Ethics@Work: Seeking the 'good life' in Israel

Scholars from abroad come to Beersheba to discuss conflicts in business ethics.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
Last week, Israel became an international destination for business ethics, as Ben Gurion University in Beersheba hosted the annual conference of the European Business Ethics Network. Over 60 scholars participated in the conference, most from Europe and the United States. The conference was organized by Dr. Yotam Lurie and Prof. David Frankel, under the theme "Conflicts in business ethics." One noteworthy aspect of the presentations was the tendency for the European scholars to adopt a different philosophical approach from that of the presenters from Israel and the United States. Ethics is far from a monolithic topic, and throughout human history there have been many different conceptions about "the good". Is a good act defined by its impact on the actor or on the recipient? Is it judged by its consequences or its intentions? Ancient Greek philosophy put a particular emphasis on the virtues or character of the "ethical person," and this approach had a great influence on medieval philosophy, including that of Maimonides as well as that of the Church. The late 18th century saw two momentous developments: the "duty ethics" of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, which judges an act according to the ethical principle its actor intends, and the Utiltarianism of the English reformer Jeremy Bentham, which judges an act solely according to its consequences - its contribution to the greatest good of the greatest number. American and Israeli scholars have a tendency to continue the pragmatic Anglo-American approach, while in Europe it is much more common to study virtues and intentions. Thus, the conference abstracts from US and Israeli scholars tended to focus on pragmatic concerns. For example, Stacy Lee of Johns Hopkins discussed having uniform standards for medical testing, to avoid discrimination against subjects in developing countries. Avshalom Adam and Ran Lachman of the Management College discussed whether "transparency" is really so transparent, and Galit Berenstock of Tel Aviv examined the foundational utilitarian question about the relationship between profits and happiness. By contrast, all eight abstracts in the special track on "Virtue in Business and Management" were from Europe. These include Antonino Vaccaro from Portugal who champions transparency because it advances the virtues of truth, justice, prudence and studiousness, and Guillen, Fontrodona and Rodriguez-Sedano of Spain who contended that virtue is a necessary component for management education. A fascinating point is that the "virtue" approach has been extended even to corporations. We might think that "virtues" or "intentions" could be applied only to people (as opposed to consequences which can obviously apply to corporations as well), but the adherents of these schools often apply these conceptions to companies too. Just as companies may "intend" to make profits by virtue of their stated goals, policies, and accounting, so too these instruments could be used to affirm other intentions. It is noteworthy that the law adopts this approach to some extent; some criminal statutes apply to corporations, even though a corporation can not, strictly speaking, have a "guilty mind" which is a usual requirement for criminal liability. There is naturally much discussion regarding the Jewish stand on these questions. What matters in Jewish tradition - virtues? Duties? Consequences? In my opinion, the dominant Jewish approach would view the distinction as artificial. Traditional Jewish thought attaches a very active role to Divine providence, to the extent that the game is "rigged" to produce favorable consequences from virtuous motivations. A relevant Talmudic expression is "Where there is a good thought, the Creator joins it to an action." We may hope that Israel continues to be an international magnet for scholars around the world studying what it means for human beings to live a good life.