History of Business Ethics

History of Business Ethics

In a world where businesses are becoming increasingly global, it is more important than ever to have a strong understanding of business ethics. But where did this field of study come from? According to educator Jonathan Osler, we will explore the history of business ethics.

The origins of business ethics can be traced back to the 18th century when philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that humans are rational beings who constantly seek to act by the moral law. This early thinking laid the groundwork for the idea that businesses should operate with a sense of morality and responsibility.

In the 20th century, there was a growing awareness of the need for ethical standards. This was mainly due to the rise of large corporations and their impact on society. In response, several organizations began to develop codes of ethics for businesses. The National Association of Manufacturers published the first such code in 1912.

Since then, business ethics has become an essential field of study, and there is now a vast body of literature on the subject. Many universities now offer courses in business ethics, and there are also numerous professional organizations dedicated to the field.

The first formal attempt to systematically study ethical principles was made by philosopher John Stuart Mill in his work Utilitarianism, published in 1861. In it, Mill proposed that the morally right action is the one that results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

This ethical theory was later adopted by businesses to make decisions about what actions they should take. For example, a company might decide to pollute a river if doing so would increase its profits. Still, if the pollution would cause harm to many people, then it would be considered unethical according to utilitarianism.

In recent years, business ethics has come under scrutiny due to high-profile scandals. These include Enron’s accounting fraud, Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal, and Wells Fargo’s creation of millions of fake accounts.

Despite these challenges, business ethics remains a part of how companies operate. By understanding the history and evolution of this field, we can be better prepared to meet the challenges of doing business ethically in the 21st century.

Ways To Encourage Ethical Behavior in Businesses According to Jonathan Osler:

1. Implementing ethical training programs for employees.

2. Setting up an anonymous hotline for reporting unethical behavior.

3. Establishing clear consequences for violating company ethics.

4. Leading by example and modeling ethical behavior yourself.

5. Being transparent about your company’s ethical standards.

6. Encouraging employees to speak up when they witness unethical behavior.

7. Publicly supporting employees who act ethically, even if it means going against the company’s interests.

8. Creating an ethical code of conduct for your business.

9. Promoting a culture of respect, diversity, and inclusion in your workplace.

10. Encouraging employees to report unethical behavior without fear of retaliation.


Business ethics is an essential field of study that has evolved in response to the needs of society. Businesses should operate with integrity and responsibility, considering the impact of their actions on society as a whole. By following ethical principles, businesses can positively impact the world while also protecting their interests.