Business and Ethics

Business and Ethics

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings”. – Albert Sweitzer

“Business’ is a highly politicized term in South Africa as it is in many countries around the world.

Business support groups will point to its growth and wealth creating potential, its role in new ideas and innovation and its results in terms of efficiency and impact. Those from the anti-business lobby will highlight its unequal outcomes, its associations with colonialism, capitalism, racism and corruption and its entrapment of the poor.

The word “business” has its roots in the Old English term “bisignes,” which originally referred to “anxiety” or “care.” Over time, its meaning evolved in Middle English to become a “state of being much occupied or engaged” and the spelling of the word changed to “busyness”. Its meaning then evolved to include an element of “duty” and by the 17th century, encompassed activities related to trade, commerce, and occupation. (1)

In this sense the term is quite neutral and describes an essential part of human existence – the necessity to organise activities in order to be able to survive as a species. Business is not therefore a choice – whether to have it or not – it is a given and the real question is what kind of business do we wish to support?

For some, the answer might be that “all business is good business” but it is not difficult to see the shortcomings of this approach – business is capable of generating great harm and even evil. This is where many governments seek to step in, advocating their role in regulating and mitigating the harm that businesses can cause. Many NGO’s might see this as their purpose as well.

But what if governments are themselves guilty of harm and corruption? Alliances are formed and harm is perpetuated – we have seen this play itself out in South Africa over the past years where those who suffer most are the poor and marginalised.

This raises the critical role of ethics in business. Derived from the Greek word “ethikos,” ethics delineates what is right or wrong, guiding individuals, organizations, and societies toward moral conduct and responsibility. (2)

Today “ethics” has lost its way somewhat in the business education space with the drive towards more and more “fast food” education at the lowest possible price. It is increasingly a sachet of mayonnaise for the burger rather than an essential part of the burger itself.

However, with new skills and technology like AI, students of today, most of whom will have to be lifelong learners, will be empowered and called upon to make really important ethical decisions at different points in their careers and their own lives.

For those who have seen the film Oppenheimer this might not extend as far as the decisions  that he had to make in weighing the merits of the defeat of Nazism against the danger of the future uses of nuclear science and technology, but your decisions could well have major impacts on the lives of those around you.

Acquiring business skills is therefore a hugely empowering exercise irrespective of the career you choose for yourself. Being able to understand economics, to read financial reports, to market a product or to set up a production process does not define you as a person – it is how you choose to apply those powerful skills which is definitive.

You don’t need to elect whether to be in a “business camp” or an “NGO or government camp” – business skills are relevant to all areas of social and economic activity. Persons who work in any sector will benefit from having a set of business skills and tools which they can call on to employ in any ethical way they decide.

Ethical foundations are derived from many sources – your parents, your family, school, friends, churches and the like. We often take these foundations for granted and pay too little attention to our own ethical decisions preferring more to focus on others on social media, especially when there is a big name out there who is on a slippery slope down.

The opportunity to deeply interrogate the debates around ethics and the kind of choices that one will be confronted with in business, is not one to be lightly turned down. So, you do want to ensure therefore, when you make decisions about where and what to study, that you do consider institutions which have long, meaningful histories of ethical conduct and integrity.

Perhaps paradoxically for some, business skills are a critical element to countering unethical practices. Administrative failures often arise because people do not have the necessary business understanding and thereby, through inadequate oversight and accountability mechanisms, individual are enabled to exploit loopholes and engage in illicit practices for personal enrichment. It is sad to see how some well known education institutions are being closed because of their failure to follow compliance requirements.

Real solutions to South Africa’s business and ethical challenges may well not come from the top. They are more likely to be driven from the bottom up where civil society takes a stand and sets an ethical bedrock based on integrity, respect and responsibility to counter certain political narratives about business which erode trust in institutions, prevent economic growth, and perpetuate inequality.


Geoff Schreiner

Head Business Studies

Cornerstone Institute

21 March 2024

(1)    Etymology Online. (n.d.). Harvard. (

(2)    Etymology Online. (n.d.). Harvard. (

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