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: Business Ethics and Bauman Ethics*

René ten Bos
The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe (Doctor
McCoy, in: Star trek IV: The Journey Home)


René ten Bos This paper relates Zygmunt Baumans admonitions of the bureaucratic mentality
Schouten & to business ethics. Although I am not in agreement with everything Bauman has
Nelissen, to say, I will argue that business ethicists, consultants and others who claim to be
Management able to do the moral thinking for others should take Baumans worries about the
Training and moral autonomy of people working in our organizations very seriously. As long as
Consultancy, business ethics does not enhance this moral autonomy but instead proffers a ratio-
The Netherlands nalized and rule-governed ethics, it may very well undermine the moral nature of
people working in organizations.
Descriptors: ethics, moral rules, moral impulse, employee autonomy,

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Introduction . ,
~ .

..:I ,

According to Zygmunt Bauman (1989, 1993) organizations (and society in

general) try to straightjacket peoples moral nature. This is or rather -

should be an extremely disquieting insight, not only for sociologists or


organizational theorists but also for consultants, and, more particularly, for
business ethicists. One of my aims in this paper is to make clear why
Baumans insights are so disturbing.
Baumans ideas are most provocatively put forward in Modernity and the
Holocaust ( 1989), the central argument of which is that the Holocaust
should not be seen as an aberration of modem civilization, but rather as a
product of it. The Holocaust is essentially a non-nal phenomenon in the
sense that it is fully in keeping with everything we know about our civi-
lization, its guiding spirit, its priorities, its immanent vision of the world
(1989: 8). The uniqueness of the Holocaust has misled many sociologists
and philosophers into thinking that it was a perversion rather than a con-
sequence of civilization. Bauman points out, though, that it was normal
and civilized people and not inveterate sadists who paved the way for
997- Treblinka. These normal and civilized people were working for bureau-
cratic organizations: They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their
desks (Hilberg, cited in Bauman 1989: 24). Baumans point is not that
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bureaucracies necessarily lead to atrocity; the point is that they do not nec-

essarily preclude it.

In order to make clear what is so worrisome about the Holocaust, Bauman
probes into what he sees as the mentality of the bureaucrat. In his view,
bureaucrats are not basically interested in debating the goals of the orga-
nization they are working for, but narrowly focus on the task that is to be
carried out: they accept that the significance of the job is never related to
the person who carries it out, but rather to what other people believe the
job is meant for; they see the world as a bundle of problems which are
solvable in a rational and scientific way; they abhor unpredictability, spon-
taneity and chance (ihid 1989: 90); and they refrain from personal opinion
and accept whatever the organization claims to be true.
Bauman addresses many more aspects of the bureacratic mentality, but the
examples just mentioned suffice to illustrate what is so upsetting about his
insights. I am working in the world of consultancy and management edu-
cation. The faqade of anti-bureaucratic rhetoric that is typical of this world
cannot conceal the basic fact that goal orientation, rational problem solv-
ing, group and task loyalty and so forth are still held in high esteem. If it
is true, as many of my colleagues seem to take for granted, that we can-
not do without these instruments in our organizations, then it is at least
very important to take to heart Baumans admonitions of them. This is what
has inspired me to write this article.
At the heart of Baumans critique of modem organizational design is a deep
moral concern. He accuses bureaucracies of instrumentalizing morality with
respect to the goals of the organization and totally disregarding the mora/
substance of the goals themselves. This entails that bureaucratic morality
has become multifinal(ihid 1989: 100) in the sense that it can be inte-
grated and combined with many different goals. Bureaucracies, therefore,
do not only shape our rationality in an instrumental and multifinal way -
a process very well known among organization scholars (Clegg 1990) -

they shape morality in a similar fashion.

Morality in bureaucracies thus undergoes a fundamental change in appear-
ance. It no longer has to do with self-respect, integrity, empathy, auton-

omy, conscience, or individual responsibility, but, instead, self-sacrifice,

obedience (ibid 1989: 21), docility, duty, and discipline (ibid 1989: 160).
The second set of moral virtues, as Bauman points out, does not empha-
size the moral quality of a particular act, but rather its technology. The
question for the bureaucrat is not whether he or she can morally approve
of the action, but whether it was in conformity with specific rules laid down
by the authorities within the organization. Being moral implies being obe-
dient and rule-abiding.
Baumans Postmodern Ethics (1993) provides a philosophical underpin-
ning of themes already discussed in Modernity and the Holocaust. Its Cen-
tral objective is to provide a radical alternative for the bureaucratic morality
that prevails in organizations. My concern, however, is not the alternative
provided by Bauman - this would take another paper to describe but -

rather his claim that organizations have adopted a technocratic morality

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which undermines our moral nature. Bauman argues that organizations are

propagating arule-governed ethics that insidiously manipulates the indi-

vidual moral impulse. More precisely, managerial ideology has gradually
taught people in organizations to believe that morality should not be seen
as an inside job but as a matter of collective
rationality, rather than a one
of individual impulse. They believe that an action cannot be moral if it is
not based on a supra-individual moral rule. Morality is no longer seen as
an inside job but as a matter of conforming oneself to the rules laid down

by the moral experts in the community to which one belongs. The horizon
of a particular action is thus not determined by how the actor herself thinks
about its effects, but by its being in comformity with the rules laid down
by those who occupy a higher rank in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The over-
all effect of this ideology has been that members of organizations become
alienated from their very own moral nature.
Of course, one may claim that not all organizations are conterminous with
the bureaucracies Bauman appears to have in mind. If we take a very opti-
mistic stance, we may even consider postmodem, postfordist, flexible
or even excellent organizational forms as happy exceptions to the rule,
which would imply that Baumans critique would not pertain to such forms
of organization. However, we should not be so optimistic. Many of the new
forms (e.g. the re-engineered company, the TQM organization) are still
highly technocratic and rigid, others (e.g. the sweatshop, the artisan com-
pany) simply represent a major step backwards to paternalism, subcon-
tracting or other pre-modern features that clearly undermine the individual
employees moral autonomy (Willmott 1993). In other words, it is still the
moral technology and not the moral quality (of autonomous individual
beings) that counts in most organizations, even though it must be granted
that some of them operate entirely under an anti-bureaucratic cloak.
In the next section I will discuss in more detail how - according to Bauman

organizations have tried to straightjacket the moral nature of their

members. In the subsequent section I relate Baumans ideas to business
ethics. As this discipline is not unusually conceived of as providing rules
that are supposed to enforce moral action, Baumans criticism of rule-gov-
erned ethics seems to be highly relevant for business ethicists. Bauman
explicitly contends that members of an organization should never contract
out the the moral thinking to would-be experts and many business ethicists
(or, for that matter, consultants and/or management gurus) seem to come
under this heading. In the final section, I will try to cast doubt on some of
Baumans ideas. Although I agree with much of what Bauman has to say,
I do not agree with his contention that rule-governed ethics necessarily
incapacitates morality. The problem is not the ethical rule as such, but the
way in which we relate to such a rule. In order to clarify my point, I will
invoke some ideas of Foucault ( 198? ), Wittgenstein (1984), Mills and
Murgatroyd ( 1991 ), and Clegg ( 1994).

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Moral Impulse and Organizations

Bauman claims that organizations maim the moral impulse which he
believes lies at the heart of morality. His argument goes along the follow-
ing lines: The moral impulse is the source of the most conspicuously
autonomous ... behavior (1993: 124) and therefore cannot be a very wel-
come guest in organizations. Being fundamentally autonomous, it belies
the instrumental and procedural rationalities that dominate organization
and management. Hence, an employee who follows her moral impulse nec-
essarily backs out of the disciplinary obligations imposed on her by the
organization, because she feels that there is some other, more important
authority to obey. From the viewpoint of management, genuine morality
thus poses a problem of subversion. Those who follow their moral impulse
may (and often do) bring about a breakdown of reason-based authority, and
are therefore extremely dangerous.
This, however, does not imply that the authorities within the organization
intend to annihilate the moral nature of its members. They realize that the
moral impulse cannot simply be eradicated, if only because the discipline
they call for is based on some rudimentary, raw form of morality. A head-
on attack on our moral nature would thus be precarious. The moral virus
should be brought under control without killing its host. Management strat-
egy is thus not about annihilating the moral impulse but about neutraliz-
ing (its) disruptive and deregulating impact (1993: 125).
How does this neutralizing strategy comes about? Bauman is surprisingly
explicit here. He mentions three interrelated strategies: (1) denial of prox-
imity ; (2) effacement of face; (3) reduction to traits. I will discuss these
strategies a bit more extensively than Bauman does, by providing some
practical examples.

Denial of

.~ -
Proximity ,

In Baumans text, the expressions proximity and distance play an impor-

tant role. Both expressions should not be taken in the literal sense.
Proximity is the realm of intimacy and morality (Bauman 1993: 83). It
is the realm where the other can become a Face which gazes at me, thereby
prompting a moral impulse in me. This moral impulse can trigger a moral
responsibility which can be unendurable because of its unlimited nature
(ibid 1993: 88). Proximity is the precondition for morality: it is where
morality is allowed to thrive. It is, however, not a sufficient condition for
morality. The moral responsibility triggered by the moral impulse might
become so unendurable that a subject becomes eager to dodge this respon-
sibility, eventually at all costs. Proximity thus stirs the moral impulse, as
well as the impulse to escape from the responsibility associated with it.
The same soil breeds love and hatred; the most humane of loves and the
most inhuman of hatreds (ihid 1993: 89). Proximity is therefore the realm
of the spontaneous and unpredictable (ihid 1993: 83). Morality can be the
result of proximity, but so can immorality or hatred. In denying proxim-
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ity, the organization not only prevents itself from doing good, but also from
doing evil.
The organization is therefore naturally inclined to create a distance between
itself and those who have to bear the consequences of its actions. The lat-
ter group are systematically held beyond the reach of the actors moral
impulse ( ihid 1993: 125) but apparently also beyond the reach of what-
ever evil might be inflicted on them by the organization. An
component is unmistakable here: the victims of evil might always recur to
the law that allows the members of the organization to keep moral stress
at bay. As long as we act in conformity with the law, or with rules, we do
not have to worry. We may be legally responsible, but we are never monally
responsible. If somebody objects to our actions, he or she should recur to
the law and not appeal to our conscience.
In locating the effects of actions by the organization beyond the reach of
moral limit (ihid 1993: 125), members of organizations often point out
how complex the circumstances were, under which those actions took place.
Complexity provides the members of the organization with the perfect
excuse for not having acted morally. Whatever the organization does is so

complicated that the individual members of it are at best only part of the
action and, hence, not wholly responsible. Morality is sacrificed on the altar
of complexity.
The relegation of the moral impulse is, for example, often effectuated by
placing intermediary men between the organizations members and those
who bear the consequences of their actions. Whether or not this is done
deliberately does not matter; what does matter is that it is often very
difficult for the members of the organization to see how human misery
resulted from their actions. They only remotely sense that there might be
a link, and in the rare case that they are fully aware of it, it is at least
difficult to resist the temptation to deny any direct contribution to that mis-
ery. In other words, if members of the organization perfectly understand
the dire consequences of their actions, they often dodge responsibility by
pointing out that the situation is complex and that many intermediaries are
Shells recent problems in Nigeria are a perfect case in point. For the Dutch
television program NOVA, Shells president, Mr. Herkstr6ter, readily
admitted that he was deeply concerned about the executions of people who
were opposing Shells activities in Nigeria because of the damage inflicted
on their environment. He contended, however, that he did not feel any per-
sonal responsibility for the executions. The Nigerian government,
HerkstrOter pointed out, was solely responsible for the executions and not
Shell. Indeed, Shell had done everything to stop the executions: in this con-
text this means that the company apparently developed a strategy of inten-
sive secret diplomacy. His interlocutor argued that Shell, at least, could not
dodge responsibility for the ecological damage that had led to the protests.
However, again, Herkstr6ter insisted that Shell was not responsible for the
ecological damage, because Nigerian legislation prevented the company
from doing what was, from an environmental point of view, necessary.
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(Note that the argument here is that if Shell would have had free play, they
would actually have protected the environment!)>
Herkstr6ters strategy was to render the link between the action (polluting
the environment) and the consequences (executions of people who protested
against the pollution) obscure, invoking not only the Nigerian government
and Nigerian legislation as intermediaries, but also competitors and employ-
ees. If Shell would have acted out of truly moral concern, they would have
left Nigeria, but this, Herkstr6ter argued, would have been problematic
since Nigerias oil-fields contribute to almost 10 per cent of Shells total
production. Besides, competitors (with less moral inhibitions than Shell)
would unscrupulously take advantage of the companys departure by tak-
ing over the plants built by the company. A serious moral impulse in bus,-
ness might very well amount to a suicidal impulse (Friedman 1970: 125)
and, clearly, no sensible person can expect a business manager to commit
suicide. Finally, there were jobs at stake. This argument points to yet
another strategy of obscuring the (im)moral impact of organizational action:
one should not only make clear that others are clearly more unscrupulous
than oneself, but also that the moral value of the action is at least ambiva-
Thus, whatever might have been the result of Shells activities in Nigeria
is not to be morally interpreted. If a person is incensed by what she/he
takes to be Shells behaviour and would point out that it is immoral to
invest heavily in such unstable countries as Nigeria, she/he is making a
classic category mistake. People involved in business action, whether highly
ranked within the organization or not, see their jobs as morally irrelevant
(Bauman 1993: 126), because they are led to believe that their impact on
the course of things is too minute to be of any real importance. Thus the
barbaric executions are not only the unintended or unanticipated by-
products of morally neutral acts (Bauman 1993: 126) such as investments
in Nigeria; they are also, either implicitly or explicitly, interpreted as
inevitable. Those poor people in Nigeria would, given the situation there,
have been executed anyhow. Shell can do nothing about it.
Not that people working for organizations like Shell are taught to behave
immorally. On the contrary, moral capacity of employees is, if I understand
Bauman rightly, turned inward and distracted from the overall aim and the
outcome of collective efforts. Thus, ... -

... the moral capacity of the actors has not been extinguished altogether; it can be
now channelled in a convenient direction turned towards other members of the action-

chain... the &dquo;intermediaries&dquo; in the actors proximity. It is for their weal and woe that
the actor, as a moral self, is now responsible. (Bauman 1993: 126)

Loyalty to the organization and the people who work there a value which -

has indeed strong roots in companies like Shell has become the hall- -

mark of morality. The moral impulse is not allowed to roam freely; instead,
it is canalized in the direction of those with whom the moral actor does
the job. The result is that individual moral scruple is rendered predictable
by not allowing it to come to the fore. For example, the chance that some-
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body is indeed led by such scruple and is going to blow the whistle is min-
imized. Individual morality is replaced by group morality.

Effacement of Face ~~

The moral impulse is, as we have seen, prompted by the Face, that is, by
the Other who gazes at me and in the vulnerability of whom I sense a moral
command. An appropriate strategy for preventing the moral impulse to
come to the fore then consists in the effacement of Face. This process con-
sists in ...

castling the objects at the &dquo;receiving end&dquo; of action in a position at which they are
denied the capacity of moral subjects and thus disallowed from mounting a moral chal-
lenge against the intention and effects of the action. In other words, the objects of action
are evicted from the class of beings who may potentially confront the actor as &dquo;faces&dquo;.
(Bauman 1993: 127) .

What we have here is a process of dehumanization, the essence of which

consists not only in denying the other any moral capacity but also in claim-
ing that the other is not worth any moral consideration. It is important to
note that denying a person any moral capacity is not the same as claiming
that she/he is not worth any moral consideration. Animals, for example, do
not display too much moral capacity, but are considered by many of us to
be genuine objects of moral consideration. With respect to human beings,
however, both strategies cannot be decoupled, because they go hand in hand
with each other. The claim that a person is not worth any moral consider-
ation is inevitably linked to the denial that she/he is a moral person. In pol-
itics, this generally manifests itself in slander and scandal-mongering,
whether directed at individuals (e.g. the presidential elections in the U.S.)
or at groups or minorities (e.g. the jews and other groups in Nazi Germany).
In order to reach strategic objectives, political followers should be pre-
vented to think and act morally, and nothing is more suitable than deny-
ing the morality of the other.
What holds for politicians also holds, in some respects at least, for com-
panies. Two management gurus, Hamel and Prahalad ( 199~), are quite
explicit here and recommend companies to develop a slight machlavellis-
tic touch in order to pursue their strategies. After all, the enemy of my
enemy is, as they point out, my friend. Being in business is being merci-
less with respect to the competitor and there is no place for moral concern
here: the competitor is faceless. Such are the grim rules of competition.
Whatever morality remains is directed, as mentioned earlier, to other mem-
bers of the group, to those who are the neighbours in the endless chain of
intermediaries. The moral capacity of competitors, customers, and other
stakeholders who do not belong to the team, is mangled in the wringing-
machine of efficiency and speed. It is noteworthy that Hamel and Prahalad
repeatedly insist on the importance of team development. But see what an
observer who has been in business for almost three decades writes:

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As a result of [the] unremitting, relentless competition, both specific and general,

responsible fimi members do develop, in greater or lesser amount, a team morality. It
is &dquo;us agin them&dquo;. Consequently, the defeat of the opposition becomes a goal in itself.
Consequently also, business characteristics become justified and in terms of the com-
petition they come to be constituents of a certain higher morality. Though by besting
a competitor, whether in a single small event such as getting an order, or in
driving him out of business, the winner causes the loser real harm; that moral fact never
enters the consciousness of the actors as such. The loser does not feel himself ill-used,
and business competitor he has no moral grounds for resentment. Feelings of benef-
as a

icence, even of compassion, are effectually blocked; they have no place in this world.
(Michelman 1993: 36-37, my emphasis)
This passage is so telling because it claims that those who are on the receiv-
ing end of action, in casu the losing competitors, do not even themselves
expect to be treated as moral persons. This, of course, encourages the mem-
bers of the team to direct their moral worries to each other and not to those
who do not belong to the team. I would like to add that the incestuous
morality that is invoked in this way also influences the general publics
expectations of companies. Not only competitors but also the general pub-
lic do not, I believe, expect to be treated by (the members of) companies
as moral persons. As managerialism takes hold of our society at large, those
who are made morally undignified by business actions are jeered at, or, at
least, are considered strange or exotic, since they cherish unrealistic or ille-
gitimate expectations. Thus, in addition to what Bauman claims, I do not
only believe that organizations engage in a process of effacement, but also
that the receiving end of action is voluntarily, albeit perhaps uncon-
sciously, effacing itself. Organizations do not allow the members of soci-
ety to become a Face and, hence, to prompt a moral impulse; consequently,
the members of society answer by withdrawing their Face. _

~ ;4
Reduction to Traits

The third strategy pursued by organizations in order to neutralize the moral

impulse is to destroy the object of action as a moral self. This moral self,
Bauman emphasizes, should be seen as a totality, and it is this totality which
is sacrificed in order to prevent the moral impulse arising. That is, the moral
self is typically dissembled into traits (Bauman 1989: 216; Bauman 1993:
127) to which we cannot ascribe any moral quality. The consequence is
that employees working for organizations do not treat people they encounter
as persons (essentially a holistic concept) but act on specific traits of per-
sons. Eventually, they start to consider them as a mere collection of traits,
not worthy of any moral consideration.
Bauman does not provide any illustration (in fact, he is not overly long-
winded with respect to this third arrangement) but it is not too difficult
to see what he has in mind here. It has often been pointed out, for exam-
ple in the work of Michel Foucault (1985), that workers in factories have
been typically reduced to bodies, that is, mere extensions of the machines
they operate; and being reduced to bodies, workers are not able to stir up
moral attention. More examples come to mind here. What about the labour-

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ers who are reduced to hands&dquo;? In a commentary on an earlier draft of this

article, Stewart Clegg pointed out to me how the textile factories in North
England, where he used to work as a school boy, used to recruit hands:

Outside the mills, hung on the mill wall, were large black-painted sign boards, made
of well-vamished wood, written on in gold lettering, in a somewhat florid style. The
signs usually said something like Hands wanted and then, using boards that could be
slotted in at will, the categories of personnel required could be advertised for (often
with a gold-painted hand with forefinger outstretched symbolically indicating where the
boards could be clotted in). Hands that is what theyve always been, from the early

days of industrial capitalism to their last days ... (Clegg, cited with permission)
Other examples of the reduction to traits can be found in hospitals where
patients have long been treated as calculable bundles of nerves and mus-
cles and not as fully-fledged persons, or in governmental bureaucracies that
treat citizens as statistically processed &dquo;units of computations&dquo; (Bauman
1993: 127) which are abstracted from total persons. In a similar fashion,
one can say that, in the beat-up language of management gurus, the cus-
tomer as a person is reduced to a collection of needs and demands. It is
not the customer as a moral person to whom writers like Peters, Hamel and
Prahalad try to focus attention, but the customer as a needing and demand-
ing being. The customers needs and demands are interesting because they
offer a business opportunity, not because they offer a moral opportunity.
The companies that follow the prescripts of the just-mentioned gurus try,
in the words of one of them, to business the customer (Peters 1992: 215).
That is, they envision the customer as somebody whose actions and think-
ing are in total conformity with that of the business manager. I take it that
this is why customers are, increasingly, seen not as passive customers any-
more but as serious business partners or, whenever the mood seizes man-

agement, business competitors. Everyone who is at the receiving end of

organizational action is businessed, as well.
Even countries are being businessed by managers who are, therefore, not
able to envision the moral damage of their actions. Saul provides a telling
example of how managers reduce everything to business, to competitive-
ness, or at least to something which keeps them safe from moral worry:

Why is Korean steel so much cheaper [than American steel]? Before the recent worker
protests, Koreans were putting in the longest average work week in the world fifty

seven hours. In return they earned 10 per cent of a Western salary. Since the Korean
cost of living is quite high, the workers live in slum conditions ... that are reminiscent
of nineteenth-century England. (...1 Given the modem managers devotion to an inter-
national &dquo;standard&dquo; of competition, the effect of the marginal improvement in social
conditions brought about in Korea by persistent and violent street demonstrations has
been to weaken Koreas attractiveness as a capitalist producer. The citizen who listens
to the modem rhetoric of free markets and free men would assume that a bit more social
justice and democracy are good things. (...) From [the managers] point of view [.how-

ever,] Korea is now less competitive. (Saul 1993: 366-367)

Korean workers here reduced to productivity, competitiveness, or, more


straightforwardly, what poses a threat to American steel business; being

thoroughly reduced to a threat, the Korean worker does not deserve the
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managers empathy or compassion. Again, morality is only preserved for

the comrades in action, as Bauman calls them. In the chain of interme-
diaries, Koreans (or, for that matter, Nigerians) are simply beyond the scope
of the Western managers morality.
This concludes my discussion of the three strategies that organizations use
in order to emancipate themselves from the nagging moral impulse. By
means of these strategies, the organization creates, according to Bauman,
a social space in which rational calculation, rather than non-rational,
erratic and uncontrolled moral urge (...) orients the action ( 1993: 128).).
Bauman observes that the three strategies conjointly effectuate the het-
er-onomy of all organizational action, which is evident if the action is con-
ducted as a consequence of formal command or if the action is a
consequence of coercion. Command and coercion are deployed by the orga-
nization because they liberate employees from moral agony. Telling some-
body to simply abide by the rules and standards and threatening her/him,
in case of disobedience, with dismissal or other sorts of punishment, inca-
pacitates that persons moral instinct, renders it predictable, and directs it
in a way which is assumed to be in the interest of the organization as a
The liberation from the moral impulse is, however, not always effectuated
in such a straightforward way. Bauman argues that the advice given by
experts to management can be interpreted as a command-in-disguise.
When a consultant, for example, considers ways to make the organization
more customer-oriented and when managers decide to act on her/his ideas,

they often overlook the simple fact that they take as a starting-point of
future action somebody elses ideas about the customer. This is, however.
exactly what a person who obeys a command does. In Baumans view there
is not much difference between the blue-collar worker who blindly obeys
his bosss command and the manager who acts on the experts advice.
Whatever their differences, there is one overriding similarity: both renounce
their own understanding with respect to a particular situation. Admittedly,
relying on somebody else reduces moral stress under the pretext that it is
not management (or the worker) itself, but a qualified expert (or the boss)
who has induced a particular line of action. Nevertheless, it is exactly this
heteronomization of organizational action which can be so catastrophic.
People who willy-nilly relinquish their autonomy and replace it by what
others think are, in Baumans view, nothing less than dangerolls.

Moral Impulse and Business Ethics

During the 1980s, a group of experts emerged who were primarily inter-
ested in the question of whether and how organizations could behave eth-
ically. Not that questions as to the morality of organizational action did not
occur earlier, but they only attracted the attention of philosophers and social
theorists, generally of a radical signature, who sought to subsume these
questions under more general ones, such as those that pertained to the very
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moral nature of capitalism. There was nothing so much as a distinct disci-

pline called business ethics or organizational ethics; neither was there any
other than perfunctory organizational or managerial interest in ethics. The
law could cope perfectly with moral issues and, of course, prevented these
issues from becoming burning.
In the wake of the increasing interest in organizational culture, embodied
in the work of the gurus of excellence, a passion for morality and ethics
emerged. After all, culture pertains, among other things, to values and
norms which, as has been pointed out by Watson ( 1994), have a clear and
distinct moral identity. In 1981, the first journal on business and organiza-
tional ethics (Journal of Business Ethics) was founded. A new discipline
was born, and with this new discipline came new experts, that is, people
who claimed to have expertise with respect to the moral questions that were
in the way of managers. Interestingly, business ethics turned out to be not
only an academic exercise; on the contrary, it soon began to attract the
attention of managers as well. No doubt this was due to the emphasis placed
on ethics as a part of the excellent culture, by such authors as Peters and
Waterman (1982) who argued that organizations have a moral responsi-
bility to develop their personnel, not only to high-quality workers but also
to fully-fledged persons who sincerely enjoy working in a meaningful con-
text. The excellence literature spawned quite a lot of criticism, but its impact
on the rise of business ethics should not be underestimated. The link
between ethics and excellence came to a peak in 1992, when Robert
Solomon ( 199?) published an influential text in which he sought to recon-
cile Aristotelianism and excellence by contending that employees as human
beings belong to a community, in the sense that this community provides
them with the pre-eminently meaningful setting that they need in order to
know what counts as virtuous and excellent behaviour. In a world where
moral consensus is notoriously lacking, Aristotelian companies may very
well prove to be the last stronghold for people who are desperately look-
ing for moral purpose. Concomitant with this is the equalization of excel-
lence with virtuousness. Excellence should, in this view, not only be
understood as some sort of entrepreneurial quality such as good business
sense, customer orientation, or managerial ingenuity but also, and perhaps
especially, as something good. The excellent organization is a (morally)
good organization. In order to become such a good organization, it suffices
to follow the recipes and recommendations of Peters and Waternian ( 1982).
Undoubtedly, Bauman would condemn this approach as heteronomization
of morality.
Aristotelianism was by no means the only ethics to which the new disci-
pline recurred. Utilitarianism, and especially deontology, were much more
popular guides for business ethicists. Green, for example, draws from what
he thinks is the best of deontological and utilitarian theories (1994: 86)
in order to introduce a theoretical approached labelled Neutral Omnipartial
Rule-Making (NORM). My present concern here is Greens reference to
deontology, which is described by him as a view that begins by identify-
ing general types of behaviour or rules of conduct as intrinsically right or
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wrong and that ends by defining right action in a specific situation cr.c
what best confor-ms to tlris set of mor-al rules (Green 1994: 66). NORM
oozes deontology in that it defines action as right if it might reasonably
be thou~lzt of as accepted by all members of society as a moral rule, that
is, as an abiding for-m of conduct known by everyone and open to eney~-
one in similar circumstances (ibid 1994: 88-89; 112). NORM
relies on the formulation of publicly accessible moral rules. The idea is to
enable the public in general and managements in particular to rationally
judge whether an organization or company has acted in a morally
respectable way. This approach is typical of the way in which many busi-
ness ethicists think they can help managements to find their way in the
moral maze. The ethical expert, as envisaged by Green, formulates ratio-
nal and publicly accepted rules which provide the manager with a source
to which she/he can appeal, whenever morality becomes an issue.
Business ethicists thus help managements to formulate ethical rules. These
rules are often transformed into codes of conduct, mission statements, basic
beliefs, and so on (Van Luijk 1993: 174). The reasons for the introduction
of ethical rules or codes vary enormously. Some companies have psycho-
logical reasons for doing this, for example, because they want to create a
new corporate identity or because they want to prevent employees from

running into moral stress; other companies have commercial reasons

(believe it or not, but under certain circumstances, ethics seems to pay):
for example, when a company tries to build a new image, or when the com-
pany anticipates new legislation or other governmental policy changes that
might have an impact on its competitiveness. Finally, there are normative
reasons it should, after all, not be ruled out beforehand that ethics is

also valued by companies, because it prompts moral behaviour (Van Luijk

1993 >.
If the prime task for business ethicists is to help managements to formu-
late ethical rules, then the object of this relatively young discipline is def-
initely not morality a la Bauman. He believes that ethical rules not only
keep moral impulse at bay, but also undermine moral capacity. Bauman
jeers at an ethics which is based on reason. He accuses many ethicists,
including (albeit implicitly) business ethicists, to have unthinkingly fol-
lowed Kants deontology which was essentially based on the invalidation
of emotions as morally potent factors (Bauman 1993: 67). If Bauman is
right, business ethics is only ...
... prompted by the desire to tame and domesticate the otherwise obstreperous moral
sentiments through lodging them safely in a straitjacket of formal (or formalizablel
rules.... (Bauman 1993: 68)

He describes deontology as follows:

... to the &dquo;deontological&dquo; conception of morality, according to which in order to know

whether the act was morally correct or not, one need not bother to find out whether the
consequences of the act were &dquo;good&dquo;(...) it is enough to know whether the acting

was in agreement with the rules prescribed for that sort of action. Criteria of morality

gravitated therefore to pure &dquo;proceduralism&dquo;... (Bauman 1993: 68)

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The difference in tone with Green ( 1994) is striking. Bauman thinks that
deontological ethics amount to proceduralism that declares the moral con-
science of the actor totally out of court, whereas Green clearly believes
that these rules might guide this conscience in the moral maze. According
to Bauman, deontology, with its emphasis on procedure rather than

effects and motives replaces the question of doing good with pure dis-
. cipline.
The theme of organizational discipline overriding individual moral con-
science is well known in organization studies. The allegation is that the
employees morality is typically subjected to organizational discipline or,
as Henry Fayol would have put it, to organizational harmony, which is
- embodied in rules, codes, missions, visions, or identities. New, and highly
original, is Baumans point that this discipline is founded in a profound
disbelief in the selfs moral capacitv and ultimately amounts to the denial

of the selfs right to moral judgement (Bauman 1993: 69). Organizational

discipline has a soporific (ibid 1993: 183) effect on the employees moral
conscience, not only because it saves her/him from moral stress, but also

because it prevents her/him from raising the issue of her/his right to a moral
judgment. I would like to add (again, and in line with Saul 1993) that this
soporification also affects the receiving end of the employees action:
nobody expects to be treated by an employee in a morally decent way. Why
is this so?
Bauman argues that business morality is all a matter of negotiation and
contract, as a consequence of which we can only complain about the actions
of companies if they do not live by the contract in which we engaged. If,
however, the contract is abided by all parties, but turns out to be very
unfavourable to us, we should self-reproachfully regard ourselves as poor
negotiators. Morality is packaged in rules and contractual obligations
(Bauman 1993: 219) and beyond them there is a vast emptiness. Business
ethics amounts not only to mere proceduralism but also to negotiation, most

prominently between the companys management and the ethical consul-

In sum, business ethics defrauds an employee from her/his right to moral
judgment and hence from her/his very own morality. The accusation is as
bold as it is serious: business ethics does not stimulate the morality of orga-
nizational acting; on the contrary, it undermines it, because it is based on
a strategy which rules out the very foundation of morality, that is, the moral
~ impulse. In the next section, I address the question of whether business
ethicists should be worried by Baumans ideas. I will argue that they should

indeed be worried. I entirely agree with Bauman that ethics should not
invite employees to mere proceduralism. Yet I do not think, as Bauman
seems to believe, that ethical rules necessarily lead to proceduralism and

soporification of morality.

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Ethical Rules

Consider the following rule:

When an employee or manager of a company learns of a condition created by the com-

pany that threatens human life or health and that has been missed or neglected by oth-
ers responsible for correcting it, the employee must take steps outside his or her normal
area of authority to report and to try to correct the problem even if doing so could

seriously damage her or his career. (Green 1993: 147)

What could possibly be wrong with such a rule? It does not only encour-
age or allow employees and managers to blow the whistle in case of malfea-
sance or negligence (which would be the case if the crucial must is

replaced by may), it actually enforces them to do so. It emphasizes that

people in organizations should, at least in particular cases, follow their
moral impulse, even if it is and this is something which is very impor-

tant to Baumans idea of morality at their own expense. Of course,


Greens rule is not one which would be explicitly articulated, let alone,
lived by, in many organizations, but this challenge would clearly not affect
the ethical expert. Although the articulation of Greens rule does not guar-
antee that people who have followed their moral impulse (such as bona
fide whistleblowers) will be decently treated, I cannot help thinking that,
for a particular whistleblower, it might offer some support. And what can
possibly be wrong with that?
This can only be wrong if you think that morality entails heroism. Most
people are simply not the sort of autonomous heroes Bauman has in mind.
People in organizations may very well be in need of some solid (het-
eronomous) backing, if necessary in the form of rules or legal protection.
I disagree with Bauman to the extent that he seems to think that rules nec-
essarily stifle morality. Many rules do, but some do not. Although it would
certainly go too far to claim that rules like the one proffered by Green actu-
ally prompt moral behaviour (Kohnstad and Willmott 1995), I simply do
not see why they should neutralize it and would like to argue that they
might be supportive for anybody who is facing a moral dilemma. The busi-
ness ethicist may, however, not be too happy with this: a moral dilemma
can never be solved by simply applying a rule. I .

Finally, we may have found something here that unites the business ethi-
cist with Bauman: both tend to overlook the inherent complexity of rules
and peoples attitudes towards them. Rules play a singularly positive role
in the life of the business ethicist, because they speak to the ethicists
r-aison d tre. If managers abide by the rules, they will become moral. In
similar fashion, rules play a negative role in Baumans text and are
unvaryingly associated with unthinking and unsensitive (rule-abiding)
people, with bureaucratic bigotry or malice, in short, with the ugly face of
bureaucracy. The rest of my paper will focus on my (partial) disagreement
with Bauman.

The fact that bureaucracy, as has been pointed out by Du Gay (1994, 1996),
offers a full-blown moral alternative of its own, is not taken seriously

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enough by Bauman. According to the context, people may value bureau-

cratic virtues because the person who embodies them does not generally
act out of sheer capriciousness. After all, what should be made of a police
official who does not abide by the rules and starts venting his/her wrath
upon me because he/she does not like my dialect or ponytail? I am not sure
as to what the reader thinks, but generally I expect this police officer to
behave as a rule-abiding bureaucrat. Generally, not always. There might be
circumstances in which I hope that the officer will show some sensitivity
(usually and perhaps not undangerously interpreted as flexibility, with
respect to the rules) and shuts his/her eyes to an offence that I committed.
According to different circumstances, we esteem or condemn bureaucratic
values such as rule-abidance. Our attitude towards (bureaucratic) rules is
generally ambiguous and fickle, perhaps because rules are not necessarily
rational and may spontaneously arise out of very different situations or
perhaps because rules are generally so abstract that it is virtually im-
possible to follow them in concrete situations (Mills and Murgatroyd 1991:
22-24 ).
Although Bauman acknowledges that ethical rules cannot do without the
moral impulse, he firmly sticks to the binary opposition between irrational
impulse and rational rules. Also, because he quite rightly thinks that in
many organizations, and in bureaucracies, in particular, impulse (whatever
that may be) is not a welcome guest, he tries to get matters even by mis-
representing rules. However, ethical rules can do much more with people
than just desensitize or stupefy them. Unfortunately, things are rather com-
plicated here. What is, for example, the relation between a clearly articu-
lated ethical rule and a person who wants to follow it? Is the relation simply
causal, in the sense that the rule functions as an unambiguous signpost for
the persons actions? In other words, is the rule to be interpreted as an
unmistakable command? If so, would different persons act on the rule in
exactly the same way? (It is, for example, particularly hard to believe that
two persons will interpret Greens rule, mentioned above, in exactly the
same way.) Alternatively, is there room left for the persons own interpre-
tation ? Is acting on a rule not an interpretation in itself? Should each rule
be clearly articulated? Or is it also conceivable that people follow rules
which have not been clearly articulated?
These questions, which are thoroughly informed by Wittgensteins
Philosophische Untersuchungen ( 1984: sections 197.208; 232-2=10), should
have a central place in discussions about business ethics and, more partic-
ularly, in discussions about the morality of bureaucracy. There is more to
rules than the bureaucrat who blindly follows them, but who becomes flab-
bergasted as soon as she/he has to engage with a situation that is not
described by the rules (Bauman 1993: 164). Rules exist, as has been pointed
out by Clegg ( 1994), in many different ways, and (business) ethicists and
organizational theorists whose academic interest is imbued with moral ques-
tions, and members of the organization itself, need to study them if they
are to morally judge bureaucracy. There are, as Clegg ( 1994) and Mills and

Murtagroyd (1991) have argued, many methodological difficulties here.

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How do we, for example, get access to rules that are not explicit and that
play a role in the collective subconsciousness of organizational members?
How do we avoid the inclination to trust only particular subjectivities
(Clegg 1994: 160) within organizations? How can we erect a solid frame-
work for the analysis of (ethical) rules?
It is beyond the scope of this text to enter into these questions. It was my
intention to cast doubt on Baumans simplified description of rules.
Moreover, I would like to suggest that Bauman underestimates the discre-
tion people in organizations retain with respect to rules (Clegg 1994: 162).
I am perfectly willing to allow that ethical rules tend to undermine our
moral nature (with all its, from a managerial point of view at least, unpro-
ductive ontological insecurity, see: Willmott 1993); and I also think this
is a very serious point that should be considered by each self-respecting
business ethicist. However, even the most hard-nosed bureaucrats may
resist attempts to freeze the meaning of rules (Clegg 1994: 163) and per-
sist in trying to give their very own twist to it. I am in agreement with
Bauman insofar as he claims that it is this twist that really counts, but I
disagree with him insofar as he claims that following an ethical rule does
not count, or is even dangerous, since it incapacitates moral impulse.
Foucault (1982: 33), for example, understood perfectly well the moral rel-
evance of ethical rules. He makes a useful distinction between I agent
moral who does exactly what the ethical code prescribes and le siijet
mor-al who chooses a particular attitude with respect to this code. In this
sense human beings can never be in an agentic state, as Bauman (1989:

162) himself calls it, no matter how hard rule-governed practices and ethics
try to bring them there. Nobody does exactly what the rule prescribes, since
the description is always vague and ambiguous but in this vagueness -

and ambiguity lies the moral relevance of the rule. They leave room for
choice. We can only be moral subjects because we always choose how we
subject ourselves to a particular rule (le mode de I aSlljetissement). This
choice constitutes our very own morality. Admittedly, managements will
try to restrain this freedom of choice and influence peoples discretion with
respect to rules, because this enables them to control the organization. In
this sense, we may very well share Baumans rather agonistic (agon =

fight, struggle) view of organizations, but we need not share his pessimism
with respect to the outcome of this struggle. As managers in real-life orga-
nizations are very well aware, complete control by means of rule-giving is
not only impossible but, in some respects at least, also undesirable and dan-
The bureaucrat is not necessarily the adiaphorized person Bauman (1989:
215) believes her/him to be, but embodies, as I have tried to point out, an
ethical position; bureaucracies are not necessarily the woeful and fiendish
enemies of human beings, but can be protecting people both inside and out-
side the organization; and, finally, the moral predicament of people work-
ing in organizations does not reside in rules, but in the way people relate
to them.
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Note Many thanks Stewart Clegg, Martin Parker, Amdt Sorge and Hugh Willmott for their
comments on an earlier draft of this paper and for providing me with stimulating agreements
and disagreements. I would also like to thank my colleagues at Schouten & Nelissen for
offering me a latitude whichI believe is rather exceptional in the world of business.

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