What Does Morality Have To Do With Business?

I once worked with an eminent scientist who turned out to be a fraud. Apart from his appetite for Internet porn and a concomitant disrespect for female colleagues, he was also a managerial bully who hectored a colleague who had accurately peer-reviewed one of his sloppy papers. The esteemed man of science finally lost his job, allegedly for administrative lapses, but the damage his immoral conduct had caused was not easily repaired.

The obvious harm done to people, the business, and the community in cases like this, makes it hard to understand the attitude of people on the make who ask: what the hell does morality have to do with business? Names like Enron, Libor, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Madoff, and enough et ceteras to fill a book, make the answer seem obvious, but the attitude persists.

It is seen in high rates of cheating on MBA programs, and the admission by many executives that “bending the rules” is part of “the game”. And who in business has not come across racism, sexism, bullying, laziness, scapegoating, theft, fraud, disruptive behaviour, negligence, and dishonesty? So much for productivity and profitability.

The attitude is related to the moral confusion of our age. Contradictions abound: promoting promiscuity and the family at the same time is impossible; pornography and respect for women cannot co-exist; neither nations nor individuals can borrow their way out of debt; if advertising helps people stop smoking, then glamorizing violence must also have an impact; political correctness and rational debate are mutually exclusive; the examples are endless.

A lot of the confusion is explained by the moral relativism that has seeped into the minds of many via state schooling, the media, and academia. The notion of values as self-chosen moral commitments is spurious. Who could ever have fulfilling relationships without the virtues of honesty and loyalty? What business would ever declare that it did not value integrity or hard work?   If each has his or her own morality, then there is no morality.

The folk humour of Finlay Peter Dunne put things in perspective: “it must be good being good or everybody wouldn’t be pretending they were.” Typically, the cynics snarl, “There’s no such thing as the good, other than individual choice”, but they are wrong. The nature of the good is the central question of ethics, and if we don’t have a cogent answer, we don’t have ethics.

The answer of classical philosophy was based on natural teleology, all things being seen as naturally directed to specific ends or fulfilment. The acorn is oriented by its nature to become an oak, a caterpillar to become a butterfly, a baby to become a rational adult. Knowledge of a thing’s nature or essence reveals what is good for it; the right soil and climate are necessary goods for the acorn to reach its goal, while fire and squirrels are bad for it.

In the case of humans, intellect and free will, by which we know the good and can choose it, usher in the reality of moral goodness. As rational, relational beings, we need a personal freedom that only finds expression in the context of benevolent relationships, we need knowledge of reality and the challenge of creative enterprise, and we need nourishment, shelter, recreation, and a measure of security, in order to flourish. People who are bullied, isolated, unemployed, or uneducated, are unlikely to flourish in workplace or community.

As social animals, we need a climate of trust, justice, and social harmony. And since we only develop self-knowledge in relationships, honesty is necessary to prevent self-deception and the welter of psychological deformities that issue from it. The lie is at the root of most human misery, bound up as it is with violence. These are moral realities.

So the teleological worldview provides a firm foundation for a rational description of objective moral principles. However, the mechanistic worldview of modern philosophy rejected the teleological understanding of reality, denying that meaning and purpose are real features of the world. This theory is not scientific; it is a metaphysical assumption that merely echoes a scientific method that excludes all aspects of reality that are not quantifiable.

The impact of the mechanistic worldview on morality is well documented. The father of modern philosophy, Descartes, gave us the idea of the autonomous self, disengaged from community and nature. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau said self-interested individuals are bound by a social contract, making all relationships negotiable. Hume saw values as subjective, reflecting simply the preferences of the person doing the valuing. He believed moral attitudes emerge by virtue of their social utility. Kant’s Categorical Imperative, the idea that rational beings should choose to do only what could be accepted as a universal rule of conduct, failed to rebut the advocates of relativism, utilitarianism, and contractarianism.

This mix, known generally as utilitarianism – the greatest good of the greatest number – has become the morality of the majority. Moral issues are decided by calculating outcomes, the end justifying the means. Nietzsche’s “will to power”, the nihilistic attitude that says, “my will is all that matters”, made the mix even more toxic, and moral confusion prevailed.

In reality, managers and many of the people they deal with – staff, clients, peers, suppliers – are burdened by this moral confusion. Confirmed in their self-centered worldview by movies, TV, and social media, and frequently dysfunctional relationships, many people today lack empathy and compassion. Typically, they are resentful of authority and often disengaged at work. Devoid of a knowledge of history, they lack vision, and are fatalistic about the eternal now they inhabit, being driven largely by instant gratification, and by extension, money.

This can hardly be seen as human flourishing. Moreover, the right of individual choice that is held up as the one unquestionable good is fraudulent for the simple reason that people in that state of mind are ill-equipped to make rationally informed choices. People who blindly reject the classical worldview as old hat, should reflect on the fact that terms like authenticity, integrity, vision, strategy, progress, and leadership itself, are all teleological concepts.

In 2005, Harvard Business Review reported “an emerging global consensus” in business ethics. Working from leading corporate codes and respected regulatory sources, researchers gleaned 130 moral precepts that distilled down to just eight basic principles. The level of consensus, and the fact that the core principles echoed classical philosophy, surprised them. In essence, the eight principles, fiduciary, property, reliability, transparency, dignity, fairness, citizenship, and responsiveness, express two ancient imperatives for human flourishing – honesty and justice. The implications for managers should be obvious.

The dynamics of moral choices were once likened to a fleet of ships. First, the ships must avoid collisions, which concerns social ethics. Next, they must be shipshape and seaworthy, which is about personal virtue. Finally, they must know where they are meant to be going, a metaphor for the ultimate purpose in life. Today, there is plenty of guidance on the first issue, almost none on the second, while the third is either buried or ridiculed.

Immoral conduct in business does untold damage: people are hurt, productivity and profitability suffer, the lives of the perpetrators are further perverted, and every instance is another suicide attack on free market capitalism. Refusal to address this moral crisis is the single greatest threat to business today.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Excellent points.

    I’m excited to be pulling together some content to develop an ethics and morality course in the up coming month. Really excited because the course is going to span leadership, data, and how the traditional ethical scenarios apply.

    Just awesome stuff sir.

  2. Morality is and always will be a spectrum that bounces from end to end during cycles of our societies and civilizations. There are times that it’s not the action, but the intent that determines one’s morality (e.g. homicide). But when actions are so disdained that it’s the action alone that determines one’s morality (e.g. genocide). But today morality is becoming sterilized from having many forced to follow ideologies (e.g. Feminism) and behavioral rules (e.g. micro-aggressions).