Sustainable persons, sustainable companies. On the ethical meaning of sustainability for business ethics.
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Although the flexible nature of the concept sustainability has allowed various stakeholders to adapt the concepts to their own purposes, its conceptual ambiguity hinders the academic debate and the implementation of sustainability measures by companies. This is problematic, because sustainability issues require urgent action. Therefore, this thesis explores what would be the added value if academic and professional business ethicists integrate the ethical dimensions of sustainability in their approach to sustainability issues. Answering this question goes beyond existing approaches in business ethics. I propose to use a new type of methodology – the ‘BEST approach’ – that combines insights from different sub disciplines of applied ethics, including business ethics (‘BE’), sustainability ethics (‘S’), and the ethics of technology (‘T’). After exploring the way business ethicists currently approach sustainability, Chapter 2 critically examines the integrative approach to sustainability ethics by Becker (2012), in which the idea of a sustainable person is central. Two main problems with Becker’s account are identified: i) the lack of integration of moral concepts that go beyond the subject-object dichotomy into his normative framework, and ii) the lack of an integrative account of the role of companies in his approach to sustainability ethics. Chapter 3 addresses the first problem by discussing the merits of a posthumanist ethical framework, developed in the field of the ethics of technology by Verbeek (2011). Verbeek’s normative approach allows Becker to systematically move beyond the modernist ontological division between human and the rest of the world. Chapter 4 shows that the role of companies in sustainability ethics is two-fold: as a moral agent, and as a collective of persons. It specifically focuses on the relation between companies as collectives of persons with regard to the development of sustainable persons. It is argued that corporate responsibility and integrity, traditionally the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ looking parts of business ethics, are actually two ways of ‘doing’ sustainability. The final chapter brings together the insights from the BEST approach, and concludes with implications of the conceptual and ethical work done in this thesis for business ethics.