Immanuel Kant and Business Ethics
Immanuel Kant was born in East Prussia, during the eighteenth century. A philosopher, Kant was influential in the development of theories in the field of deontology, a field in which he exerted such influence that deontology is sometimes referred to as “Kantianism.” His theories discussed the “categorical imperative,” a concept that has several characteristics. Norman E. Bowie states that the categorical imperative is defined with these three “formulations.”
Explained in a simple fashion, these formulations state that a person must take only actions that he or she would expect to apply to everyone (including him- or herself), that a person must treat people only in such a way that they are not being used. Finally, the individual has a responsibility to treat him- or herself the same way in which others are treated. Kantian ethics, therefore, obligate the individual involved in the decision-making process to behave in a moral fashion due to the humanity of both parties.
Bowie makes the point that “the categorical imperative is not irrelevant in the world of business” (7). He stresses that universalized and self-defeating actions become common, then doing business becomes impossible. If someone, for example, writes a check on an account with insufficient funds, then
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In addition, Bowie explores the “Formula of Humanity,” which admonishes people to “always treat the humanity in a person as an end and never as a means merely” (7). Bowie explains that, while this formula does not negate the ability to transact commercial business, it addresses the need to avoid behaving in a coercive manner, as well as the need to “contribute to the development of human rational and moral capacities” (Bowie 7-8).
This use of the categorical imperative would suggest that business deals that trade away the rights of employees or sales (or lack of sales) of certain products at the expense of certain customers would be unethical instead of merely “part of doing business.”
Although his perspective changed over the years, Kant’s philosophy always emphasized the importance of humanity in ethics. While not as popular as they once were, Kantian ethics are extremely relevant to the practice of business ethics.
Bowie, Norman, E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” A Companion to Business Ethics, Robert E. Frederick, Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 2002. 3-16.