Empiricism, Moral Philosophy, and Ethical Behavior

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Philosophy Study, ISSN 2159-5313 April 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4, 282-290



Empiricism, Moral Philosophy, and Ethical Behavior Peter Bowden University of Sydney

I argue in this paper that moral philosophers need to incorporate into their teaching and writing a number of empirical findings on ethical practices. Principal among these is clearer guidelines on speaking out against wrongdoing, as well as the development of codes of ethics that have been proven to work. The adoption of the critical thinking and the analytical methodology of other disciplines is also suggested. Several benefits will result. The most noticeable will be a strengthening of ethical practices and behavior in the institutions and organizations with which we live and work. A second benefit will be the education and employment of a body of people—graduates in moral philosophy—with the skills and knowledge to bring about, and further strengthen, this enhanced ethical environment. A third benefit will be the matching of the claims of philosophical thought with actual reality. Keywords: moral philosophy, ethics, strengthening ethics, applied ethics, teaching ethics, ethical behavior

1. Empiricism, Moral Philosophy, and Ethical Behavior This paper largely adopts the Peter Singer practice of using the terms moral philosophy and ethics interchangeably. In their finer distinctions, however, this writer defines them a little more precisely. Moral philosophy is taught by philosophers; ethics is taught, and practiced, by any number of different disciplines. Business people, engineers, tow truck drivers, nurses, etc., have formulated a code of ethics for their disciplines, not codes of moral philosophy. Philosophers, however, also teach ethics. It is that teaching, and the reasoning behind it, that is the concern of this paper. The abstract, in setting out the objectives of this paper, raises several questions. What defines moral philosophy, or ethical practices, in a way that says it should include the findings from empirical research? Also what are the more significant of these research findings? Further questions arise on the relevance of philosophical thinking processes, and in particular, argument, and whether they should affect ethical thinking and practice. The questions on what is moral philosophy and why should it include empirical findings can be examined through a number of exploratory assertions. The initial question, on what is moral philosophy, can be in part answered by documenting statements by Lewis Vaughn, Hugh LaFollette, Singer, and other philosophers today, and P. H. Nowell-Smith a half-century ago. Current handbooks on ethics prepared by well-known philosophers suggest that moral philosophy should guide action. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is written by “an international assembly of distinguished philosophers.” Its editor, Hugh LaFollette (2000), follows the present-day compartmentalization of ethics into three—meta-ethics, normative ethics, and practical ethics, the last mentioned being about “how we should  Peter Bowden, Ph.D., Lecturer, Faculty of Engineering, University of Sydney; Research Associate, Department of Philosophy, University of Sydney, Australia; Secretary to the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics; main research fields: Institutional Ethics, Teaching Ethics, Whistleblowing. Email: [email protected]



behave in particular situations.” LaFollette asserts that this is a change—quoting Nowell-Smith, a half century ago (1957), who stated that “[t]he moral philosopher (and) his subject matter consists … of theoretical statements.” We can see the change in several references. Singer’s book, Practical Ethics, talks about our responsibilities towards the poor, towards animals, women’s rights, racial minorities, and the like. In short, Singer is pushing us toward the practical implications of the policies that he is presenting. Many of the books on business ethics discuss those specific ethical issues that occur in the business workplace. Robert E. Frederick (2002), for instance, discusses a range of business practices widely considered unethical—in marketing, business finance, environmental issues, etc.. We can look at other books on ethics written by philosophers. The Ethics Toolkit, written by two philosophers Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl (2007), both well-known contributors to philosophical thinking, is another example. Their book, entertainingly written, claims to be a toolkit. It hopes “to provide readers with a deeper … sense of how different ideas … may be enlisted so that people may not only think but act with regard to moral matters” (2007, xvi; emphasis mine). In short, this book hopes to influence action. As such, therefore, it could be argued that it should contain the results of research into issues that influence both the decision to act and the implementation of those decisions. The book, however, does not cover a number of activities that influence ethical behavior and that have been widely adopted by public and private sector institutions. It will be argued that moral philosophy, or applied ethics as advocated by moral philosophers, evidences the same shortcomings as the toolkit book, and provides therefore an inadequate framework on which to base an ethics program, whether in teaching or in the workplace. The assertion that moral philosophy and ethics are interchangeable and that they should influence action is widespread. Vaughn in his opening sentence joins the two: “Ethics, or moral philosophy, is the philosophical study of morality.” Although his title “Doing Ethics” (2008) illustrates the split view that philosophers have on ethics—doing as well as study. Vincent Ryan Ruggierio (2001) also emphasizes “doing”—“the emphasis should be on doing” rather than studying (2001, iii). That moral philosophy, and ethics, should influence action is understandable. Otherwise why do we teach it, if it does not result in action? Moral reasoning may help us reach a conclusion on the rights and wrongs of an ethical issue. But such reasoning is irrelevant if we do not act on it. And there is a natural tendency not to act. More significantly, we may not recognize, let alone acknowledge that an action is a wrong. Max Bazerman and Anne Tenbrunsel (2011) have outlined the many reasons why we may not even recognize, let alone implement, an ethical decision. In arguing for action, we need consider also the philosophical argument—the value of knowledge. Research produces knowledge, which in itself is to be valued. Empirical research into ethical practices may not affect all decisions, but it is nevertheless knowledge that will affect some ethical decisions. It therefore should be available to students, and to us all. As will be argued, a massive amount of empirical research is underway on all manner of ethical theories and practices. All of it is useful. Some of it will affect the way we teach; hopefully at times the way we act. To ignore this information, as I will argue is the present situation, is to reject a fundamental thesis underlying the discipline of philosophy that “many topics of public debate are capable of being illuminated by the critical, analytic approach characteristic of philosophy” (Society for Applied Philosophy 2012).



I will add the final argument—the Galileo argument. The refusal to accept empirical observation, the insistence that knowledge conform to current beliefs, convinced many people, then and now, that the institutional beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church were then in error. We can only hope that philosophical beliefs are not in the same category. And that is my issue. The doubt that I have about the teaching of ethics by moral philosophers is derived from the exclusion of many empirical findings from the literature on moral philosophy. They are findings that influence action. The following paragraphs outline three areas that have developed through empirical research which do influence ethical action—whistleblowing, codes of ethics, and the institutionalizing of ethical practices.

2. Public Interest Disclosures—Whistleblowing The all-encompassing reason why these topics should be an integral component of any book or course on ethics, but especially one that carries the term “tool-kit” in its title, is that they are empirically proven methods of strengthening ethical behavior. Many separate studies have set out their findings that blowing the whistle—people speaking out against the wrongdoing in the organizations and groups with which they are associated—is the most effective way to ensure ethical behavior. Perhaps the most global research has been the surveys by the large accounting companies, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC 2009) and KPMG (2006). A KPMG forensic partner has stated that speaking out by people internal to the organization is the principal method of exposing wrongdoing (Leishman 2012). The largest of the many studies has been the Australian public sector survey that sent out 23,177 questionnaires to public servants in 118 agencies (Brown 2008). It also produced the finding by those holding ethics-related positions in the various public services that employee whistleblowing was the most effective method of unearthing wrongdoing. The Universities of Michigan and Toronto in a joint project also found that heading the list of fraud detectors were employees (Management-Issues 2007). These findings are conclusive. The results do indicate that a substantial number of people will expose wrongdoing, and are willing to stand out from fellow employees in order to do so. To embody these findings in teaching content would be highly desirable, for it would encourage those who object to wrongdoing to speak out against it. But it has its risks, for whistleblowers do suffer. “They pay a terrible price” says C. Fred Alford (2001). If we are trying to teach “tools” then we must also teach students how to avoid paying the price of open disclosure. And that requires us to know and be able to analyze the practices and the legislation that is supposed to protect whistleblowers. It is legislation that is only partially effective in all English speaking countries. That also has been proven (Bowden 2006; Brown 2008; Lewis 2008). So if we are to teach whistleblowing, and already know that a high percentage of people are inclined to blow the whistle on wrongdoing, and that they are facing the possibility that they will be crucified, don’t we have the moral obligation to teach them how to protect themselves? Don’t we also have the wider social obligation to bring to public notice that whistleblowing legislation needs strengthening? And finally, don’t we have the academic imposition to undertake the research necessary to alleviate these difficulties?

3. Codes of Ethics General observation tells us that codes are not regarded as effective instruments by those who are asked to obey them. They see them as PR documents—documents designed by those in authority to convince the world



that the organization is ethical. They are also seen as top-down dictates by management, intended to protect the assets of the organization, as well as enhance its good name. Much research tells us that the answer is to involve staff in the formulation of their own ethical guidelines. The pivotal significance of the involvement of staff in contributing to the long-term effectiveness and crucial sense of code-ownership is repeatedly acknowledged in code studies (Kaptein and Wempe 1998; Harned et al. 2003; Trevino and Weaver 2003; Pagnattaro and Peirce 2007; Seshadri et al. 2007; Stevens 2008; Smythe 2012). A typical response is illustrated by Muel Kaptein and Johan Wempe: “A good code corresponds to the concrete moral dilemmas which employees of the firm experience in their duties” (1998, 863). From this research it is reasonable to assert that employees, given adequate support facilities to develop their own code—at times in collaboration with senior management, will produce an effective code for the organization, one that is actually followed.

4. The Institutional Infrastructure The other area of ethical practices and beliefs that I argue need to be incorporated into ethics courses—and further reinforced in actual practice—is the raft of institutional changes that have emerged in recent years. Much legislation and many guidelines have been introduced world-wide, designed primarily to counter the corporate excesses experienced at the end of the last decade and the beginning of this—Enron, and WorldCom in the US; HIH, Australian Wheat Board or James Hardie in Australia; the rail and ferry disasters in the UK. The recent global financial crisis also appears to have instigated a further re-examination of the ethics infrastructure. The changes extend beyond corporate issues, to ethical behavior generally covering a wide number of activities. A related area is in the legislative changes that have been adopted. Philosophers have argued that we need to be naturally moral, that we should not be forced into it. Hugh Mackay, who states that morality is about rational choice (2004), condemns regulation on this basis. Simon Longstaff (2007) argues in like fashion. The legislators and corporate watchdogs have not believed them, however, for the growth in legislation and associated institutional prescriptions have been massive. As one public sector ethics specialist tells us, the growth in anti-corruption agencies and ombudsman offices to handle these developments has been “exponential” (Pritchard 2009). The developments include legislative changes such as the Sarbanes Oxley Act and the Dodd Frank Act in the US. The latter act was passed as a response to the Global Financial Crisis, and brought with it the most significant changes to financial regulation in the US since the regulatory reforms that followed the Great Depression. There has also been the introduction of anti-bribery legislation in the UK, and a strengthened Corporations Act in Australia. New or strengthened whistleblower protection acts have also been introduced in these countries. Extensive empirical research is under way to determine whether this legislation has been effective—to isolate what have been the drivers of behavior, and of misbehavior, and whether legislation or other approaches have had an impact. The more significant of this research needs be passed onto students, for much of it will impinge directly or indirectly on the ethics prescriptions they will need to follow in their eventual employment. A final area is in business. Considerable research has near-completely verified a link between corporate profitability and ethical behavior (e.g., Orlitzky et al. 2003). Not all studies, of which there are many, have verified a link, but the general findings are believable. The research quoted below on the preferences that individuals have for working with ethical organizations provides the likely cause. Neubert et al. (2009), for



instance, have provided an extensive survey of the literature on the beneficial connections between ethical leadership and organizational commitment, and supported it with empirical research. A final observation is the findings of research on the ethical and unethical practices in the different disciplines and occupations in which we are engaged. An examination by the Australian Association of Professional and Applied Ethics across 14 different disciplines identified a number of findings that impact on moral behavior (Bowden 2012). One is that the current moral theories are, for the most part, not used to identify wrongdoing in the disciplines in which many of us work. They are decided primarily in conferences and by analysis and discussion in the journals and magazines that cover that occupation. There are a number of issues across the 14 occupations where the discipline is still at odds within itself on whether the practice is unacceptable or otherwise. Each of the practices requires a reasonably extensive understanding of the technical implications to be able to contribute to the discussion. The ethics literature in the building, construction, engineering, or architecture fields provide examples. Activities such as reverse auctions, bid shopping, or cover pricing are instances where the industry is far from agreement on the ethics that are involved. Advertising and marketing are other activities that face specific ethical problems—privacy maintenance, excesses in telephone calling, cooling off periods, returns policies, use of subliminal advertising, etc., are examples. Then there are ethical issues specific to academia—misleading statements in research applications or in the documenting of research results. But others are less clear—plagiarizing, particularly self-plagiarizing, still is being argued from many viewpoints. Most of the 14 disciplines in that survey face similar uncertainties. They are uncertainties which the continual discussions on ethical theories do little to resolve.

5. The Teaching of Moral Philosophers on These Topics A search undertaken in the journals and texts on moral philosophy for articles on codes of ethics and public interest disclosures over the last decade evidences a near-total lack of discussion on the above issues. By extension, therefore, there is no discussion on using these approaches to strengthen ethical behavior. In contrast, a search in discipline-based journals ranging across forestry and journalism to social work located 26 articles on the practices raised in this paper. A search of the Journal of Moral Education did not return any papers on public interest disclosures or on codes of ethics over the last decade. Nor does the journal appear to discuss anywhere the various practices that are employed by our organizations and institutions—private, public, or voluntary—to bring about ethical behavior. Nor are there any articles in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. There is only one in the Australian Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics. A search through the Journal of Applied Philosophy found one article on codes of ethics or codes of conduct. It was in 1994, “Codes of Practice and Ethical Conduct” and it was a discussion on theory, not documenting empirical research. Searching the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice found one article on codes of ethics and whistleblowing and that was a review of a book in 2006, An Introduction to Business Ethics. A search for “whistleblowing” in the Springer range of some 35 or so professional journals produced 290 articles. None was in a philosophy journal, of which Springer have a half dozen or so. The prominent publications on ethics exhibit similar deficiencies. LaFollette does not appear to have followed his own guidelines, for his book contains no discussion on the issues raised in the above paragraphs. Nothing on whistleblowing, on revealing a wrongdoing that is against the public interest, nor anything on codes or classifications of wrongdoing, or on organizational responsibilities for ensuring ethical behavior. The Baggini



and Fosl “toolkit” also, as noted, has nothing on possible tools that can influence ethical behavior. It does look, therefore, as though moral philosophers, despite the emphasis on “doing ethics,” have no use for the practical aspects of their theorizing. Before this statement can be taken seriously, however, a counter argument that could be put forward needs to be answered—that the particular issues that have been raised are not matters for philosophy, moral philosophy, or otherwise. I shall answer these issues below by first asserting that they are philosophical concerns, for they are answering the question about what should we do in specific situations. I subsequently assert that the empirical evidence that tells us the effectiveness of most of these practices has sufficient impact to make them a mandatory component of any course on ethics. And that a failure to do so raises serious ethical questions for those moral philosophers who write on or teach ethics.

6. Philosophical Concerns The assertion that there is no philosophy behind any of the issues in the above paragraphs raises the difficult question of “What is philosophy?”. If philosophy is the examination of why and how we live our lives, as Plato has Socrates stating (in The Republic), then each of the issues in this paper are applicable. For they give us guidance for action. Ethics teachers, and trainers in the workplace, if giving prescriptions on whistleblowing, codes of ethics, the changing institutional environment, are suggesting ways in which we direct at least that part of our lives. A more worrying definition of philosophy, however, is that it is about argument, the resolution of differing viewpoints. Louis Pojman, in the sixth edition of a widely used undergraduate text, Philosophy: The Quest for Truth, states that he has “striven to present opposing views on virtually every topic” (2009, n. pag.). His is a questionable assertion, for the truth rarely has two sides. Nevertheless, he does assert that all philosophical issues have one position and a counter argument. Bernard Williams (1985) also speculates that philosophy is about reflective, persuasive argument. Many publications on philosophical ethics, including several of those cited above, are often little more than arguments that refine and re-interpret the various ethical differences. John Lachs decries this approach. He argues that “young philosophers (in the US) are taught that argument is king … that knowledge of facts is superfluous” (2009, 24). I support Lachs’ viewpoint. Of the issues raised here, public interest disclosures or whistleblowing generate the more interesting philosophical speculation. The reason why people are willing to take the risk of blowing the whistle on wrongdoing is itself a philosophical question. Earlier paragraphs have given us other philosophical speculations. The possible traumas of exposing wrongdoing are counterbalanced by the research that finds most of us prefer to work for ethical organizations. John Delaney and Donna Sockell (1992) or Sean Valentine and Gary Fleischman’s survey of over 300 business professionals (2004) give us that finding. Why do we have that preference? Is that not a philosophical question?

7. What is Ethical Behavior? This brings us again to the final issue—the definition of ethical behavior. Another statement in Nowell-Smith’s publication is of interest, for we could speculate that it may perhaps be the reason behind the failure to come to grips with the practical issues. “… ethics,” he writes, “… has been studied for over two thousand years. It does not seem to have produced any established system of truths comparable to those of mathematics and the natural sciences” (1954, 15). Nowell-Smith is perhaps too kind. “Internecine warfare” was



the term used to describe the conflict between ethical theories in a book edited by Peter Singer (Pence 1993). We are aware of the more common theories—utilitarianism in its many forms, deontology, virtue ethics. We are also aware of the many attempts to find a formula which provides overarching guidelines—Beauchamp and Childress, Frankena, Gert, Ross, and Gewirth. There is no agreement. Habermas sets his book in the context that it is formed primarily by objections against universalistic concepts of morality that can be traced back to Aristotle, as well as to Hegel and contemporary philosophers. It is apparent that the “internecine warfare” is a standard feature of moral philosophy. It may cause few problems when the wrongs are simple and straight forward. The problem is a real one for many teachers and trainers in ethics, however, when the ethical issues that exist, in almost every discipline, are unclear. The multiplicity of theories, giving the different and often opposing answers, certainly causes significant problems for teachers of ethics in many professions and disciplines. And also for those who develop codes of ethics, or need to resolve the more difficult ethical issues in the workplace. Extensive arguments exist on each of the theories; yet to claim them as “tools,” as prescriptions for action, is an excessive and very disputable claim. The modern theories, the combined attempts, are possibly an answer. The Beauchamp and Childress formulae (2001), for instance, a combination of Kant and Mill, although developed for biomedical ethics, appear to provide an extremely wide ranging set of ethical guidelines. But they are themselves disputed. Bernard Gert’s (2004) formulation of a common morality is perhaps even more encompassing. But at a relatively recent symposium, it is attacked by every philosopher who had a say on Gert’s prescriptions (AAPAE 2005). The essence of their attack was a series of counter-arguments, not attempts to find a universal formulation. Much testing of all possible ethical theories across a range of scenarios could likely provide answers. But the preference for argument in moral philosophy, not empiricism, will likely negate any attempt to reduce the conflict among the many moral theories.

8. The Implications If the arguments of this paper have validity, they are saying that we are turning out graduates who may end up repeating the way they have learned ethics—with little empirical content. They will teach this way if they go into academic life. Not all philosophy graduates, however, find academic employment. Some will get jobs, sometimes as ethics officers and related positions. One occasionally finds philosophy graduates in these positions—graduates who have not been adequately trained for the work they have to do. In failing to include empirical findings, their university has neglected its role as a university—regardless of whether we regard a university as a training ground for the professions, or a place to search for new knowledge. Or both. Some moral philosophers teach applied ethics in the disciplines (Cohen 2004; Cohen and Grace 2005; 2007). The failure of most moral philosophers to teach ethics in all its variations has, however, a more serious implication for society overall. It means that the teaching of ethical practices has no parent discipline. It forces the professions, the industry associations, governments, and private business to develop their own individual moral philosophies—to write their own moral codes, decide their own ethics policies. This is how the many professions currently develop ethics practices. By self-design. Most university departments have a professional ethics course. The lecturers are from the disciplines, not philosophy. They have read LaFollette, or Singer, maybe even Aristotle, noted the 2,000 years of disagreement, and worked out their own ethical theories. They do their research, and publish in their professional journals. Moral philosophy goes in its own separate direction.



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