“Business ethics” is a phrase some might deem an oxymoron. They would say the only aim of business is to make profits – by any means necessary, fair or foul.
Yes, making money is a primary purpose of business. But having this particular purpose does not free a businessperson from any of the normal constraints upon human conduct, any more than does any activity or purpose render such constraints inapplicable. Not even war. Whatever one does, moral rules always apply. Businesspeople do violate them, but that’s no more true of business than any other class of human activity. There isn’t anything particular about business that makes its practitioners more prone to breach norms of conduct than is the case for any other types of activities.
If anything, there is reason to expect business conduct to exceed such norms. Because business is not just about making money – it’s about making money in a particular way. If money were the only object, regardless of moral consequences, then robbery might be better. And, yes, some “businesses” do operate by effectively robbing people. But those are not really businesses, they are scams. What defines a business is an enterprise that generates profit by supplying goods or services that make people better off, in relation to what they pay. (If you aren’t getting something which, to you, has value exceeding its price, you wouldn’t knowingly buy it).
What this means is that generating value for customers is just as much the purpose of business as is profit. Only that generation of value makes the profit legitimate; this is an essential feature, not a peripheral one. And the businessperson does this by way of filling a societal role, it’s the source of meaning in his or her life. Asked to identify himself, he will not say, “I’m a money-maker,” but, rather, “I’m an accountant” (i.e., one who provides accounting services, presumably valued by customers), or “I’m a baker” (ditto for providing baked goods), etc.
This is what may be called the business ethic; the ethic of business. It is the fundamental idea that one’s societal role is to provide something to others, which results in recompense to oneself. It’s the idea that profits are not something gathered or taken; rather, they are earned. And earning profits in that way is virtuous.
Providing value to customers may be self-serving to the extent that it’s calculated to gain repeat business and thus greater eventual profit. But a person possessing this genuine business ethic will strive to make sure his customers get value, even if he’ll never see them again. That is why a restauranteur, for example, will work to give good meals and service, even to strangers just passing through. That is the integrity of his societal role; by fulfilling it, he goes home at the end of the day feeling good about himself. And it is precisely this that has built our whole civilization.