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Insights from James Otteson's 'Honorable Business'

I’ve been reading a new book on business ethics, “Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society,” and it has some excellent observations about the practice of buying and selling.

The book’s author, Prof. James Otteson of Wake Forest University and WFU’s BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism, builds a concise framework of ethical behavior, starting with Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia (human happiness and flourishing) and giving due consideration to the work of Adam Smith (both 1776’s “Wealth of Nations” and 1759’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”). He then applies these classic insights to modern businesspeople and the way they should approach their professional relationships.

The ethical guidelines that Otteson lays out are essential to an individual who is navigating their way through the profession, but he also has some important insights about the profession of business itself. He writes of the prototypical businessperson:

Her second obligation, however, is to business itself as a profession. Because she understands business’s crucial role in the hierarchy of moral value, she also understands that her society’s institutions must be embedded in a proper culture of moral value and personal behavior, and she understands that this culture can be maintained only if the individuals acting in it behave in ways that reflect and reinforce it. That means the business professional must behave herself in those proper ways.

This will entail developing a proper business identity for herself, as well as stewarding the profession of business as a value-creating, honorable enterprise. The business professional does her job, honorably, in good faith, and to the best of her abilities. If she finds that her present circumstances prevent her from doing so—or if she decides she does not want to do so in her present circumstances—then her professional obligation is to find another place to pursue her proper ends.

Otteson reminds us that businesspeople need to look out for the standards of their profession, and police it as they would their own behavior. But the flip side is that, when necessary, they should also be prepared to defend it against attack and calumny. If it is true that the vast majority of business transactions are, in fact, legitimate and ethical, than capitalism’s critics—and the vast government regulatory apparatus built on their critiques—have a lot to answer for.

My Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Fred Smith has often emphasized how business, and the institution of the firm in particular, requires our vigorous defense. In 2016, in the study “The Morality and Virtues of Capitalism and the Firm” he wrote:

…capitalism is moral, based on its voluntary nature and its reliance on virtuous core human traits. Furthermore, it shows how the entity that embodies capitalism in the market, the firm, hones and enhances these virtues through a vast array of mutually beneficial exchanges, which in turn enable other types of interactions beyond the realm of business.

Capitalism operates in the real world through its key institution, the firm or corporation, a cooperative venture that must consider the values and wants of everyone in its community—customers, employees, suppliers, and investors.

A moral defense of capitalism needs to illustrate how capitalism not only makes people wealthier, but also advances other important values and concerns, such as fairness and justice. Failure to make that case leaves business vulnerable to attack by anti-market critics, demagogic office-seekers, and overzealous regulators.

I look forward to finishing “Honorable Business” and giving it a full review.