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Taking business advice from Aristotle

UofGH Assistant Vice-Provost published in landmark work on philosophical background of business ethics

In analyzing what makes a business decision ethical, one can go back about 2500 years.

“Aristotle’s general framework is a very compelling one,” says University of Guelph-Humber Assistant Vice-Provost and Program Head of Business, George Bragues.

“It’s one that involves looking at character and virtues, and so can provide important moral guidelines for distinguishing right from wrong in the world of business.”

Aristotle is viewed as the intellectual godfather of the virtue theory of ethics. This facet of business ethics is person rather than action based; meaning, it asks more about a person’s character in making ethical business decisions.

The intellectual godfather of the virtue theory of ethics

Dr. Bragues explains that this way of analyzing remains very much in-line with modern thinking: “Most people today talk in terms of character, not action. They say, He’s a good guy, or, She’s a nice person. They don’t view the moral world as a set of actions to be evaluated; they view the moral world as being made up of certain people with certain characteristics. Either you’re admirable, vicious, or indifferent,” he says.

This Aristotelian approach to ethics represents Dr. Bragues’ contribution to a landmark reference book: The Handbook of the Philosophical Foundations of Business Ethics offers a complete survey of the different philosophical strands of business ethics, beginning with the famous Greek philosopher.

“Aristotle’s general framework remains very useful because it centres ethics around happiness,” says Dr. Bragues. “Happiness is the touchstone of ethics, and therefore of character.”

Understanding happiness, then, becomes the logical follow-up.

“From an Aristotelian point of view, we want to be happy. But happiness is not simply a pleasure that can be understood in hedonistic terms; happiness is about cultivating your intellectual and moral faculties as a human being.”

But not all of Aristotle’s ethics fit as naturally with our world today. Within this context of fulfillment as a central part of happiness, Aristotle disregards a central part of our modern business world: commerce.

The pursuit of money

“We want to be happy – but we’re caught up in a world where everybody does business. How can we pursue happiness within the limits and opportunities provided by the commercial civilization we live in?”

Dr. Bragues adds: “Aristotle obviously didn’t live in a commercial civilization.”

The problem, as Aristotle would see it, is that most people get so mesmerized and engrossed by the pursuit of money, that money becomes the end in itself.

“So they misunderstand the relationship of ends and means in life,” says Dr. Bragues. “The rational person doesn’t seek money for its own sake. The rational person uses money so that they can spend their time on good moral works and developing their mind.”

This, according to Aristotle, is the height of virtue.