CAN we talk about “virtue” in business, and “good” organisations? Geoff Moore argues that we can. He is Professor of Business Ethics at Durham University, and has been working on “virtue ethics” for more than 20 years.
Recent decades have brought the recovery of “virtue ethics”, perhaps best known in church circles through Stanley Hauerwas’s work on character, and Richard Higginson’s pioneering theological work in business ethics at Ridley Hall. In contrast to the principled ethics of Kant or of Utilitarianism, virtue ethics focuses on the whole life character of a person in his or her context, and the qualities needed for that person’s flourishing. Moore draws heavily on the neo-Aristotelian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981, 1977) in applying virtue ethics not only to individuals, but also to the world of business, management, and organisations.
Moore explores what it means to be a good person, and describes human beings as on a “narrative quest” in which developing the story of our lives towards our own telos, or ultimate purpose, involves building virtuous habits into our “character”. Such a narrative affects, and is affected by, our relationships with others in communities, and within the institutions of which we are part. Virtue ethics begins not with “What should I do?” but with “What kind of person am I, or do I want to be?” to enable us to achieve our purpose in life.
Moore then applies this approach to the question what makes for a good organisation, and a good manager. MacIntyre supplies the categories of “internal goods” within an organisation: the pursuit of excellence in collaborative practices whose goods are sought for their own sake; and “external goods”, which are pursued for the sake of other goals — for example, institutional success.
Often, there is tension between, on the one hand, the pursuit of excellence in the relationships, collaboration, and character-building of the people involved in an institution, and, on the other, the need for economic success (acquisitiveness and competitiveness are frequently essential to sustain the institution). Managers have a specific part to play in holding that tension. For good or ill, organisations exist in a “moral space” and inevitably influence the lives of their members — towards virtue or corruption.
In the second half of the book, Moore explores in detail the implications of virtue ethics for individuals in their complex networks of connections and commitments, and the significance of meaningful work in contributing to the common good. He has some criticism of MacIntyre’s view of management, and develops his own proposals for the qualities of “virtuous managers”, and the characteristics of “virtuous organizations”.
This review cannot do justice to the variety of Moore’s illustrative examples, from architecture and accountancy to the performing arts and journalism. There are a few lines about churches as organisations, used to illustrate the importance of the ordering of various virtuous practices (worship, witness, liturgy, music) in harmony with each other.
Drawing on considerable academic research — his own and others’ — this is a very well-written book, clear and accessible, and making a significant contribution to understanding what organisations are, what they are for, and what is involved for their people, managers, and structures to be virtuous and work together towards the common good.
Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.
Virtue at Work: Ethics of individuals, managers and organizations
Church Times Bookshop £28