Fundamentals of Order Ethics: Law, Business Ethics and the Financial Crisis

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During the current financial crisis, the need for an alternative to a laissez-faire ethics of capitalism (the Milton Friedman view) becomes clear. I argue that we need an order ethics which employs economics as a key theoretical resource and which focuses on institutions for implementing moral norms. I will point to some aspects of order ethics which highlight the importance of rules, e.g. global rules for the financial markets. In this regard, order ethics (“Ordnungsethik”) is the complement of the German conception of “Ordnungspolitik” which also stresses the importance of a regulatory framework. This framework is needed not to tame the market, but to make it more profitable in the long run. The conception of order ethics relies heavily on contractarianism, especially on James Buchanan’s work. Unlike many other conceptions of ethics, it does not start with an aim to achieve, but rather with an account of what the social world – in which ethical norms have to be implemented – is like. Our social world is different from the pre-modern one. Pre-modern societies played zero-sum games in which people could only gain significantly at the expense of others. And the types of ethics that we are still used to today have been developed within these pre-modern societies. Modern societies, by contrast, can be characterised – by economists and other social theorists alike – as societies with continuous growth. This growth has only been made possible by the modern competitive market economy which enables everyone to pursue his own interests within a carefully devised institutional system. In this system, positive sum games are played, which makes it in principle possible to improve the position of every individual at the same time. Most kinds of ethics, however, resulting from the conditions of pre-modern societies, ignore the possibility of win-win-situations and instead require us to be moderate, to share, to sacrifice, as this would have been functional in zero-sum games. These conceptions distinguish – in more or less strict ways – between self-interest and altruistic motivation. Self-interest, more often than not, is ultimately seen as something evil. Such an ethics cannot be functional in modern societies. Ethical concepts lag behind. Within zero-sum games, it was necessary to call for temperance, for moderate profits, or for a condemnation of lending money at interest. Within positive-sum games, however, the morally desired result of a social process cannot be brought about by changes in motivation, by switching from ‘egoistic’ to ‘altruistic’ motivation. The second theoretical element introduced by order ethics is the distinction between actions and rules, which was already mentioned. Traditional ethics concerns actions: It calls directly for changes in behaviour. This is a consequence of pre-modern conditions as reconstructed before: People in the pre-modern world were only able to control their actions, not so much however the conditions of their actions. In particular, rules like laws, constitutions, social structures, the market order, and also ethical norms have remained stable for centuries. In modern societies, this situation has changed entirely. The rules governing our actions have increasingly come under our control. In this situation, ethics has to focus on rules. Morality must be incorporated in incentive-compatible rules. Direct calls for changes in behaviour without changes in the rules lead only to an erosion of compliance with moral norms. Individuals that continue to behave ‘morally’ will be singled out, because the incentives have not been changed. Moral norms which are to be justified cannot require people to abstain from pursuing their own advantage. People abstain from taking ‘immoral’ advantages only if adherence to ethical norms yields greater benefits over the planned sequence of actions than defection in the single case. Thus ‘abstaining’ is not abstaining in the long run, it is rather an investment in expectations of long-term benefits. By adhering to ethical norms, I become a reliable partner for interactions. The norms do indeed constrain my actions, but they simultaneously expand my options in interactions. And people consent to rules only if these rules hold greater advantages for them, at least in the long run. In general, ethics cannot require people to abandon their individual calculation of advantages. However, it may suggest improving one’s calculation, by calculating in the long run rather than in the short run, and by taking into account the interests of our fellows, as we depend on their acceptance for reaching an optimal level of well-being, especially in a globalized world full of interdependence. The problem of implementation can now be placed at the beginning of a conception of order ethics, justified with reference to the conditions of modern societies I have sketched. Under the conditions of pre-modern societies, an ethics of temperance had evolved that posed simultaneously the problems of implementation and justification. The implementation of well-justified norms or standards could then be regarded as unproblematic, because the social structures allowed for a direct face-to-face enforcement of norms. Pre-modern societies not only favored an ethics of temperance, they also had the instrument of face-to-face-sanctions within their smaller and non-anonymous communities. This instrument is no longer functional in modern anonymous societies, and so we have to face up to the problem of implementation right at the start of our ethical conception. Simultaneously, an order ethics relies on the implementation of sanctions for enforcing incentive-compatible rules. In modern societies, rules and institutions, to a large extent, must fulfil the tasks that were, in pre-modern times, fulfilled by moral norms, which in turn were sanctioned by face-to-face sanctions. Norm implementation in modern societies thus works by setting adequate incentives in order to prevent the erosion of moral norms, which would happen if ‘moral’ actors were systematically threatened with exploitation by other, less ‘moral’ actors. This conception of order ethics is then elaborated further in the area of business ethics.
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Archival date: 2013-06-13
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