Business is One Thing, Ethics is Another: Revisiting Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees
Humber LAS Working Paper No. 2003-01
43 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2003
Date Written: March 2003
The last three years have witnessed a dramatic turn in the public's perceptions of business. At the height of the 1990's boom, business pursuits were widely held in high esteem, with entrepreneurs, financiers, and corporate executives seen as exemplifying a multitude of virtues. With the recent collapse of the telecommunications and technology sectors, however, the commercial life has come to embody shameful vices. This turn of events raises an old question anew: is capitalism fundamentally infected by immorality?
A now almost forgotten answer to this question was advanced at the dawn of capitalism, an answer that students of business ethics, and others interested in the relation between economics and morality, would find profit in considering. In the early 18th century, Bernard Mandeville authored The Fable of the Bees, which became notorious in its day for arguing that capitalism created wealth while necessarily relying on vicious impulses. The fundamental dilemma is that morality requires self-denial while capitalism runs on self-interest. As such, Mandeville claims that business and ethics are essentially separate.
While this would appear to align him with skeptics of business ethics, like Milton Friedman and Albert Z. Carr, Mandeville does suggest a role for moral theorists in dealing with the challenges of commercial societies. The Mandevillean business ethicist proceeds by separating the public and private spheres. In the former, where government policy towards business is at issue, the Mandevillean ethicist applies a market-friendly utilitarianism. In the latter, where individual conduct is at issue, the Mandevillean gently articulates a market critical ethic predicated on self-restraint. In this way, the Mandevillean business ethicist tries to manage the moral bind in which capitalism finds itself, namely that its health depends on the maintenance of an antithetical ethical system.
JEL Classification: A13, B1, B3, B11, B31, I31, N01, P1
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation