Desktop version

Home arrow Management arrow Achieving ethical excellence


HARRIS, H., WIJESINGHE, G., & McKENZIE, S. (EDS.). (2013).


Brenden E. Kendall

The edited collection The Heart of the Good Institution: Virtue Ethics as a Framework for Responsible Management is set to an audacious purpose. The book's contributors explore the applicability and soundness of virtue ethics, primarily and nearly entirely as articulated by Alasdair MacIntyre, to the domain of organization management. Consider, then, that MacIntyre argued pointedly that management is not a 'practice,' a concept he intended to account for human activity marked by some good-in-itself - human endeavor in which excellence may be pursued and perfected without necessary reference to 'external' standards or outcomes. And so, despite MacIntyre's repeated use of management as an exemplar of modern work unworthy of being labeled a practice, this collection aims to argue against his position on this point while applying and extending the MacIntyrean framework to business, management, and other organiza- tional contexts.

Editors Harris, Wijesinghe, and McKenzie have crafted a tight, slim, and thematically consistent volume that will be indispensable to scholars and students with twin interests in business and virtue ethics. In particular, those working with MacIntyre's ideas will find the thorough and compli- mentary explorations and applications of his ideas to serve, overall, as a cornerstone for their own work. At the same time, readers should note the book's particularity. It is particular in that it has a singular, specific, or narrow point of view rather than a universal or general one. The title promotes 'virtue ethics as a framework for responsible management,' but it might well have read 'MacIntyreanism as a framework for responsible management.' Consider, for example, Eric Fein's essay on virtue and leader-member exchange, which opens the second section of the book. After a little more than one page broadly discussing virtue's relevance to the scholarship of leadership, Fein writes, 'We now turn to examine how such theories of leadership fit with the theory of goods and practices proposed by Alasdair MacIntyre' (p. 77). Moves such as this are common in this book. I offer this example not as a roundabout criticism, but as a caution to readers who might go seeking something else in this volume. It is not fairly characterized as a broad, varied, polyvocal exploration of the full range of virtue ethics.

This collection's focus and unifying attention to the details of MacIntyre's work does have its virtues, if you will. Such value is evident in the editors' introductions to the volume and its various sections; they are succinct, clear about the book's arrangement, and thoughtful but parsimo- nious in suggesting ways of reading the individual contributions. It is in the book's introduction that the editors detail the project's history, where the reader learns it was born from a series of conversations at various work- shops, conferences, and professional site visitations among scholars working in Australia and the United Kingdom. The Heart of the Good Institution has a tone appropriate to this history. The book is a readerly text, amenable to skipping about, back-tracking, and skimming through the text to find points of explicit cross-referencing as well as implicit overlap. The book is a con- versation about MacIntyre and the world of management among a group of people known to one another, who happen to share very similar sets of interests. Students and scholars not yet well-versed in the MacIntyrean perspective on virtue ethics may have the sense that they're eavesdropping on a conversation among colleagues taking turns during a roundtable session, all of whom share common interests and the same basic intellectual starting point.

As such, readers new to MacIntyre or a virtue ethics approach to the study of organizing need not worry that the text will be inaccessible. Many of the entries spend time rehashing MacIntyre's notions of practice, institu- tion, goods internal and external, and such. Further, the book's first section clearly locates these concepts within MacIntyre's larger arguments and logi- cal systems, as well as in relation to the book's own project. It's a bit like this cliche´ : if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Readers receive many introductions to MacIntyre's ideas, put to use in a range of theoreti- cal and applied scholarship. If a particular explanation seems not quite to work for you, one of the many other explications of what MacIntyre 'could have meant' or 'can mean' is sure to make sense after careful reading.

In part, the pedagogical value of the book in regard to MacIntyre's phi- losophy is due to the editorial arrangement of the book, which is divided into 13 chapters that are organized into four parts. As noted earlier, the introduction to the book is a straightforward accounting of the content and purposes of the book and its sections, and it should serve readers new to this area well if they intend to sample from the book at first. The editors' introduction nicely clarifies that the second section of the book expands the discussion of 'triad of themes [introduced in the first section] - manage- ment, practice and virtue' (p. 2). Such economy of expression and transpar- ency of purpose pertains throughout all of the remaining editorial remarks.

Part I of the book, titled 'Can Management Be a Practice?' lays out the key challenge of the collection and also provides four nice touchstones for making sense of the remaining parts. Moore's reconsideration of MacIntyre, reprinted from a frequently referenced 2008 Business Ethics Quarterly article, leads off the book. Its inclusion up front was an ideal editorial choice, for Moore carefully deconstructs MacIntyre's framework, lucidly explaining the interrelationships of the 'new' virtue ethics' key components - including virtues, goods, practices, and institutions. Demonstrating how this approach might be enlarged and refined by the introduction of the concept of secondary practices, Moore argues compel- lingly for the recuperation of management to the status of 'practice' because it may/should serve the maintenance of institutions, ground their claims to legitimacy, and be important to maintaining the preconditions for organizational members' virtuousness. In chapter 3, O'Malley uses MacIntyre's own propositions to counter the claim that management does not qualify as a practice, and therefore may not be a site/resource for the manifestation and development of ethical excellence. Yet in chapter 4, the essential argument is that management may be construed as a practice as MacIntyre defines it, but this time Provis centers the argument on the essential qualities of regard for others, perfected intuition, and judgment - in a word, phronesis - for excellent managerial performance. To conclude Part I, Harris offers up a terse but obviously practicable discussion of cour- age, its prerequisites, and its application to business management. Strangely, however (and in part because Harris is one of the editors of a volume explicitly centered on MacIntyre's work), this essay considers a much wider array of virtue theorists than the entries prior to or following it. MacIntyre is referenced in passing at the conclusion of the chapter; in the end, the chapter is not lessened, but it does at times seem somewhat out of place given the positioning of MacIntyre's framework as (near to) funda- mental to most of the book's entries.

Such utter concentration on proving, disproving, applying, or extending MacIntyre can leave the reader with a troublesome feeling about the book's utility or purposes. Part II of the book, which addresses concepts of leader- ship and virtue (or its failure), plays out this problematic. At times, the essays seem to play a bit of what I call 'Where's Waldo?' with MacIntyre and his framework. The Waldo books were a popular children's series in which readers/viewers were presented with a range of complex, highly populated, raucous scenarios. In depictions of unruly sporting events to disorganized prehistorical Neanderthal 'societies,' one looks across a large image replete with people of all types engaged in an orgy of activity. Somewhere amidst the chaos is one distinctive figure - a slender, smiling, and bespectacled man in a red-and-white striped shirt and stocking cap, often carrying a backpack and walking stick, named Waldo. The books simply asked, where's Waldo? The patient observer would sooner or later exclaim, 'There's Waldo!' The question is, of course: so then, what? In the case of The Heart of the Good Institution, we might ask, what does a MacIntyrean framework allows us to see or do that would otherwise be invisible or impossible? How can the practices of actual practitioners be meaningfully altered when educators and scholars take up such a perspec- tive in their work? Beyond the fact that MacIntyre's theory can be applied to certain contexts or put into conversation with theories outside the realm of philosophy proper, why should it be or how is it enhanced when placed in such a conversation? Too often, the take-away messages of this collection seem to be that MacIntyre can, in fact, be used to talk about management. (There's Waldo.) This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course, but some- thing about which scholars and students employing this book should be mindful, especially if they come to it with the express purpose of expanding their base of knowledge about MacIntyre or the application of virtue ethics to the study of business organizations.

Nevertheless, the entries throughout this book and in Part II, in particu- lar, offer special starting points for discussion about the intersection of business management, virtue ethics, and sundry theoretical tools. At the outset of Part II, Fein introduces leader-member exchange theory into the mix, concentrating on the significance of leader(ship) development in the process of excellent management qua ethical management. Carrassi's seventh chapter details a scheme he calls 'conscious corporate growth,' briefly positioning it as in-line with MacIntyrean principles. Readers look- ing for a 'toolbox' for particular management objectives in light of ethical principles will appreciate this article, though not addressed are concerns about whether or not growth is a legitimate, unquestioned external good of, in, or for business organizations. Grant and McGhee turn their atten- tion toward vice, providing a neat example of the utility of coupling ethical analysis and moral disapprobation. Their identification and critique of organizational narcissism draws from a range of theorists but retains focus, ultimately explicating why this sort of flexible yet pointed ethical reflection may provide a corrective to recent patterns of corruption and maladaptive managerial practice in the financial industry (in New Zealand, in their case). Chapter 9, by Rusak and McKenzie, is less carefully argued, but provocatively tests the idea of practice against the customs of cultures of user-generated content in social webspace. In particular, they query whether there is a nascent and novel ethic in the production, redistribution, and refraction of discourses and cultural artifacts on YouTube. Rather than moving the discussion forward definitively, this final chapter of Part II suggests unique challenges to and opportunities for the MacIntyrean framework in the 21st century.

Part III presents three case studies employing MacIntyre's version of virtue ethics as a primary heuristic. Wilcox spends a good deal of time developing and exploring the concept of 'embedded moral agency,' then turns to a case study of human resource managers dealing with the consequences of organizational change and market-oriented administrative dictates. A rich, complex, emotional picture is painted of the managers in this study. There are clear echoes of discussions of moral stress, courage, judgment, and such from earlier in the book, but Wilcox settles largely for arguing that managers struggle to achieve virtue in conditions that delimit and even distort the moral meanings of their work, but which are never fully determinative. This particular case invites further reflection on how the full range of concepts integral to MacIntyre's schema might be brought to bear in a longer treatment of such a case that goes beyond demonstrat- ing the 'applicability' of the practice concept, primarily. What, for instance, might be said of resistance, strategic ambiguity, emotional labor, and the like when seen not as ways to enrich the concept of practice alone, but to further the discussion of moral dilemmas, reductionism, face-saving, or defensive communication in management - all of which are on display clearly in this case? Wijesinghe presents a particularly rich case study of hospitality work, providing both historical and cultural context as well as rich qualitative data ideal for discussion among students regarding work life, work as craft, and the possibility/production of virtue in situ. Closing out Part III, McKenzie situates the contemporary notion of organizational sustainability as a practice, arguing that virtue ethics of this sort is an ideal way in which to conceptualize and mobilize sustainability in business (and through managers' work, he notes in a few helpful references to earlier entries in the volume).

The Heart of the Good Institution closes with Part IV, an editorial introduction and Schwartz's discussion of narrative and the work of three very different authors: Iris Murdoch, Anthony Trollope, and Peter Drucker. These authors, who write work within and beyond the domain of literature, are used by Schwartz to argue that narrative, storytelling, and literary arts are essential to the success to date and continuation of virtue ethics (and other philosophical pursuits). His argument is important and connects well with the case studies in Part III. Still, Schwartz's contribution seems a bit out of place as a closing. The editors make a good faith effort to provide some closure by inserting several connective and summative footnotes in the final chapter. Nevertheless, I desired a greater sense of resolution and direction from the concluding chapter of such a focused collection of essays and studies.

Ultimately and indeed, this collection is an attempt to demonstrate the viability of a MacIntyrean approach to business ethics research and theory, and to begin 'telling the story' of how it might be more widely adopted in scholarship of that sort. It offers a thorough defense of the applicability of MacIntyre to management and business organizing. Certainly for library collections this volume is an easy choice for acquisition, given its relevance to multiple scholarly conversations. So too is this book an easy recommen- dation for scholars and students who wish to take MacIntyre into the heart of their work. In fact, the collection's own title suggests why this is the case. At first, given the overwhelming emphasis on management as a practice, one might be lead to believe that this book's ultimate argument is that managers are 'the heart of the good institution.' After careful reading, I would suggest an alternative response to the text and the promise hinted at by its title. The heart may be exactly where we wouldn't expect it: not at the core, but in the interstices, the limen, the in-between spaces. For, while this collection at times obsessively centers on the notion of practice in order to tie it to management, much more is suggested about the complexity of managerial practice, contemporary work, and the manifestation of individual and collective virtue(s). Called forth throughout the text are discourses and narratives, personal experiences, design logics and ideologies, practices and performances, organizations as containers and as communities, and more. Perhaps, then, the greatest value of this collection is the initiation of a scholarly conversation about ethics and organizing that does not so much 'locate' the heart/soul of organizations as show us the way in which MacIntyre's work (and careful ethical reasoning in general, for that matter) provides connections, enables scrupulous analysis of complexity and contra- diction, and can aid real people in charting the path for a good life in itself, with others, and as members of our greater communities.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics