Business Ethics Readings

An idiosyncratic reading list in Business Ethics…

I made the mistake a few years ago of saying to one of my business professor colleagues that I did not think that most ethicists had much experience in business and so did not think and write about it well, and that most business writers did not seem to have much experience with ethics and so seemed simplistic in their approaches to ethics in business. A few months later she approached me and asked if I would like to teach a business ethics class. As I had spent about 15 years in business and management of one kind or another, and had done a bit of work in ethics as well, I had to accept the challenge, especially after my earlier comment. I have been working on it for a good long time (over fifteen years), and enjoy the reading and work with students. Here are some works I have found helpful. Some are more popular, some more philosophical, but all worth a look.  Ethics is not something we read and learn and are done with.  It is about who and what we are and are becoming.  Any list has to reach broadly.

Michael Novak, Business as Calling: Work and the Examined Life.  New York: Free Press, 1996. One of best by a Christian writer. 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his earlier work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Revised and Updated Edition. Thomas Nelson, 2015.  An evangelical Christian interpretation of Biblical teaching on wealth and poverty. Read new edition, especially the forward where Sider reconsiders his earlier conclusions.  Read with the following by Schneider.

John R. Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. An analysis of Biblical teaching, and a challenge to Sider.

David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why some are so rich and some are so poor.  New York: Norton, 1999. An economic history of the modern world, with a consideration of the culture that under lays capitalist development and wealth and poverty around the world.

James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense, New York: Free Press, 1993.  An updating in Social Scientific terms of Adam Smith’s “theory of moral sentiments.”

C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, originally published 1944. A classic and powerful statement of the reality of universal human values.  See also the first part of his Mere Christianity for the implications of this reality.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good. 1970, rpt. Routledge Classics, 2001. The title conveys her central teaching. Murdoch is always insightful–check out also her many novels.

John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth. Catholic University of America Press, 1991. Finnis, an Oxford professor, argues that there are “exceptionless moral norms;” they are “few but strategic.”

Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart.  Ignatius Press, 1991A beautiful introduction to the Thomist tradition of the virtues, with Pieper’s insight into the classics and human experience thrown in. See also his Leisure the Basis of Culture.  1948, rpt; St. Augustine’s Press, 1998.  A reminder that work should provide for us so that we can do other more important things, including worship.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. A work by a real philosopher on why “work” dominates the world we live in, and why it shouldn’t.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.  Many editions.  The classic Greek ethical work on virtues from the ancient world.  Translate the virtues he discusses into business terms.  Courage = Risk Taking.  Friendship = Human Resources.  Justice = Compensation, Profit, etc.

Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Many Editions.  A classical Roman Stoic work of philosophy.  See also Epictetus (Marcus’s teacher) Handbook.  Also many editions.  Popularized recently through the novel of Tom Wolf, A Man in Full.  Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1998.  An enjoyable and morally illuminating story with Stoic ethics at its heart, set in the world of power and business.  See also Tom Morris, The Stoic Art of Virtue. Open Court, 2004/ A brief, brilliant, and practical introduction to Stoic ethics.  More from Morris below.

Alasdair MacIntyre, several works: A Short History of Ethics.  2nd Ed. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University, 1998; After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory. 2nd Ed. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University, 1984. One of the most influential writers on ethics today, one who has encouraged the development of virtue ethics. Unfortunately doesn’t appreciate the positive moral qualities of business.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.  A profound work on “values theory” and what its dangers and benefits are for us today.

Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue: Traditional Moral Wisdom for Modern Moral Confusion. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992. Inspired by C.S. Lewis, a Christian treatment of virtues.  Kreeft has many others that are good as well.

Arthur F. Holmes, Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. 2nd ed. From the series “Contours of Christian Philosophy.” Intervarsity Press, Academic, 2007.  An Evangelical treatment, fully conversant with current discussions.

Servais Pinckaers, O.P. Morality, A Catholic View. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001.  Sensitive to both traditional and contemporary movements.

Andreas Kinneging, The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations. Trans. I. Hardy. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2009. Kinneging’s rediscovery of ancient and Christian thought, finding the classical tradition of ethical reflection.

Dietrich von Hildebrand, with Alice von Hildebrand, The Art of Living. Steubenville: Hildebrand Press, 2017. (Original German edition, 1933; first English edition as Fundamental Moral Attitudes, 1950.) A phenomenologist’s meditation on human values and the moral sentiments that promote them. von Hildebrand fled Nazi Germany eventually living and teaching in New York. Despite the date of their original publication these essays are very moving and contemporary.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  New York: Vintage/Random House, 2012. On why we latch on to different conceptions of what is good, and conflict with other conceptions. Except of his linking of his basic argument to evolutionary developments, he has many good things to say.

Paul Lawrence Farber, The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.  Something to read with Haidt and others who explain ethics through evolutionary development.

James L. Nolan, Doing the Right Thing at Work: A Catholic’s Guide to Faith, Business and Ethics. Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger, 2006. Former executive director of the Woodstock Business Conference.  See his 5 point program.

Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel. Moral Intelligence: Enhancing Business Performance and Leadership and Leadership Success. Pearson Education/Wharton School Publishing, 2005.  Very practical on why we are “born to be moral” with some practical exercises for testing our “moral alignment.”

Fred Kiel, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and their Companies Win. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2015.  How character produces trust and success.

Catharyn A. Baird, Everyday Ethics, Making Wise Choices in a Complex World. 2nd Edition. Denver: EthicsGame Press, 2012. Baird developed the “Ethics Game” model for decision-making.

Steven R. Nish, Good Ideas for Creating a More Ethical and Effective Workplace, Bloomington: Unlimited/Los Angeles: Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2005. Ideas and strategies.

Tom Morris, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric. New York: Doubleday, 2006. See also his If Aristotle Ran General Motors, New York: Henry Holt, 1997. Full of ethical insight.

Stephen Young, Moral Capitalism: Reconciling Private Interest and the Public Good, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003. Caux Roundtable principles—one example of the possibility of global ethics.

And don’t forget the Bible. You will find much reflection on personal ethics, business, wealth and poverty, as well as grace, humility, wisdom, and love.

Every year, a whole batch of books by CEOs and other business people and watchers are published. Here are a few that seem to have something to say about how ethics can be practiced in business today.

David Batson, Saving the Corporate Soul: & (who knows?) maybe your own.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.  The case studies are little older now, but still has good things to say.

Herb Baum, The Transparent Leader: How to Build a Great Company through Straight Talk, Openness and Accountability.  New York: Harperbusiness, 2004.

Tom Chappell, The Soul of a Business, New York: Bantam, 1993. Becoming a classic.

Bill George, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.  Also George’s Discover Your True North. Expanded and Updated Edition, 2015.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003. As well as essays in Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, Ed. Kouzes and Posner.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. Essays by Ken Blanchard, Patrick Lencioni, John Maxwell, Nancy Ortberg, and others. See also Kouzes and Posner’s, Credibility. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003.

Stephen Varvis, Fresno Pacific University, 2010. rev. 2021.