Business ethics covers the whole spectrum of interactions between firms, individuals, industries, society and the state. In other words, business ethics is as complex as business itself. It is not an optional accessory to business life or a mere enthusiasm of philosophers and moralists; business ethics is about how we conduct our business affairs, from the basest fraud to the highest levels of excellence. It is about individuals and the institutions with which they deal. And it is about the expectations and requirements including the social and economic requirements of society.
Such a scope suggests that individuals might have a limited role in ethical matters. After all, if they have a limited range of business responsibilities, then they will not be in a position to make much of an ethical impact. An important way of looking at the responsibilities of individuals is to examine their roles. Company directors, for instance, have fiduciary responsibilities to act in the best interests of shareholders. Does that entitle them to ignore ethically suspect practices that benefit shareholders? Sometimes people’s role in business is itself the problem. Should their occupational role diminish their moral responsibility for actions done in the name of their company or employer? If so, where do individual conscience, character and choice come in?
The same kinds of questions might be asked not only of individuals, but also of firms and industries that operate under socially determined legal and economic constraints. What are the ethical responsibilities of “non-natural persons” legal entities that have no character or conscience in the usual sense and are persons only in law? How is ethics to be made part of the fabric of institutions? Should ethical standards be imposed in a market economy?