Monday, October 03, 2016

Just War and Business

Nathaniel B. Davis has a nice article at The Stone, If War Can Have Ethics, Wall Street Can, Too, in which he draws an analogy with just war theory to argue that we should have similar principles of moral economy.

Indeed, one can draw this analogy even closer than Davis does. I have noted previously that the criteria of just war theory derive from the basic structure of deliberate action, so we can actually derive criteria for just business dealings in a similar way. Practical reason concerns means to ends from the perspective of an agent, so the moral concerns in business cluster around just agency, just means, and just ends, just as they do with war.

If we are focusing on agency, we get proper authority, just as we do with war -- and, indeed, we find business, and business law, full of moral considerations about who has the right or authority to do what. Likewise, one needs legally recognizable transaction, or something like it, to be the business counterpart to public declaration of war. If we are focusing on end, we have just cause, just as in war, although we see some of the differences here, too: just cause is one of the hardest criteria to meet in war, while it is a fairly forgiving criterion in business -- you usually just have to be aiming at genuine good. These serve as the basic background for any fair and just business at all.

When we are considering means and how they relate to their ends, we consider a number of different things: first, possibility; second, necessity; third, appropriateness; and fourth, disposition in use. Here we get onto much more familiar ground, and the day-to-day ethics of running a business. Many of the things that are relevant here are not things we often think of ethical, but certainly are. For instance, being able to deliver on what you promise, not wasting time and money on marginal matters, having an actual plan, having a useful plan rather than merely having administrative busy-work -- these are all things that are important for ensuring the possibility, necessity, and appropriateness of means in just business. If you are engaged in business dealings, making an honest and reasonable attempt at doing them well, qua business dealings, is a big part of ethics in business that often tends to be overlooked. Good business practice, or at least the reasonable attempt at it, is a moral matter. As for disposition in use, of course, this is much more obviously ethical, since it is essentially the honest effort to do well by all parties involved in any given transaction, which we could perhaps sum up as attempt at mutual benefit.

As an incidental side note, Davis makes a conflation that is quite common that I think needs to be avoided, although it does not radically affect the argument -- when we talk about 'war' we often slide easily between 'war' as a situation in which people find themselves and 'war' as a thing people do. Just war theory began, for the most part, as an account of the latter, and its basic principle is that it is not true that war is inherently unjust; one can do war and still be just, although this is not easy. It later expanded into the former, and this is where it begins to touch on matters like the international law of war. If we are talking about 'war' as a situation, we can make sense of the claim that it is 'inherently unjust' -- i.e., if you are in a war it is due to some injustice somewhere. This also has tended to be held by just war theorists, and there are ways to move from one to the other, but the two ways of talking about war are not the same, and it is best not to mix and match them in discussion of ethical questions.

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