Long Wave Economic Cycles, Business Ethics and Their Linked Variations over Time

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The OED offers an unambiguous definition of ethics: “a system of prescriptive ideals and moral principles that justify behaviour”. If to this we add “in business”, then we have a starting point from which to examine business ethics. But a moment's reflection soon raises difficulties.

If the comparative study of cultures teaches us anything it is that systems of belief (that incorporate ethical systems) are essentially a product of their social contexts. But businesses operate in different contexts at different times and in different places. Prescribed ideas and moral principles – ethics – acceptable in one context are therefore unlikely to be congruent in another. And further, each context is not homogenous – indeed they can be thought of as arenas of conflicting ethical systems.

So we have three questions:

First. Do we find different ethical systems in business?

Second. If we do find differing ethical systems, what are their characteristics?

Third. What is it that governs the prevalence and dominance of one system of ethics as against another?

A sequence of economic upwaves and downwaves – booms and slumps – has long been recognized. But their understanding has so far lacked any effective behavioural grounding. My objective is to answer the three questions by bringing a behavioural/ethically powered base to the dynamics of economic long waves. The link between these two very different approaches will be shown to lie in the shared experiences of alternating generational cohorts which accommodate to different ethical systems that are dominant in different economic conditions.

This paper employs two conceptual tools. The first, following Kondratieff (1978) involves a discussion of long-wave economic cycles; the second considers the institutional account of culture developed by the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1999) and her followers (Thompson et al., 1990; Mars, 2008: xviii). Their combination allows us to examine the place and the nature of values and attitudes – the ethical systems – that dominate during different stages of each economic cycle. These are then considered in relation to the behaviours revealed in the financial service industries during different economic cycles and briefly in the Turkish carpet industry in the 1890s and the UK construction industry in the current recession.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5848/CSP.3023.00002

Publication date: January 1, 2011

More about this publication?
  • From Critique to Action: The Practical Ethics of the Organizational World
    This book illustrates the application of ethical thinking to business, management and computing. This book brings together some significant areas of leading edge research and scholarship in the context of engagement with communities of practice, locally, regionally and professionally, with international students, police, teachers, housing managers, ambulance workers, etc. Most of the chapters are based on the practical experience of the contributors but written in an accessible way. There is a strong intercultural and transnational flavour in this book. It is explicitly cross-disciplinary, and will appeal to readers from areas like organization analysis, computer studies and information systems as well as philosophy and ethics.
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