Week 3: Business Ethics

September 12, 2011by

In these lectures we take an overview of moral philosophy, and look in more detail at the modern history of business ethics and several of the primary issues it presents.

Moral Philosophy

Note: within the Business Ethics recording, if the audio is not coming through on the videos, please watch them here: Dennis Koslowski on 60 Minutes, Morgan Spurlock and here: Dan Ariely.

Business Ethics

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  • The Corporation (award winning documentary on the nature and impact of corporations – watch online) [/sws_yellow_box]


    Another major issue of moral significance for business ethics, no matter what kind of business one is in, is the way in which you define success. Your vision of what it looks like to be a successful professional, or even a successful person for that matter, shapes your daily life and gives meaning and purpose to your work.

    Success can ruin people, especially when success is defined according to the popular view that you’ve made it once you’ve reached a significantly advanced professional position adorned with power, money and perks. American author Tennissee Williams’ illustrates this beautifully in his aptly titled essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” in which he explains how his first period of major success as a playwright turned out to be more like a shipwreck than a victorious voyage:

    Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to—-why, then with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies.

    You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you “have a name” is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own violation— and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!

    Here’s a visual depiction of what it was like for Richard St. Johns to achieve the professional and financial status he had always desired, which illustrates the potentially disastrous outcomes of success from the point of view of someone in the business world. Following it up is his 8 Secrets of Success.

    One of the foremost philosophers of work and life today is Alain de Botton. In the following talk he calls for a “kindler, gentler” philosophy of success.

    With reference to de Botton’s remarks, think about how you would explain your own philosophy of work. What does work mean to you? To what extent does your work define who you are as a person? How does your profession relate to your sense of the purpose of life generally?


    In this selection from an interview with Tavis Smiley, philosopher Cornell West describes how “an habitual vision of greatness” can guide one’s life and work.


    In many of the stories people widely regarded to be successful tell there is a somewhat paradoxical element. Success requires a great deal of failure. The following talks offer a couple of angles on this insight into the underside of success.

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    • Life in Perpetual Beta (If you’re planning to do any kind of creative work, this is a great series of interviews with well-known professionals on the nature and challenges of creative work)