Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

The Business of ‘Business Ethics’ and the Ethics of Business

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laura spence inauguralWhat is business ethics? An oxymoron? An academic field? Just good business sense? These were exactly the questions posed by Professor Laura Spence at her inaugural lecture on November 24th.

To the packed Windsor auditorium, Laura shared insights on the ‘business of business ethics and the ethics of business’, intertwining her vast research experience with ethical theory. Laura provided a narrative of her career progression within the broad realm of management and through roles at Kingston University, Brunel University, and most recently, Royal Holloway where Laura gained her Chair in 2011. We learned that one core thread connects Laura’s experiences, achievements and passions; nurturing an analytical focus on the ongoing balancing of ethical and unethical behaviour in business life. This, to Laura’s respondent, Professor Mette Morsing from Copenhagen Business School, captures the essence of the ‘Laura Spirit’; curious, persistent, uncorrupted, and committed to question taken-for-granted assumptions about ethics in a critical-constructive modus.

Laura’s discussion focused predominantly around a typology of different perspectives of business ethics. Laura, for instance, discussed how business ethics can be (and perhaps is most frequently) considered as an oxymoron. The term business ethics is often ironically tied to business scandals and media representations of unethical business practice. Laura suggested that business ethics is not a contradiction, but is in fact, a way of understanding business and social life through adopting a moral perspective.

Laura Spence Business ethics diagramThrough a concise application of moral and social theory, Laura revealed the trajectory of multidisciplinary business ethics research. This raised some interesting reflections. When we say something is unethical what do we really mean? Which ethical perspective are we drawing on? Here Laura provided a detailed tabularization of key theories, protagonists and seminal works in business ethics, which acted as a useful foundation for those less familiar with ethical theories in the room.

Practically speaking, business ethics can also mean good business sense. Although Laura in prior work has profoundly critiqued the idea of strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR) in its neo-liberal interpretation, she pointed at how business and society can bring benefit when directing collective attention to societal needs and challenges. While businesses are most often seen to operate IN society, Laura, most poignantly, argued that business IS society. Here we gleaned insights into Laura’s true passion, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs); the ‘99%’ of businesses. Here Laura argued, “SMEs are not little big firms” and “rather than demonizing them, a great deal can be learned from small businesses” in ethical contexts.

Laura concluded that businesses are part of the cause, but also part of the solution to intractable global problems, laying down the gauntlet for more research into business ethics and gender in SME contexts.

Dr Sarah Glozer, Lecturer in Marketing, RHUL School of Management & Professor Mette Morsing, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

 

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