The virtue ethics approach in Administration

As stated by the professor of Organizational Theory at the IESE Business School (University of Navarra, Spain), Juan Antonio Pérez López (1912-1996), “science can have no other object than to help human beings make the right decisions”. Such decisions can have a technical or technological support, whose criterion is the adequacy of the means / resources to the organizational ends – within the cognitive limits inherent to this process – and having as primary objective the survival and the organizational growth. However, these decisions can also be supported by ethics, which seeks to reconcile goods, norms and virtues with a view to the growth of human beings, both at the individual and organizational levels.

Both decisions – with technological and ethical support – can be mutually exclusive or coincident. It is more common to consider that the economic sphere – and the Administration included – limits ethics as a practical knowledge that cultivates the virtues for human self-actualization (eudaimonia). Some more incisive ones would say that the economic sphere – or specifically the market – corrodes or corrupts any trait of ethics, morality or character. Therefore, an increasingly sophisticated apparatus of control is needed from outside – such as bureaucracy (and its various disguises), institutional regulations, invasions of privacy (sometimes subtle) by companies and governments, incentives (often undeclared) for changing individual and social behavior, among others – so that people achieve certain organizational or economic goals. However, there is a latent assumption that runs through this view and, ironically, is an ethical, albeit reductionist assumption: human behavior is based primarily on self-interest. Because of this, freedom is considered to be detached from responsibility and, therefore, the person needs to be tutelage to promote the collective interest.

In contrast, the virtue ethics approach in Administration considers that decisions with technological and ethical support may coincide or, going further, it is desirable that they coincide, because we humanize ourselves as we act ethically, in whatever sphere. And “acting ethically” means seeking self-actualization, that is, improving in virtues so that we know how to decide (intelligence or reason) and want to choose (will) the material and immaterial goods necessary for our growth and that of others, as well as discerning about fair laws and norms that help guide our conduct.

A real problem that this approach faces is not necessarily about how to make good and better decisions in a circumstantial way, but about acquiring skills – or stable operating habits – so that it is possible for the agent to always (or most of the time) make good decisions and have the consistency to act according to those decisions. Such capacities can be called moral virtues or moral competence and, as they develop in the agent, the benefits can spread through the organization or through the associated human life, because, paradoxically, the virtues of the agent are not confined only in himself, especially if he/she has a leadership role or is in a more determining organizational or social position (from a social network theory perspective). In this way, the virtue ethics seeks to establish the link between the agent and his action, throwing lights on whom the agent becomes as he acts, that is, there is a dimension of moral learning and development of the agent’s character. In other words, the purpose of virtue ethics is to become better people (human flourishing).

* This is a version of the presentation of the book ‘Virtues and Moral Dilemmas in Administration’, organized by Mauricio C. Serafim (AdmEthics, 2020 – in press). Publication scheduled for November 2020.

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