Objectivist Virtue Ethics in Business – Article by Edward W. Younkins
Virtuous actions can lead to the achievement of values. When one’s context is reduced to business, virtue theory contends that pursuing virtuous principles, strategies, and actions can result in firms realizing their values including their mission, purpose, profit potential, and other goals. Virtuous employees tend to carry out their roles in a competent manner that is congruent with the firm’s goals. Virtues are instrumental allowing a person to act to gain values. When business people conform to the Objectivist virtues, they increase the likelihood of achieving their values and goals. Virtue ethics stresses the importance of each individual employee being able to make contributions of value. Valid virtue concepts are required to describe what it means to be an excellent director, leader, manager, or employee. To be successful, a business needs to espouse a set of virtues that are reality-based, non-contradictory, integrated, and comprehensive.
Virtue theory holds that ethics is an inherent part of business and that it is necessary to integrate moral theory into management theory and practice. The role of the virtues in business is to direct and motivate behavior toward the success of the business. Strategic management and business ethics converge because each area has an explicit interest in the nature and goals of business. In business, the virtues facilitate successful management and cooperation and enable a company to attain its goals. The Randian virtues can provide a moral framework and integrating strategy to guide a business in achieving its goals.
The virtues connect ethics to business positively and provide a sound logical foundation for business ethics. Given the laws of nature and of human nature, there exists a set of virtues that fit reality and that are most likely to lead to success and happiness in business. Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics specifically recognizes production as the central human value. In addition, the personal virtues that she advocated have a direct bearing on work: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. These virtues can be used as guiding forces in a business career and in the management of a business. They define the excellent manager (or other employee) and provide the principles that a corporation should adopt with respect to investors, employees, customers, vendors, and others.
A case can be made that virtue ethics has priority over, and perhaps grounds, other competing ethical approaches to business. In most cases being virtuous will be sufficient for leading a morally decent life in the world of business. Virtue theory is more attractive, positive, unified, comprehensive, and practical than are traditional approaches to business ethics because it is concerned with the type of person that one should be rather than with rules that tell people how they ought to act. Virtue theory is concerned with the cultivation of character and provides a framework through which a person can lead a flourishing and happy life. Moral growth comes from choice rather than from conformity to rules or codes.
Traditional approaches to business ethics (i.e., deontology, consequentialism and codes of conduct) are viewed as formulaic, prescriptive, constraining forces that legislate the form of moral deliberation. Conventional approaches focus on a set of prohibitive principles or rules that tell people how they ought to act. Kantian and utilitarian act-oriented approaches concentrate only on the development of principles while neglecting the cultivation of an individual’s character. Neither deontic nor consequentialist judgments are apt to supply sufficient action guidance for resolving particular dilemmas. Virtue ethics should be viewed as a precondition of, and complement to, moral reasoning based on a deontological focus on one’s obligation to act and on a teleological focus on the consequences of an action. Virtue ethics is more fundamental, and in many cases, preempts the consideration and application of deontic and utilitarian rules. An emphasis on virtuous behavior is motivational because it depends upon a person’s ability to aspire to excellence through virtuous acts. Virtue ethics emphasizes the process of individual moral character development. Above all, virtue ethics is concerned with the flourishing and happiness of the human agent (Mintz 1996, 537-38; Arjoon 2000, 159-78; Whetstone 2001, 101-14).
Virtue theory provides a context in which strategies, plans, tactics, policies, and procedures can be developed to attain a business’s stated mission and other relevant values. Virtues can play a causal role in achieving economic success. Virtues-driven firms tend to maximize profits. However, acting virtuously does not always result in wealth creation because other factors can come into play. Despite such an occurrence, virtuous employees still can experience the internal rewards of pride, self-esteem, and the joy of knowing that they did their jobs well.
The achievement of a firm’s telos, mission, purpose, ultimate end, or ultimate value requires virtuous action on the part of the company’s employees. The ultimate value for a business is financial value. The purpose of a business is to maximize owner value over the long-term by selling goods and/or services. Most corporation mission statements explain this purpose explicitly, or at least implicitly. It is necessary to recognize a business’s distinctive purpose when organizing and integrating human effort into purposeful long-term activities. Purposeful behavior requires a single overarching valued objective function. In a corporation market price per share can be a surrogate for owner value. More specifically, the ultimate purpose of maximizing total long-term market value can provide a criterion for management decisions and choices among competing alternatives, Virtues are instrumental and support a firm’s overall telos.
To accomplish a corporation’s ultimate purpose requires the attainment of a number of goals within a business. It is possible look upon both a firm’s ultimate purpose and its goals as values that need to be achieved. Although technically a value is an object of goal-directed action, in general parlance, the terms, goals and values, are often used interchangeably. For our purposes, we can consider both the ultimate end of a corporation (i.e., the long-term maximization of firm value) and the goals that can lead to the ultimate end to be values.
Goals (sometimes referred to as objectives) are specific quantitative targets that a business needs to meet in a manner consistent with ethical principles in order to accomplish its purpose. Typical goal areas in a business include: profitability, sales, sales growth, return on investment (ROI), profit margin, cash flow, market share (or position), customer loyalty, productivity, efficiency, cost control, research and development, product leadership, employee development, employee attitudes, employee loyalty, expansion or contraction of product and service lines, reducing business risks, and so on. Each and every goal should be analyzed to determine the potential impact on firm value and whether or not they are contributing to the attainment of the firm’s target valuation. Goals whose achievement does not contribute to increasing shareholder value should be eliminated.
To succeed a business must have a superior vision and purpose to work toward and the strategic focus and direction of effort to achieve them. The Objectivist virtues can enable people to direct their actions toward the attainment of a company’s goals and values including the maximization of owner value. Virtuous actions can lead to better customer service, gains in productivity and efficiency, higher employee retention rates, reduction in employee absenteeism, improvement in employee morale, better communications both internally and externally, honest and reliable internal and external financial reporting, the flexibility necessary to adapt to market conditions, increased innovation and the more frequent and more timely launching of new products and services, higher sales and profits, sustainable competitive advantages, greater flourishing and happiness of the firm’s employees, and so on.
Virtuous behavior is required at all levels of a company from employees who realize that business is a natural and moral means by which they can satisfy their needs and attain their actualization as individual human persons. Virtuous employees are energetic, productive workers who: (1) focus on reality; (2) think objectively, rationally, and logically in applying relevant knowledge; (3) ask clear, pertinent, insightful questions and listen carefully; (4) search for facts in their total context before judging and evaluating business situations; (5) use time efficiently and effectively; (6) organize their lives and work toward accomplishing worthwhile endeavors; and (7) set value-producing goals and strive to accomplish them.
A virtuous employee begins by understanding what the facts are and does not evade the distinction between the real and the unreal. Evasion detaches a person from reality. Virtue begins with the effort to confront reality as it is. Given that there is no standardized algorithm for making business decisions, an employee needs to use his reason to make rational, logical decisions based on the facts of reality. One needs to apply conscious, prudent, rational judgments and choices in various business contexts in order to identify, execute, and implement profitable and ethical internal and external exchange transactions.
Much of morality in business falls under the rubric of honesty. Honesty means being in accord with reality. Honesty is basic to the structure of human relationships in virtually all contexts. Dishonesty is self-defeating because it involves being in conflict with realty. Morality in business involves objectively recognizing and dealing with customers, employees, creditors, stockholders, and others as autonomous rational individuals with their particular goals and desires. The trader principle should govern the course of all human interactions because voluntary value-for-value relationships are consonant with human nature.
Honesty is closely related to the virtue of justice. Justice, a form of faithfulness to reality, is the virtue of granting to each man that which he objectively deserves. Justice is the expression of man’s rationality in his dealings with other men and involves seeking and granting the earned. A trader, a man of justice, earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. For example, a virtuous manager must make sure that customers get what they pay for. In addition, he needs to identify employees for what they accomplish and treat them accordingly. Employees should be objectively appraised and compensated based on their contribution toward achieving a firm’s mission, values, and goals. A virtuous manager will discriminate among all those that he deals with (i.e., customers, suppliers, workers, etc.) based on relevant qualities and personal merits such as ability, competency, performance, and character. He will not improperly discriminate based on irrelevant characteristics such as sex, race, nationality, and so on.
Although individuals can learn from each other, the fact remains that each of us thinks and acts alone and is responsible for his own actions. Independence requires the acceptance of one’s intellectual responsibility for his own existence, requires that a man form his own judgments, and that he support himself by the work of his own mind. It is not a corporation’s fault if someone does not attain his goals. Each employee is responsible for his favorable or unfavorable outcomes in a business setting where responsibilities are defined by, and arise out of, his particular role. Of course, a goal may not be completely under one’s control. It may require interdependence with or on other employees who co-contribute to whether or not someone attains a goal. Positive change and innovation in a company are based on the creativity of logical independent thinkers. It is through such employees that a firm discovers and invents ways to improve the fiscal bottom line thereby increasing the firm’s market value.
Integrity is the refusal to permit a breach between thought and action. It means acting consistently with rational principles that will lead to success and happiness. In business, an employee’s rationally-made plans are integrated with his actions in order to bring values into existence. From more of a macro viewpoint, we could say that the integrity of a business is maintained if the purpose for which it was created is followed (i.e., the maximization of owner value).
Productiveness, the virtue of creating material values, is the act of translating one’s thoughts and goals into reality. Productiveness comprises an important existential component of virtuousness and is a responsibility of every moral person. It involves a commitment to creating value and to being self-responsible for bringing what one needs and wants into existence. Workers in a business are committed to producing wealth and bringing about well-being by taking the actions required to achieve the firm’s mission. Profits are an indicator of productive work on the part of people who want to achieve, produce, and improve well-being. Because people differ with respect to their intelligence, talents, and circumstances, the moral issue becomes how a particular employee addresses his work given his facticity, including his potentialities and concrete circumstances. In a business, the Randian virtues (including productiveness) offer a set of principles for getting the most value from one’s work. Rand’s Objectivist ethics recognizes that individuals search for meaning and purpose in the various components of one’s life (i.e., one’s work life, love life, home life, social life, and so on). Each of these is an end-in-itself and a means to the end of one’s life in total. One’s life in total is an end-in-itself and an ultimate value.
Pride, also called moral ambitiousness, is a man’s commitment to achieving the best in his life thereby effecting his moral perfection. Pride is the reward we earn by living by the other six Objectivist virtues. A businessman’s drive for success is a result of his taking pride in the business portion of his life. Each employee needs to work in a way as to be able to be rightfully proud of what he has done. Work is needed not only for sustenance, but also for one’s psychological well-being—it can be viewed as a means by which a man can maintain an active mind, attain purposes, and follow a goal-directed path throughout his lifetime. Through work a man can achieve his highest potentials. Doing work well in accordance with the goals of a firm (which are aligned with the personal goals of the worker) can cause an employee to positively enhance his self-esteem.
Dr. Edward W. Younkins is Professor of Accountancy at Wheeling Jesuit University. He is the author of Capitalism and Commerce: Conceptual Foundations of Free Enterprise [Lexington Books, 2002]. Many of Dr. Younkins’s essays can be found online at his web page at www.quebecoislibre.org. You can contact Dr. Younkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics is specifically related to business and business ethics in Kirkpatrick 1992; Greiner and Kinni 2001; and Hicks 2003.
 See Locke and Woiceshyn 1995 for an argument for honesty in business from the perspective of rational egoism.
 Paine 1994 provides an interesting perspective on how to manage for organizational integrity.
Arjoon, Surendra. (2000). Virtue theory as a dynamic theory of business. Journal of Business Ethics, no. 28: 159-78.
Greiner, Donna and Theodore Kinni. (2001). Ayn Rand and Business. New York: Texere.
Hicks, Stephen R.C. (2003). Ayn Rand and contemporary business ethics. Journal of Accounting: Ethics and Public Policy 3 (1) (Winter): 1-26.
———. (2009). What business ethics can learn from Entrepreneurship. Journal of Private Enterprise 24 (2): 49-57.
Kirkpatrick, Jerry. (1992). Ayn Rand’s objectivist ethics as the foundation for business ethics. In Business Ethics and Common Sense. Edited by Robert W. McGee. Westport: CT: Quorum Books 67-88.
Locke, Edwin A. (2001). and J. Woiceshyn. (1995). Why businessmen should be honest: The argument from rational egoism. Journal of Organizational Behavior 16: 405-14.
Mintz, Stephen M. (1996). Aristotelian virtue and business ethics education. Journal of Business Ethics, no. 15: 827-38.
Paine, Lynn Sharp. (1994). Managing for organizational integrity. Harvard Business Review 72 (March-April): 106-17.
Rand, Ayn. (1964). Objectivist ethics. In The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library.
Whetstone, J. Thomas. (2001). How virtue fits within business ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, no. 33: 101-14.