Towards Enforceable Bans on Illicit Businesses: From Moral Relativism to Human Rights

Journal of Business Ethics 119 (1):119-130 (2014)
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Many scholars and activists favor banning illicit businesses, especially given that such businesses constitute a large part of the global economy. But these businesses are commonly operated as if they are subject only to the ethical norms their management chooses to recognize, and as a result they sometimes harm innocent people. This can happen in part because there are no effective legal constraints on illicit businesses, and in part because it seems theoretically impossible to dispose definitively of arguments that support moral relativism. Progress is being made, however, towards a “second best” arrangement consisting of widespread institutional agreements regarding ethical norms. This development might eventually enable us to transcend moral relativism in some respects. Indeed, although some business ethicists who examine illicit business practices accept moral relativism, others attempt to surmount it. The latters’ endeavor, I show, is cross-cultural in nature in that it involves businesses that are deemed illicit in at least one but not every culture. I then recall some traditional solutions and their limits: ideological teachings are culture-specific, hence both temporally and spatially limited; legal constraints, though potentially helpful, are too diverse hence often narrow in reach. Especially problematic are defense industry businesses, which are inherently transcultural and, though uniquely harmful, are not effectively banned in any culture. Harm to quality of life (QoL) can, however, be measured. So I recommend institutional support for international human rights tied to QoL data as a workable way to counter moral relativism regarding illicit businesses.

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Edmund Byrne
Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis


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