Business and Society

Thomas Beschorner
GELENA research group at Oldenburg University (Germany) and
Centre de Recherche en Éthique de l’Université de Montréal (CREUM) (Canada)


In Business Ethics, the social responsibility of businesses is especially discussed under the label of “risk management”. Mainly based on contractual theories, such as the “economics of transaction cost” (especially Williamson 1985), the so-called stakeholder model by Freeman (1984) has been theoretically reformulated as an (specific type) institutional approach that reduces “negative attention” from relevant stakeholders. The main idea is to institutionalize a value management system to stabilize social relations (Wieland 1999). This type of theory of business ethics has been developed within the neoclassical economic paradigm and the paradigm of New Institutional Economics, respectively. It should be seen as a “consistent story”: a possible explanation of the possibilities and the limitations of businesses as drivers for change. However, it is merely one possible story with some serious shortcomings based upon four interrelated myths: (i) individuals act according to the principle of utility maximization; (ii) organizations are rational entities; (iii) institutions are the result of a calculative act by the actors and/or the result of a selection process as well as the key element to regulate actions in a certain direction; (iv) modern society is characterized by autonomous subsystems. The research project will question these myths and develop a theoretical perspective for business ethics beyond risk management. Another “story” will be sketched based upon ad (i) a richer theory of action that emphasizes the relevance of routines, ad (ii + iii) an organizational and institutional approach which pays particular attention to the ceremonial value and symbolic meanings of individual and collective actions, and ad (iv) a systems approach that focuses on the tensions and conflicts of different societal subsystems. Both perspectives are to be understood as idealtypes in Max Weber’s sense of the term. They are extreme positions which do not necessary exist in this pure form in business ethics. However, the methodology enables us to develop a multi-level approach for a theory of business ethics. In earlier work, I have mainly criticized the first myth. Drawing on elements of Evolutionary Economics and Interpretative Sociology, a richer theory of action was developed that enables a new institutional perspective with some practical consequences for business ethics (Beschorner 2002). The ongoing investigation will especially deal with organizations, institutions, and the societal differentiation in subsystems.


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Email: thn3omas6x.bwvjeschornerqlhws@uztcnlol.d8/0vepyvuw

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