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Dissertation: Business and Ethics? A Study of a Dichotomy

”We need business ethics that is fundamentally compatible with the profit motive of companies.”
Politiikkasuositus Kuinka alustataloutta voidaan edistää terveysalalla. Image is an abstract taken from an exhibition Crystal Flowers at Aalto University.
Photo: Aalto University / Mikko Raskinen

Wealth-creating businesses that produce and trade goods and services are essential for human life and well-being. ‘Thus, one would think that more academics in business ethics and management would stress business’ benevolent nature. “Alas, that is generally not the case,”’ says Marja Svanberg. On 24 September 2021, doctoral candidate Marja Svanberg will defend her doctoral dissertation at Aalto University School of Business.

Marja Svanberg, Aalto BIZ
Marja Svanberg

The interest in business ethics, which is understood to encourage good
management, is growing. ‘Nevertheless, contemporary business ethics generally assumes that businesspeople are inclined to be dishonest and dangerous. Many business ethicists perceive a need for morally restraining business people’s ‘greed’. The result is a business ethics aimed at curbing the means and end of business,’ Svanberg says. Svanberg is particularly interested in the basic cause of the phenomenon, which is why her dissertation is a masterful example of philosophical detective work.

‘My dissertation reveals a problem with contemporary business ethics: its cornerstone, the traditional altruistic ethics, is fundamentally opposed to the egoistic profit motive. That is, the essence of business.’

Svanberg’s dissertation shows that many business ethicists assume that selflessness is good and vice versa. They usually see ethics and self-interest as opposites. Therefore, they also doubt companies and entrepreneurs driven by the self-interested profit motive. With an extensive literature review, Svanberg proves the existence of this polarization of conventional ethics and the profit motive. Furthermore, she explores the different aspects of the dichotomy, discusses its foundations, meaning, and consequences for business ethics and businesspeople.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Svanberg discovers that the literature mainly focuses on learning about commercial atrocities and crimes. ‘Of course, studying such negative examples is not a waste of time. But since the dichotomy between traditional ethics and the profit motive is so deeply rooted in business ethics, hostility towards companies has almost become a matter of course. Unfortunately, this is the general drift in modern business ethics,’ adds Svanberg.

‘Although companies produce almost all the goods and services we use and need, as well as create most jobs that enable the survival of the masses, the profit motive lacks a moral justification. In the light of the benefits of entrepreneurship, it is a great injustice that prevailing business ethics is not able to give businesspeople moral recognition for their will and ability to make profits through honest production and trade. Entrepreneurs deserve ethical guidance and appreciation in the same way as people active in research, technology, medicine or education.’

Svanberg’s research is needed to increase awareness of what is missing in today’s business ethics and to broaden perspectives. Svanberg calls for business ethics that is fundamentally compatible with the profit motive of companies. ‘If the contradiction between traditional ethics and profit is not seen as a problem in need of a solution, the gap between today’s lecturing and constraining business ethics and profit-driven businesspeople will continue to grow. But business ethics should serve entrepreneurs, and the goal must be that they turn to the subject because it has something to offer them. Businesspeople deserve a profit-friendly business ethics that promotes long-term commercial success,’ says Svanberg.

In future research, funded by the Yrjö Uitto Foundation, Svanberg’s goal is to conceptualize a new business ethics by identifying the successful entrepreneurs’ implicit and explicit principles. This study will provide important productivity-enhancing consequences for entrepreneurs and help reshape the subject of business ethics. In this way, Svanberg’s findings on the shortcomings in prevailing business ethics pave the way for a new positive turn for the subject.

Further information:
Marja Svanberg
[email protected]
tel. +358 45 639 0818

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