Kai Peters ist Professor an der Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)

Kai Peters: Ambitious and unrealizable

In the opinion of Kai Peters, Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), there are two key challenges for such an approach.
  • Kai Peters

In his opinion piece, Angel Cabrera suggests that business, as a profession, should consider implementing a management equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath to ensure that managers will comply to a set of ethical principles and standards. There is much to be said for this proposal. We have seen tremendous upheaval in recent years and the litany of scandals, frauds and onerous actions has been extensive. An adherence to a set of values and principles could theoretically be used to address these issues.

There are, however, two key challenges for such an approach. The first is simpler. There are laws. These laws cover all of the actions that managers act on, and if they contravene these laws, they are brought to justice. These laws govern one's country of residence, and international laws govern further. We are subject to them! Thus, an additional oath would in effect duplicate what we have already accepted as law. Furthermore, for senior management, a whole range of rights and responsibilities are incorporated into articles of association of limited companies or stock listed companies, and these articles are accepted, in writing, by those senior managers.

There is a further area that is more complex, the area of ethics per se, and this can be divided into two fundamental spheres. Firstly, whose ethics are ethical? There are ranging opinions around the world about what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable business practice. Imposing Anglo-American, or Chinese, or German values on the rest of the world would meet with tremendous resistence.

Secondly, as Rush Kidder of the Institute of Global Ethics, has pointed out, we tend to equate ethics with right versus wrong questions. Is it right to steal from your shareholders? No, of course not. Is it right to pillage the company pension plan to prop up the bottom line? No, of course not. But, these are actually the easy questions. The tough ones are not the right versus wrong questions, but the right versus right questions. How does one decide between truth and loyalty? Between the good of the individual and the good of the community? Between the short term and the long term? Between justice and mercy? These are ethical dilemmas where only philosophical approaches can answer questions as best as possible. One can decide to use a utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" approach. Or a "do unto others as you wish them to do unto you" approach. But neither approach will provide a right or wrong answer.

Do these challenges invalidate the concept of an oath of management? No, they don't invalidate the concept, but they do make the reality of such an oath tremendously ambitious, and I fear, unrealizable.

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