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An Adversarial Ethic for Business: or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder

  • Economics
  • Philosophy


In the economic literature on the firm, especially in the transaction–cost tradition, a sharp distinction is drawn between so-called “market transactionsâ€\x9D and “administered transactions.â€\x9D This distinction is of enormous importance for business ethics, since market transactions are governed by the competitive logic of the market, whereas administered transactions are subject to the cooperative norms that govern collective action in a bureaucracy. The widespread failure to distinguish between these two types of transactions, and thus to distinguish between adversarial and non-adversarial relations, has led many business ethicists to develop a “uniformâ€\x9D moral code. Yet in market transactions, the checks and balances built into the system of commercial exchange are such as to permit more instrumental forms of behavior. In administered transactions, by contrast, these checks and balances are absent, and thus the institutional context calls for much greater exercise of moral restraint. In this paper, I begin the task of developing an adversarial ethic for business. According to this view, the competitive environment licenses a greater range of “self-interestedâ€\x9D behavior, but also imposes its own constraints on the strategies that firms may adopt in the pursuit of their interests. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

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