What is more important for business success: behaving ethically or earning a good reputation?  What then is the role of ethics in the context of business management?

For quite some time “business is business” was en vogue.  Yet the financial crisis and other scandals led us to a situation where social responsibility, sustainability and good reputation are appealing and part of any successful business. But this new trend does not give by itself an answer to our question. The point —some will say— is what we understand by success. And the answer to that takes us back to Renaissance Italy.

Until the Italian cinquecento the common assumption in Christian Europe was that eternal salvation was way more important than earthly success (power, money, pleasure). So no one dared to give a clear answer in public to our question, although almost everybody knew the unpleasant truth.

Niccolò Machiavelli, Business Ethics IESE Blog
Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccoló Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat, gave his own response in The Prince —a little treaty written five hundred years ago and published posthumously in 1532. Antony Jay translated it into contemporary business management language in his acclaimed book Management and Machiavelli (1967).

The Prince is popularly known as an apology of fraud and manipulation in political action. But we should read it carefully. Carl Schmitt, a well know follower of Machiavelli’s political realism, once wrote: “Machiavelli, had he been a Machiavellian, would sooner have written an edifying book rather than his ill-reputed Prince.”

For sure, Machiavelli always thought religion and morals were crucial for political life. But he broke with the moral teachings of Christian tradition, stating that leaders had to learn (unlearn) how to violate morals to obtain good political results. He thus cut the link between political prudence and ethics, considering politics the science of power. This was not a mere apology of immorality, but something needed for the greater or basic good of peaceful social life: “The ends justify the means.

Weber rationalized this moral approach as the politician’s “ethics of responsibility,” opposed to the saint’s “ethics of conviction.” This has some features in common with what English philosophy called utilitarianism (closely linked to economic logics); Americans later labeled as consequentialism (so many times invoked in security and defense issues); and Germans significantly call Erfolgsethik (ethics of success).

Leo Strauss, a remarkable and original interpreter of Machiavelli, wrote “Economism is Machiavellianism come to age.”  At the end of the day the paradigm of individuals as maximizers of utility is based on the self-interest centered man of Machiavelli .

Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli's Il Principe
Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiavelli’s Il Principe

But Machiavelli was aware of the importance of moral reputation. He thought that a leader should be believed as morally trustworthy if he wanted to gain and preserve power. Moreover, he fought against corruption and in favor of civic virtue. But this ancient virtue was for him only the shell of Christian virtues: He viewed the strength of the lion and the astuteness of the fox as models to be followed.

So in fact an immoral business culture is not Machiavellian at all. The current lack of trust and widespread corruption is even less Machiavellian than we think . On the contrary, social responsibility, sustainability and reputation are a perfectly Machiavellian response to the crisis. This is actually Machiavellianism at its best: successful.

So The Prince is not to be read as a handbook for political maneuvering, or as a mere defense of arbitrariness. That approach would make us incapable of understanding the lasting and deep impact of Machiavellianism in contemporary politics, and by the way, in the practice of Business Management.

Summing up, there are three elements of Machiavellianism in our current ethical landscape:

  • The stress on reputation, with no real care for actual moral behaviour
  • The centrality of success as practical criterion, and the utility of strength and astuteness for achieving that goal.
  • The narrow materialistic approach to human action (economism).

What is more important for business success: behaving ethically or earning a good reputation? What then is the role of ethics in the context of business management?

Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Nutdanai Apikhomboonwaroot / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Machiavelli was right in many senses. The mere appearance of virtue is enough for achieving certain goals by taking advantage of necessitá (opportunities) and weathering the unforeseeable random factors of Fortuna. Aquinas himself knew that, and warned against the moral danger of corrupted forms of prudence (fraud, astuteness, deceit, etc.) precisely because they were compatible with apparent success. And classical wisdom reminds us, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” since good reputation is a moral good and even a right of the person.

So the answer to our original question depends on our definition of success. In the first instance, ethics is about defining success.

Make no mistake: We still live within a Machiavellian framework . For many of us business success is the material, measurable, earthly outcome that requires certain management abilities and the adequate administration of social legitimacy. For that reason Business Ethics should focus on re-defining success , placing management and business activity in the broader context of individual, corporate and social life considered as a whole.

Otherwise we will be assuming the Machiavellian definition of success. And that will limit the role of Ethics to an extrinsic moralizing code that has nothing to do with practice.