Philosophy, Business and Society

Philosophy, Business and Society


The aim of this module is to understand some of the basic ethical concepts in professional life. For whether we think so or not, business managers, civil servants, advertisers, sales representatives and employers are all practical philosophers. They may not think explicitly in terms of philosophical arguments and theories, but every strategic decision they make is based on philosophical assumptions that can be articulated and assessed. This module examines some of the central philosophical issues that arise in the course of professional life, including truth; manipulation; trust; freedom; integrity; responsibility; and detachment.

No prior philosophical training is required to take this module. Each topic will be introduced without theoretical prerequisites, and the discussion of each topic will be illustrated with concrete examples from actual professions and real life.

Preliminary Reading:

  • A. Marcoux, ‘Business Ethics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008, Available online:
  • M. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, London: Penguin, 2012.

Lectures:The lectures for this module will be held in on Thursdays from 6-7pm in the Spring Term. The lectures will take place in Room X. The lecturer is Prof. Hallvard Lillehammer().

Seminars:The seminarsfor this module will be held on Thursdays from 7-8pm in the Spring Term. They will be led by the lecturer and by Y and Z.

Readings: Every week there is one key reading that is the focus of the seminar discussion. One of the purposes of the seminar is to help you to understand the reading, so do not worry if you have not fully understood the reading in advance. Nevertheless, it is essential that you attempt the seminar reading each week if you are to follow the lecture and to participate in the seminar discussion. In addition, there is ‘additional reading’ listed that will deepen your understanding and help you to get the most out of the module. You are especially advised to cover the additional reading for those topics on which you are planning to write an essay.

Essays (BA/Level6): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,000 words (3200 maximum). It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay, including deadlines, see the BA Handbook.

Prior to this assessed essay, you may also write up to two essays during the course, taken from the titles below, and receive feedback on them from your seminar leader. These can be useful practice for your eventual assessed essay. You should submit the first such essay by the first seminar after reading week, and the second by one week after the last seminar of term. [Notes: 1) You are always welcome to submit an essay earlier than these dates; 2) the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.]

Essay (MA/Level 7): This module is assessed by one essay of around 3,500 words (3700 maximum). It must be written in response to one of the set questions listed below, except with permission from the module convenor. For details concerning submission of the essay, including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.

Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.

Course content, readings and essay questions

WEEK 1: What is professional ethics? An introduction to ethics in professional life

Questions:1) Does businessethics rest on a mistake? 2) To what extent does the ethics of institutions depend on the ethics of their employees?


-J. R. Boatright, ‘Does Business Ethics Rest on a Mistake?’ Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1999, pp. 583-59. Available online:

Further Reading:

-J. Oakley and D. Cocking, Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles, Cambridge 2001, Chapter 3: ‘A virtue ethics approach to professional roles’, pp. 74-94.

-M.Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, London: Penguin, 2012, Chapter 3-4.

-R. H. Thaler & C. R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about health, wealth and happiness, Part II, ‘Money’, pp. 113-166.

WEEK 2: Who cares? The ethics of professional detachment

Questions: 3) To what extent, if any, must ethical professionals be ‘caring’ professionals? 4) To what extent doesthe ‘public’ morality of professionals depend on their ‘private’ morality?

Essential Reading:

- F. B. Bird and J. A. Waters, ‘The Moral Muteness of Managers’, California Management Review, vol. 32 (no. 1), pp. 73-88. 1989.

Further Reading:

- H. Lillehammer, ‘Minding Your Own Business? Understanding Indifference as a Virtue’, Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2014), 111-126. Available online:

- J. Oakley and D. Cocking, Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles, Cambridge 2001, Chapter 6: ‘Professional Detachment in Health Care and Legal Practice’, pp. 137-171.

- G. Postema, ‘Moral responsibility in Professional Ethics’, New York University Law Review 55, 1980, 63-89. Available from:

WEEK 3: Ethics for adversaries: thinking ethically in a competitive environment

Questions:5) Is there a conflict between successful competition and ethical behaviour in professional life? If so, how? If not, why not? 6) Are ethical values in business relative to specific professional roles?


- A.I. Applbaum, Ethics for Adversaries: The Morality of Roles in Public and Professional Life, Princeton 1999, Chapters 3-4; 6. [Seminar Reading, pp. 45-51; 61-75]

Further Reading:

-M. H. Freedman, ‘Professional Responsibility of the Criminal Defence Lawyer: the Three Hardest Questions’, Michigan Law Review, vol. 64, 1965, pp. 1469-1484. Available online:

-B. Williams, ‘Politics and Moral Character’, in his Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 54-70.

-T. Nagel, ‘Ruthlessness in Public Life’ in his Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 75-90.

WEEK 4: Respecting freedom: coercion, voluntariness and responsibility in professional life

Questions:7) In what sense, if any, do ethically acceptable market transactions depend on respect for individual freedom? 8) What is voluntary consent? Why think it matters to business affairs?

Essential Reading:

- S. Olsaretti, ‘The Moralized Defence of the Free Market: a Critique’, in her Liberty, Desert and the Market, Cambridge 2004, pp. 109-136.

Further Reading:

- Gerald Dworkin, ‘Autonomy and Informed Consent’, in his The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, 100-120.

-O. O’Neill, ‘Which are the offers you can’t refuse?’, in her Bounds of Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 81-96.

David Zimmerman, ‘Coercive Wage Offers’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10, 1981, pp. 121-145, Available online:

WEEK 5: Customers, clients andtheir desires: the ethics of advertising

Questions:9) ‘One of the primary aims of business is meeting the needs of their customers’. Discuss.10) What forms of advertising are compatible with respect for individual autonomy?


-R. Crisp, ‘Persuasive Advertising, Autonomy and the Creation of Desire’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 6 (no. 5), pp. 413-418.

Further Reading:

-J.Christman, ‘Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009, Available online:

-G. Dworkin, ‘Behaviour Control and Design’, in his The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 150-160.

-R.H.Thaler & C.R. Sunstein, ‘Libertarian Paternalism’, The American Economic Review, vol. 93, 2003, pp. 175-179. Available on JSTOR:

WEEK 6: Being Truthful: Truth, lies and bullshit in professional life

Questions:11) Are lies a necessary part of successful management? If so, why? If not, why not?12) What is the value of truth and truthfulness in professional life? Explain your answer with respect to one or two professions or parts of the economy.


- A. Carr, ‘Is Business Bluffing Ethical?’,Harvard Business Review vol. 46 (no. 1), pp, 143-53.

Further Reading:

- H. Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit’, in his The Importance of What We Care About, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 117-33.

-L. Radoilska, ‘Truthfulness and Business’, Journal of Business Ethics 79, 2008, pp. 21-28. Available on JSTOR:

- J. Saul, ‘Just go ahead and lie’, Analysis 72, 2012, pp. 3-9. Available on JSTOR:

WEEK 7: Being trustworthy: the values of trust in professional life

Questions:13) What is the value trustworthiness in professional life? Explain your answer with reference to the relationships between a) different institutions and b) institutions and individual clients; 14) Tow what extent should international businesses aim to cultivate trusting relationships with their partners?


-G. G. Brenkert, ‘Trust, Morality and International Business’, Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 8 (no. 2), pp. 293-317.

Further Reading:

-R. Hardin, ‘Conceptions and Explanations of Trust’, in K. Cook (ed.), Trust and Society, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, pp. 3-39.

- O. O’Neill, Autonomy and Trust in Bioethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, Chapter 6.

- T. Simpson, ‘e-trust and Reputation’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 13, pp. 29-38, 2011.

WEEK 8: Business and integrity: success, character and personal accountability

Questions:15) In what sense, if any, is integrity a business asset? 16) Should individual integrity be protected even if it conflicts with institutional aims?


- G. D. Goodstein, ‘Moral Compromise and Personal Integrity: Exploring the Ethical Issues of Deciding Together in Organizations’, Business Ethics Quarterly, vol. 10, 2000, pp. 805-819. Available via e-library.

Further Reading:

D. Koehn, ‘Integrity as a Business Asset’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 58, pp. 125-136. 2005. Available via e-library.

G. Taylor, ‘Integrity’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 55, 143-159. Available on JSTOR:

- G. Scherkoske, ‘Two Cheers for Integrity?’, in his Integrity and the Virtues of Reason: leading a convincing life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 1-32.

WEEK 9: Ethics and organizations: individual, collective and corporate agency

Questions:17) In what sense, if any, can organisationsbe morally responsible? 18) Should individuals and organizations be constrained by the same rights and duties?


- M. Velasquez, 'Why Corporations Are Not Morally Responsible for Anything They Do', Business and Professional Ethics, vol. 2, pp. 1-18. 1983.

Further Reading:

- S. Wolf, ‘The Legal and Moral Responsibility of Organizations’, in J. R. Pennock & J. W. Chapman (eds.), Criminal Justice, Nomos27, New York: New York University Press, 1985, pp. 267-86.

- D. F. Thompson, Political Ethics and Public Office, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, Chapter 2.

- C. Chapple, The Moral Responsibilities of Companies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 114-138; 184-200.

WEEK 10: The corporate citizen: social responsibility and business values

Questions:19) What is meant by ‘ethical business’? Discuss in relation to one or more specific organisations or parts of the economy. 20) In want sense, if any, is corporate social responsibility good for business?


-M. Friedman, ‘The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’, New York Times Magazine, 13 September 1970.

Further Reading:

- G. Fooks, A. Gillmore, J. Collin, C. Holden, K, Lee, ‘The Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility: Techniques of Neutralization, Stakeholder Management and Political CSR’, Journal of Business Ethics 112, 2013, pp. 283-299. Available via Birkbeck e-library.

- A. Kemper & R. L. Martin, ‘After the Fall: the global financial crisis as a test of corporate social responsibility theories’, European Management Review, vol. 7, 2010, pp. pp. 229-239.Available via Birkbeck e-library.

-T. Mulligan, ‘A Critique of Milton Friedman’s Essay ‘The Social Responsibility of BusinessIs to Increase Its Profits’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 5 (no. 4), 1986, pp. 265-269.Available via Birkbeck e-library.

Essay questions

The Essay questions for formative and summative assessment may be picked from questions 1)-20) listed under each topic above.Students writing two formative essays should answer questions from the readings for two different weeks.