On the Separation Thesis

Olsson Center Senior Fellows R. Edward Freeman and Jared D. Harris have written on the separation thesis in business. This thesis contends that there is a separate morality for business. Expressions such as “that’s a business decision” or “it’s business, not personal” contribute to this thesis.

R. Edward Freeman and Jared Harris

R. Edward Freeman and Jared Harris

In the “The Impossibility of the Separation Thesis” abstract, Freeman and Harris write “distinguishing ‘business’ concerns from ‘ethical’ values is not only an unfruitful and meaningless task, it is also an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, fruitless attempts to separate facts from values produce detrimental second-order effects, both for theory and practice, and should therefore be abandoned.”

“…Amartya Sen’s On Ethics and Economics, in which Sen (1987) specifically suggests that we have forgotten that economics is inherently entangled with matters of ethics, and argues that the false dichotomization of the two has impoverished discipline-based analysis in both economics and ethics.”

“Therefore the problem with the separation thesis is not so much that it actually separates business and ethics – an impossible task – but that it purports moral neutrality while surreptitiously encapsulating certain ethical values and assertions.”

“Granted, sometimes in research it may be useful to emphasize part of a narrative in the foreground, and shift other issues to the background. This is true in economics where many interesting ideas have been worked out by holding human complexity to a minimum. Likewise in ethics it is sometimes useful to focus solely on the complexity around difficult ideas like ‘fairness’ or ‘responsibility’ without having to discuss the complexities of global value creation and trade.”

Excerpted from the article, “The Impossibility of the Separation Thesis,” by R. Edward Freeman and Jared D. Harris, Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 4, October 2008, pages 541-548.

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