Is Good Ethics Good Business?

Published: September 15, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Amid the anxiety and chaos on Wall Street today, I thought it would be interesting to revisit an old question.

The following comes from a radio commentary delivered in October, 1997 by my own ethics teacher, Michael Josephson.   I believe it’s a message we need to remember in these difficult times.

“‘Good ethics is good business.’  ‘Honesty is the best policy.’  ‘Cheaters never prosper.’

“These proverbs lead to the most ‘easy-to-sell’ rationale for integrity in business:  ‘It is always in our self-interest to be ethical.’

“I wish I could believe this.  Here’s my problem:  if good ethics were always good business, only stupid people would be unethical.  And if we examined the ethics of the most successful executives or top 100 companies, we would only find stellar examples of business morality.  That’s not my experience.

“Don’t misunderstand.  I think there are many advantages to good ethics.  And surely unethical conduct is fraught with risks.  I just don’t think it’s ethical to sell ethics purely on the basis of self-interest.  Quite aside from the fact that the self-interest assumption is often doubtful, if we do the right thing only to advance self-interest, it’s self-interest, not ethics that is at work.

“Ethics is about doing the right thing, whether or not it is the smart thing.  Ethics is about the pursuit of virtue as a matter of moral obligation, not self-interest.

“Thinking of ethics entirely in terms of consequences and advantages is a form of situational ethics.  It inevitably invites a cost/benefit analysis that treats ethics simply as a factor to take into account rather than a ground rule.  Thus people in business tend to compromise and rationalize.

“We’ve got to realize that ethics and business are two separate domains.  Sometimes good ethics helps.  Sometimes it hurts.  The point is whether it is good business or not, good ethics is always good ethics.”

My point to any president or CEO is this:  If honesty and trust is something you expect from your employees; if your clients expect you to be trustworthy, can you afford not to be ethical?





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