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This general human tendency to regard the only world we know as normal is reflected in just about all the disciplines that are taught in our schools and universities.
(Edward Goldsmith, The Way. An Ecological World-View, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1998, p. xiii.)

Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all it means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.
As with everything else about systems, most people already know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe that which they know. Donella
(Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems. A Primer, Earthscan, London, 2009 (ed by Diana Wright), p. 184.)

Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world, or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be 'uneconomic' you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.
(Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Vintage Books, London, 1993 (first published 1973), p. 27.)

We call upon the Earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it teach us, and show us the Way.
(Chinook Blessing Litany)

Ethics and business ethics

Looking around

Looking from a distance, from a planetary perspective – including all life, present and future – we have to acknowledge that much of the present economy is characterised by (unwitting or deliberate) irresponsible behaviour. The increasingly deregulated global market – the playing field of big corporations – and the financial system on which it is built (or that sits on top of it), are exploitative in nature: the system has no drive to take care of people, resources and ecosystems. That's what we see. Although it has never stopped promising all things good, the talk – in economics – is very much about rights and freedoms, not about responsibilities and duties. If it is not just altogether on nothing but money.

Looking at where this model, and the kind of thinking underneath it, has brought us, we have to admit that it all indicative of an unhealthy and dangerous world view. Sure enough, it has worked wonders. For some. And for the short period of time it can last. But more and more voices are aware of the fact that our economic thinking and our economies are not even delivering on what they keep promising: happiness, well-being, the good life. Wicked problems have by no means been brought any closer to a solution. On the contrary: new super wicked problems – such as climate change, ecological destruction and societal time bombs – are the inherent result of what we are doing. Not just a nasty side-effect. Not the result of failure but the consequence of success.

Our world, and most of our behaviour, is held captive in an economic rationale that thinks in terms of 'how much something pays for me in how little time'. It is hardly exaggerated: with its constant cost-benefit analysis (and how everything translates into money) and with its market-idea pervading nearly every aspect of life, our culture has become economic to the core. Ethical, spiritual, religious, ecological or community ways of thinking have been pushed to the side and seem to belong to a different, vulnerable and powerless world. A dangerous form of schizophrenia, an unbalance of serious proportions.

What is badly needed is an ethics of care and responsibility. Not just as a corrective (and therefore often dismissed) afterthought with economic decisions, but as (and at) the heart of a new world view. That is of course also a necessity of life: a different world view that can respect and protect what is dear to us. This means, amongst many other things, a paradigm shift in how we look at business responsibility: no business charter should be able to contradict the Earth Charter or Human Rights.

Care is about extending our field of attention, empathy and responsibility to much more than ourselves, our personal development and the small circle we live in. One of the daring challenges is to re-envision ourselves as part of an intricately interconnected dance of life that we are vitally dependent on. Ethics, viewed in this way and as an integral part of a much broader – holistic and ecological – world view, is not the powerless afterthought it all too often seems to be now. An ever more complex set of (ethical) rules and regulations that has to be rushed in so that things do not get out of hand too much, will not do for the future. Not only because of the near impossibility of monitoring compliance (and the lack of power to impose sanctions on non-compliance), but because it lacks the inner drive of an ethics of care. Care is about compassion, love and connection. And connection is the glue of a holistic worldview.

In what follows, while drawing on some of the most fundamental questions in it, we do not make an attempt to give an extensive overview of the field of ethics with its different traditions, schools of thought and subfields. Rather, and without using some of the more intricate (philosophical) language, we explore what is needed for our purpose and select the most meaningful observations here for people interested in responsible business. Something, in the light of events, we should all be.

Business ethics?

By some, business ethics has been named a contradiction in terms, an impossibility, since there is no way of reconciling business and ethics. And indeed, many people – especially business people – have argued that "the business of business is business": that what it comes down to in business is making money. And that that is the drive of all progress, if not – deep down – the drive of evolution itself. If someone wants business to behave responsibly (towards people and environment for instance), then business should somehow be forced to do so (by societies, authorities or governments). Business is an amoral activity (where ethics is irrelevant) and the checks and balances should come from the outside, they believe.

We do not want to go full length with this, but for a number of reasons that position is simply untenable. What if that society, authority or government is no match for big business – something which seems to be happening right now? While often creating the opposite impression (through massive lobbying and pr) the systems logic is such that most big business ridicules every attempt to ethically correct their behaviour. But that position – that business is something amoral – also somehow flies in the face of decent economic reality itself. Even the people who think or believe that business is something amoral are forgetting a simple adagio: no ethics, no business. If the majority of (small) business people would not rely on a common ground of trust, respect and honesty in their many relationships (also with the natural environment) there would quite simply be no business. Without basic trust and respect among all stakeholders involved, and without a decent awareness of the environmental limiting conditions, business can only be good (and profitable) in the extremely short term for a few. Without a sound ethical base, business is bound to be unsustainable, exploitative or damaging. It is indeed the free-rider mentality (not decent and responsible business and economies) that has grown out of proportion and is breaking the back of people and the back of the planet at the moment.

From a theoretical point of view, there is therefore every reason to assume that ethics is an integral part and even a fundamental condition of good business. But maybe that type of (meta)discussion is beyond what most people are concerned with in the practicality of everyday reality.

But also on that practical level, and opposed to the amoral outlook, people have defended the role or the necessity of business ethics in some form or other. Something which in itself is an indication of things actually (sometimes, repeatedly or often) going wrong in the business world. This – again – should by no means come as a surprise, and it passes no value judgment on business or entrepreneurship as such. A lot of business, especially small and local business, is done in such a way that it respects people and the planet because it quite simply understands that it otherwise undermines itself.

But – let us keep the pendulum swinging – that is not to say that businesses behave ethically per definition. Business is done by people, business activity is people activity, and business choices are peoples' choices. And people, because of freedom and lack of understanding of the world they live in, can make the 'wrong' choices and do bad things. To state the obvious here: no field of reality (where human activity and thus human freedom is involved) can be exempt from ethical reflection. If business ethics has no right to exist, then quite frankly ethics has no right to exist.

Business ethics on the rise again

It may be a bit of an oversimplification, though not necessarily a sign of hope, but business ethics (or better: the call for business ethics) is on the rise again. One reason is that the corporate world has grown out of control and beyond the reach of local, regional or national communities. It is as if the world and the lives of many people have been taken over by a big money-making machine that fails to respect them, and that can get away with what it does. It is telling that the call for more business ethics usually follows the big scams and scandals, only to ease away some time later when things have reverted to normal, as if we have reconciled ourselves with the situation as it is. As if we can only keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best, while expecting the worst. An abnormal normality so to speak.

There are probably other reasons why business ethics is on the rise again, but with this last remark we seem to have arrived at a different level. Following a period of blind belief in progress – things could only get better and science, technology and economic development would make ethics obsolete – we are now beginning to fully understand that we are not at present where we thought or hoped we would be. Our optimism has taken a terrible knock and the big stories we believed in have come crumbling down. Also the dream of unlimited and untroubled progress and development. For one thing, the growing awareness of the fragility of ecological and social systems, their finiteness and limited resilience, have made an end to the dream of total control and makeability. And they are bringing such 'obsolete' things as ethical reflection and search for beauty, meaning and spirituality back into the cultural picture. Our critical (ethical) reflection should now (also) turn to that wider scope of ideas, models and mental frameworks that have brought us here.

Therefore it is justified to see business ethics move into a quite different realm. If that means stretching the idea of business ethics to where it only becomes ethics, so be it. We are mostly concerned here with what should happen, whatever name or discipline it comes under. As a discipline, business ethics has long been the critical reflection on what is happening in the business world. And because there was an understandable need for it to be not too theoretical, but practical and useful in real business situations, it quite often became the type of 'situation ethics' that most are familiar with: cases and real or realistic situations formed the starting point of ethical reflection or ethical decision making processes. The drawback and danger of such an approach is that sometimes – in the name of practicality – (some of the reasons for the) situations tended to be taken for granted. In other words, some things, such as the assumptions underlying the economic paradigm itself, escaped critical ethical reflection.

Business ethics on the move?

The distinction can of course not be total, but with the challenges that we face at the start of the 21st century and especially since some of these challenges in all likeliness result from it, the more pressing questions relate to the business and economic paradigm itself. Therefore, a question like 'What is morally acceptable in a business context?' may have to be replaced or preceded by: 'What kind of business and economy is morally acceptable?'. In other words, there might be a need to move from 'critical, ethical reflection within the model' to 'critical, ethical reflection about the model'. This is the position we more or less take here. Without ignoring the massive importance of an ethical reflection within the many business situations we find ourselves in on a day to day basis, we must also find new models and frameworks to make our economies work for, not against us. Is it possible that the way to think about (and organize) economics has currently evolved into something unethical in itself – an amoral morality or the abnormal normality we were referring to earlier on? If the rules of the game have become such that fundamental conditions do not allow for responsible business, than we are simply fighting a losing battle. The most important question then becomes: what should economics look like to make truly responsible business possible?

And that of course widens the horizons (of thought) substantially. Externalities and so-called separate fields cease to be externalities and separate fields. Problems such as environmental breakdown, chemical alteration of the biosphere, resource depletion, deforestation, climate disruption, social breakdown, widening gaps between and within cultures, human rights violation, poverty, food and water stress – to name but some – are fully brought into the business ethics picture. Ethics is not something apart from economics, which is not apart from politics, which is not apart from science, which is not apart from technology, which is not apart from education, etc. Anything not taking into account these serious realities is done in a business fantasy world.

What we undertake here is of course done with a view to creating and exploring a different business paradigm and new economics that take biophysical and societal limitations seriously. And we shouldn't forget that even that is just a negative formulation: economics should not just be about surviving and avoiding (ecological or societal) collapse, it should be about creating and distributing wellbeing for all. Here but also elsewhere, now and in the future. So it should also be about maintaining our (and the rest of nature's) capacity and talent to do so.

Ah, subjectivity ...

That (of course we are aware of it!) still leaves us with many normative questions: can someone please tell us – preferably in some detail – what that responsible business or responsible economy should look like? What rules make it tick, what values is it built on? Take into account these societal and ecological limitations: what precisely does that come down to and how is that translated into practice and into the (unromantic) reality of everyday life? It can't be helped: there is no objectivity in these matters and the right answer to the 'what is good' question will never be solved, as it has never been adequately or definitively solved in the history of mankind. We live (and die) after all in a largely ununderstood and ever changing world with ever new questions coming towards us, while the age-old questions keep us busy throughout our lives.

One could of course also look at it in a quite different way: countless people in innumerable situations have solved that question, sometimes – but not always – to the best of their abilities. People, especially when facing the real complexities of reality and the choices implied, may always have longed for the final answer that settles the matter for once and for all. But ethics is more of a duty than a checklist, more of a conversation amongst open minded and grown-up people, than a hidden treasure conjured into existence by specialist wizards. In a changing world, ethics is ongoing business for which we need one another.

Does this open the door wide to ethical subjectivism and moral relativism: "You've got your opinion, I've got mine, end of story"? That would mean we can have a quick – democratic – show of hands, count the votes, see who wins and decide what needs to be done next. Most people feel that this is a gross oversimplification of what ethics might do (and certainly of what democracy was intended to be). Especially when we think of how tunnel-visioned people can be: even stakeholders often do not understand what stakes they should really represent or defend.

At the heart of this matter lies something that is called 'bounded rationality': everyone seems to reason from their specific place, role or context and opts for what makes sense there. This is of course no guarantee that the best thing happens where it concerns the wider system (and in the end thus also for the people in their positions of bounded rationality). Maybe some (or most) people cannot even begin to imagine what the long-term and wide-range consequences are of their actions. And maybe whole cultures – because of the workings of bounded rationality – can get it wrong and 'democratically' meet with disaster. Once on the wrong track, a simple show of hands will only deepen the wrong track.

If in bounded rationality people make their decisions on the basis of the information they have, the way out lies in broadening the information available to people and especially in opening up the perspectives. If ethics is about what is good for all, instead of what is good for me, then a deliberate and sustained attempt to gather understanding is needed when it comes to the situation we find ourselves in. This is the discipline of an open mind and a planetary perspective.

Another way out of our (cultural present-day) bounded rationality is to take a historical perspective. Quite often we forget about the accumulated wisdom that has been stored in many traditions. Many people seem to think of our culture and civilization as something new and exceptional, as if the problems that we are facing now have never been faced before. It's true – most likely – that the global scale of things makes our situation urgent and potentially more devastating than in the past, but the problems are – apart from the concrete face they take – as old as mankind. We are not the first to struggle with ecological boundaries and community limits, not the first to struggle with money and energy, not the first to work our way through poverty and hunger.

In the face of these problems, the question of what is good – what is responsible behaviour – has been solved time and time again, under changing circumstances, in numerous traditions. And there it is that we should also turn for guidance and inspiration. Many strong traditions can teach us a few vital do's about the road to take, while even more traditions unfortunately instruct us on the crucial don'ts to avoid. The search here is for reference points that seem to be especially helpful in dealing with what we are up to at the start of the 21st century. It would be stupid to be too proud to accept that there is great value in the accumulated wisdom of the cultures and traditions that have sided up with life (for as long as they sided up with life).

An ecological U-turn

Economy, literally 'the management of the household' (from Greek oikos + nomos), should do what it says: manage the house well. Of course, most people, when hearing the word economics, seem to rather think of ways of distributing scarce goods, of markets and money, logistics, marketing and advertising, products and services etc... In its core meaning however it is not wrong to trace it back to a less narrow field than the one we normally associate economics with. And there ecology, literally 'the study of the house' (from Greek oikos + logos), comes into the picture: no good management of the household without good knowledge of that house we inhabit, our planet.

Broadening our horizon this way, we effectively move from the predominantly man-made world of economics to the more-than-human world without which no economics – rather a way of converting things than a way of producing things – would be possible. As that more-than-human world is the source of all life and all true wealth, the most fundamental duty and ethical principle seems to lie in preserving it in good order. Finding ourselves in this place, we see how close morality and practicality have become.

In an ecological worldview, we turn the tables. The modernist worldview has our world in a stranglehold, and ethics – rushed in from the outside – is like water off a duck's back. The predominantly economic culture – no aspect of life seems to escape the guzzling power of economic rationale – does not succeed in taking care of or incorporating externalities: the things or values that we try to internalize or translate into economic terms, disappear in the very act itself. An unhealthy case of 'total economics'.

If we seem no longer able to update, adapt and add to the existing system or framework so that it can cope with the difficulties, it may be time for a more fundamental change. And that is what this change in worldview is about: change horses instead of exhausting the animal beyond what it is capable of. It is taking us no step further anyway, quite on the contrary. If our system is unable to internalize externalities in a decent way, we need to try the opposite strategy: instead of dragging everything into economics (or into an economic paradigm), we may need to "drag economics (back) into everything" (or into an ecological or holistic paradigm) where it gets its due but modest and subservient place. A bit of a Copernican revolution: the centre is no longer economics, that is just one of the planets circling a more important centre.

It is no good to interpret this ecological U-turn as a green U-turn only, as if the change only concerns environmental issues and not social issues. In a broad interpretation of ecology – the ecology of life – humans and human societies are not only intricately interwoven with their natural environments: they are quite simply parts of that natural environment – which of course stops being just an 'environment'. Talking about an 'environment' can still give the feeling that we are only considering it to be some kind of setting or scenery: replaceable, and not really crucial to what's happening. Looking at nature as environment may still be a sign of the old modernist and instrumentalist paradigm cropping up.

Man is far more than the rational and economic individual being he thinks he is and nature far more than the forest he takes his family to for a picnic in the weekend.

Rudy Dhont, KHLeuven, March 2010

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