Kant and Business Ethics


For paper 2, I chose to focus on Patagonia and their sustainable business practices. I plan to ethically analyze Patagonia on the basis of Deontology, which incorporates Emmanuel Kant’s theories. I began my research by using Google Scholar and searching “Managing Business Ethics by Trevino and Nelson”. We read a chapter from this book for class so I thought it would be a good place to begin my research. I found 825 articles that cited this book, but when I searched within the cited articles I was not able to find anything that would be useful in my paper. I then turned to past class blogs and searched for papers using Patagonia and/or Deontology. The Business, Society, and Government 4 blog had a Paper 2 post written on Patagonia and Deontology. I looked at the posts’ bibliography and found a book called Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective by Normal E. Bowie. I found this book in the Bucknell Universtiy Library and plan to use it as a source for my paper.

The book is separated into three sections, each chapter being one of Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative. Bowie uses Kant’s formulations to show how a company in today’s capitalistic economy can be ethically structured and managed. The first formulation of the categorical imperative states that one must, “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This suggests that a person can act on a principal if and only if they would support everyone in the universe doing it. For example, stealing is ethical if we would want everyone in the universe to steal from each other. Of course we would not want this, so it is clearly unethical. Bowie applies this formulation to the business world by showing how it can be used to test the moral legitimacy of contemplated actions.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative says, “act so that you treat humanity whether, in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” (pg 43) Kant believed that human beings should be respected because human beings possess a dignity beyond all price. This dignity comes from a human’s capability of autonomy and self-governance, making them responsible human beings. This formulation requires businesses to treat stakeholders in a noncoercive and nondeceptive manner. Businesses cannot just use employees, they have an ethical obligation to provide their employees with meaningful work.

The last formulation of the categorical imperative loosely says “you should act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you are both subject and sovereign at the same time.” (pg 87) A business is a community of individual persons (a kingdom of ends) and since these persons are moral creatures, the business should be governed by morality. The laws that govern this community are Kant’s first two formulations of the categorical imperative. If a business acts according to the first two formulations, they are a moral community.

This source provided a lot of information about Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative. I was able to get a broad understanding of what they all are and have hopefully shared that understanding with you. I plan to use these three formulations to analyze Patagonia in my paper. Just from obtaining a broad understanding of Kant’s ethical theories, I believe that he would agree that Patagonia is an ethical corporation.

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8 responses to “Kant and Business Ethics

  1. The part that states, “act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” reminds me of “the golden rule” that is taught to children – “do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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  2. I think deontology is great angle to take for Patagonia. It might also be interesting to consider it through the lens of virtue ethics and evaluate how they stand in what I see as their two major moral communities: apparel retailers and environmental activists.

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  3. I am fascinated that in 825 things citing Trevino and Nelson, “I couldn’t find anything.”

    What are the criteria you used to search within those? Just curious.

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  4. Authenticity is a term I hear/read often in connection with”good” companies and advertising.

    I think its popularity among people trying to re-define ethical business taps into the second imperative. If, as a firm, you are nondeceptive and noncoercive, then you are being authentic.

    Red Tomato, for example, publishes its margins. Being a non-profit maybe makes that possible, but think what it does to everyone in the supply chain. As a consumer, I know that the grocer, the distributor, and the farmer all want and need a profit. So much of pricing in our market economies relies on obfuscation. Imagine if every item you bought listed the mark-up of each step in the supply chain. If Weiss only makes 1-2 % on each item, well then, my sympathy for their business model increases.

    Here is another example that always bugs me. Whenever I go to like an Indian restaurant, or a Thai one, shrimp or fish cost more then chicken. Ok. But tofu is often priced similarly to chicken. Come on, tofu is soy. It is cheap. If I pick vegetarian, I feel like i am paying more of a margin. I am subsidizing the carnivores!

    When Patagonia says “don’t buy this jacket” and I am paying more for it, I feel less like I am buying a “luxury” item and instead I am paying for quality.

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  5. Pingback: Blog Council: Ethical Resources | Stakeholders:Uncensored·

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