by Robert C Solomon.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ethics and Excellence

Oxford; 288pp; £25.

Review by Francis Kinsman

'Ethics?' says my hustling City friend. 'By which I assume you mean not getting caught with your fingers in the till?' I reply: 'Not so fast, Kawalski,' but he doesn't get it, this being a politically incorrect American joke. He should read Solomon. So should everyone, since everything is taking on an ethical aspect, both over here and over there.

The problem is that mist still covers the field of business values and morals. Nevertheless commercial ethics is now a hot issue. There are two magazines entitled Business Ethics (one American, one Anglo-European). There is an Institute of Business Ethics a pebble's throw from Buckingham Palace, and a lot of heat and light on the subject is emanating from both King's College, London, and the CBI. Those who do not relate pretty soon to this are in for a worrying time because people in every capacity will be after them: consumers, employees, suppliers, pensioners, investors and the public at large - posing as guardians of the environment.

It is both a joke and a tragedy that ethics is only partly to do with being good, or green or even legal. Ethics is far more than that, being primarily about what Aristotle called 'how we should live'. It involves rationing out both the pain and the profit of any enterprise among the various stakeholders as fairly as possible. Not many people know that - and certainly not Kawalski. Solomon does, however.

Take the current great UK press censorship debate. The questions that should really be asked by any journalist of his/her reportage are now: 'Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary?' Fat chance, you cry, and rightly. But isn't it better to light a candle than curse the darkness, at precisely the time that all these things are ballooning up? Solomon does.

Take also the ethics of the clearing banks, of British Airways, Guinness and the House of Windsor; each in their way part of the hitherto seamless backcloth against which we have all made our exits and our entrances. But now, define 'backcloth' and, more challengingly, define 'seamless'. Solomon does.

Applause, then, for Robert C Solomon, an American academic who has captured the position and reorganised 50 yards beyond the objective. He explains the legacy of Aristotle early on, and relates the rather arcane technicalities of his subject to everyday management concerns. But he also majors on Tom Peters's Pursuit of Excellence as a marker, relating proper business behaviour to business success. The only thing that bothers me about Solomon (apart from his interminable paragraphs) is the possibility that his enthusiasm for this author could be to his disadvantage - given that so many of Peters's 'excellent' examples are now looking like the rough end of a pineapple in US market opinion.

That apart, there is certainly excellence here: a most persuasive argument that business can do well by doing good, as in the old Quaker tradition; and that it is about time we went back 200 years and re-examined such basics; and, further, that there are a number of businesses around today which have already recognised this truth to their tremendous profit.

The whole debate is still too academic, and suffers as a result. It should not be so academic because ethics is too important to be left to academics, just as war is to soldiers. Business ethics lives. But my fear for this book is that it is in danger of being sidelined into the crusty, dusty, library world of tiny common room debates because it could be thought to lack a populist business thrust. It is, on the contrary, the colonels of the big battalions who should be reading it, for it deserves a strong commercial acceptance.

I am not sure that it will get it, and if it doesn't the publishers will be partly to blame. Look at that incredibly bland cover for a start, designed by a man and wife team who - on the evidence of their work here - must be boring each other to death.

But you can't tell a book by its cover. Solomon's wisdom demands attention, even if you have to work on it with a little determination to find out how and why. Maybe what it lacks is a simple executive summary in words of one syllable for the busy commuting manager.

Francis Kinsman is a consultant and writer.

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