The commonsense and immediately obvious definition of business ethics has to be something clearly along the lines of "The moral standards which guide the running and transactions of businesses".
But as soon as we start asking some broader questions around the subject, the precise nature of business ethics in action becomes much cloudier and contested.
The fundamental issue is why we need different sets of ethics for different sections of our lives. Why, for instance, is there an implicit assumption that business ethics need to be in any way different from the ethics which govern our family lives? Or our broader social lives outside work?
Is it not enough that there is one set of core morality which governs all our actions?
There are no easy answers but this brief article will consider the three main schools of general ethics and the particular themes as ethics is commonly debated on a business ethics basis.
The first broad paradigm of ethics is that our moral core is grounded in Revelation. Each of the world's major religions comes equipped with a comprehensive moral credo about how it is fit and proper to conduct the essential activities of one's life.
The second broad paradigm is that of ethics by Decree. This is human law as contrasted with the divine law of Revelation. As trade and commerce have expanded relentlessly throughout the ages, business orientated legislation has also grown exponentially beyond the basics of property ownership, taxation and theft.
A third, more recent (although perhaps it harks back to much earlier tribal days), conception of ethics is by Context. Such a relational view rejects the notion of divine law as absolute and questions whether attempting to plug every hole via State legislation is an effective moral objective. In this instance, ethical evaluation on areas not covered primarily by legislation needs to weigh competing interests along concepts such as natural justice, fairness, exploitative power imbalances and the sustainable possibilities of mutually beneficial trade.
These general frameworks overlay a more finely grained consideration of business activities within the everyday and exceptional practices of corporations and other institutions – the corporate culture. Debates involve concepts such as absolute honesty, situational full disclosure withholding, or strategic untruth. In terms of the broader economic ecostructure, considerations reach out into acknowledgements of second and third parties rights not to be destroyed by untrammelled aggressive actions and the respective wisdom of treating business as, firstly, a war, or, secondly, a value-adding community activity.
Peoples' conflicting beliefs are revealed daily in expressions such as "It's just business" (which attempts to exonerate commerce of all but the hardest of legislative controls) and, conversely, in aspirations such as "We will only prosper through creating win-win situations with partners and customers ".
The bottom line is that business ethics come in many guises, depending on how broad moral paradigms play out against specific corporate culture – and they certainly feed directly through into the trading bottom line.