceives of the object under discussion. The history will also vary somewhat on the historian—how he or she sees the subject, what facts he or she seeks to discover or has at hand, and the relative importance the historian gives to those facts. Hence the story I'm going to tell will be somewhat different from the story someone else might tell in various particulars, and I hope that instead of being a dull recitation of facts it might in fact prompt some discussion at the end by those who would tell a somewhat different story. The story I will tell has three strands, because I believe the term business ethics is used in at least three different, although related, senses. Which sense one chooses therefore gives priority to nature of the history of the topic. The primary sense of the term refers to recent developments and to the period, since roughly the early 1970s, when the term 'business ethics' came into common use in the United States. Its origin in this sense is found in the academy, in academic writings and meetings, and in the development of a field of academic teaching, research and publication. That is one strand of the story. As the term entered more general usage in the media and public discourse, it often became equated with either business scandals or more broadly with what can called "ethics in business." In this broader sense the history ofbusiness ethics goes back to the origin of business, again taken in a broad sense, meaning commercial exchanges and later meaning economic systems as well. That is another strand of the history. The third stand corresponds to a third sense of business ethics which refers to a movement within business or the movement to explicitly build ethics into the structures of corporations in the form of ethics codes, ethics officers, ethics committees and ethics training. The term, moreover, has...