An Ethics Model of the Firm

Beyond MacIntyre’s practice–institution framework

This conference paper was prepared for the 2022 Annual Conference of the Society for Business Ethics. It was written in response to peer review of the original submission. You can download the full text of the conference paper below.


Business ethics is a broad church. In its pews sit familiar groups: consequentialists, weighing costs and benefits; deontologists, discerning human rights; and virtue ethicists, aspiring towards flourishing. Each group includes diverse schools of thought. But some schools appear more exclusive than others. One such school is the virtue ethics of Alasdair MacIntyre. As the most cited virtue ethic in the field, it is exclusive because outstanding in influence (Ferrero and Sison 2014). But the kind of exclusion that concerns us here is more significant. It is a type of moral exclusion, whereby intuitively good human activities—from teaching to management—are treated with moral uncertainty or even moral disdain.

For MacIntyre, teaching and management are not ‘practices’—a concept central to his ethical theory (MacIntyre 2007; Macintyre and Dunne 2002)—and, as such, they do not engage directly, if at all, the virtues, which are associated with ‘practices’ alone. Thus, outside of virtue’s domain, they are, in effect, morally excluded.

Commentators have criticised this aspect of MacIntyre’s thought for decades, bringing about a gradual expansion of MacIntyrean ‘practice’. Now, teaching and management are able to fit within its conceptual space (Brewer 1997; Macintyre and Dunne 2002; Beabout 2012; Rocchi, Ferrero, and Beadle 2021). As faithful disciples, these friendly critics stay within MacIntyre’s school to rightly account for a wide array of ethically salient human activities. But, assuming some value in the effort, what might moral inclusion look like if we were to step outside of the now-entrenched ‘practice’ framework?

Drawing upon the wider Aristotelian tradition, I critique the MacIntyrean notion of ‘practice’ in two ways. First, instead of asking whether management, teaching, or finance is a ‘practice’, I propose returning virtue to its less circumscribed domain—the field of human action in general. This proposal resists the idea of work-based in- and out-groups.

Second, instead of contrasting ‘practices’ (like medicine) with MacIntyre’s notion of ethically suspect ‘institutions’ (like hospitals) (Beabout 2012), I suggest accounting for virtue in business through the morally neutral concept of social action—that is, the coordination of multiple human acts aimed toward a common end (Finnis 1998; Ekins 2012). This second proposal resists the distraction of negative portrayals of institutions and thereby focuses our attention to one of the chief tasks of practical wisdom—namely, the moral assessment of all human actions according to their objects, ends, and circumstances (Aristotle 2009).

What this paper seeks to advance, then, is moral inclusion within a virtue ethical framework. Despite MacIntyrean suggestions to the contrary, all human activity is—and should be understood as—a locus for virtue’s exercise and ongoing development.

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Faculty of Theology and Religion
University of Oxford
Oxford, OX2 6GG, United Kingdom

© Edward A. David 2020-2023

Published by Edward A. David

Responsible business. Law and religion. Ethics in public life.

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