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Social welfare, positivism and business ethics

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It appears that there is a conflict of values running through business ethics between profits accruing to shareholders and the cost of entrepreneurial activities on wider stakeholders. In the ethics research literature, the multiplicity of normative ethical stances has resulted in much debate but little in the way of consistent policy proposals. There is, by comparison, an extensive literature in positive economics that attempts to resolve value conflicts similar to those faced by business ethicists. In this paper the adoption of positive welfare statements are advocated and the value judgements implicit in economics are used as the starting point. It is argued that there is merit in expressly stating a set of value judgements to demonstrate the intractable nature of finding a social consensus without a positive social welfare function that explicitly weights the values. This paper reviews the arguments surrounding corporate objectives, particularly with regard to ethical considerations and the profit maximisation orthodoxy. This is discussed within the stakeholder-stockholder narrative. A range of ethical positions in the management strategy literature are analysed and discussed. It is argued that the values underpinning business ethics research can be conceived of via a function of social welfare (including an ethical ‘auctioneering’ model). The paper concludes by suggesting that all ethical positions can be captured by a Bergson-type welfare function.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Northumbria, 2: University of Sunderland and University of Durham

Publication date: 2002-07-01

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