In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Business Ethics

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • The Moral Limits of Markets
  • Ethics in Marketing, Advertising, and Sales
  • Corporate Moral Responsibility
  • Shareholders and Stakeholders
  • Corporate Social (and Environmental) Responsibility
  • Employment: Participation and Meaningfulness
  • Employment: Rights and Wrongs at Work
  • Fair Exchange: Wages and Prices
  • International Issues
  • Business, Politics, and Society
  • Emerging Issues

Philosophy Business Ethics
Jeffrey Moriarty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0228


“Business” has two meanings. A “business” is an entity that offers a good or service for sale, typically with the goal of making a profit. Wal-Mart and Toyota are businesses. “Business” can also mean the activity of exchange. An individual does business with Toyota when she exchanges some of her money for one of its cars. So “business ethics” includes the study of the ethics of the entities that offer (and often produce) goods and services for sale, as well as the ethics of exchange and activities connected with exchange (e.g., advertising). Philosophers have long been interested in these subjects. Aristotle worried about the effects of commerce on character, while Aquinas wrote on profit and prices. Smith and Marx thought deeply about the organization of the process of production. Business ethics in its current incarnation traces its roots to the 1970s and 1980s, when a group of moral philosophers applied ethical theories to business activity. A number of business ethics journals were created around this time, and business ethics became a familiar course in philosophy departments. Common topics of inquiry were and continue to be the purpose of the firm, corporate governance, corporate moral agency, rights and duties at work, fairness in pay and pricing, the limits of markets, marketing ethics, supply chain ethics, and corporate political activity. Not long after philosophers reinvigorated the field, social scientists entered it (and in fact had been working on related issues the whole time). They have increasingly pulled the field, and its academic courses, into business schools. This article concentrates on the philosophical or normative side of business ethics, but it also says something about the descriptive or social scientific side when they overlap.


There are numerous business ethics textbooks, written sometimes by philosophers and sometimes by management scholars. The ones listed here are by philosophers. It is common to use cases when teaching business ethics, and all of these books contain numerous examples of cases. Boatright and Smith 2017 is comprehensive of the field, Desjardins 2013 is especially suitable for the beginning student, and Scharding 2018 devotes more time to theoretical issues and is the most affordable.

  • Boatright, John R., and Jeffery D. Smith. Ethics and the Conduct of Business. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2017.

    Boatright is one of the prime movers in the field of business ethics and remains a leading contributor to scholarly debates. This book is now co-written by Jeffery Smith, who is part of a new generation of normative business ethicists.

  • Desjardins, Joseph R. An Introduction to Business Ethics. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013.

    This short introduction to the field is especially suitable for the beginning student. Each chapter begins with a brief case study illuminating the issues discussed. It covers the main areas of business ethics, and deals with employment issues especially well.

  • Scharding, Tobey. This Is Business Ethics: An Introduction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

    This new entry into the textbook market is especially affordable. While it contains a wealth of case studies, it also devotes considerable attention to more abstract topics such as corporate personhood, political economy, and the financial system.

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