Contractarian business ethics (CBE) is in great vogue in the present study of corporate morality. Its stated ambition is to provide better practical guidance than the more general ethical theories of business ethics, such as Kantianism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics or the stakeholder model. But how good is this new trend in business ethics theorizing? This article aims to assess CBE's credentials as a social contract argument. For this purpose, it embarks on a comparative analysis of the use of the social contract model in two earlier domains: political authority and social justice. Building on this comparison, it then develops four criteria for any future CBE. To apply the social contract model properly to the domain of corporate morality, it should be: (1) self-disciplined, i.e. not aspire to results beyond what the contract model can realistically establish; (2) argumentative, i.e. provide principles that are demonstrative results of the contractarian method; (3) task-directed, i.e. it should be clear what the social contract thought-experiment is intended to model; and (4) domain-specific, i.e. the contractarian choice situation should be tailored to the defining problems of corporate morality.

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ERIM Top-Core Articles
Organization Studies
Erasmus Research Institute of Management

Wempe, B. (2008). Contractarian Business Ethics: Credentials and Design Criteria. Organization Studies, 29(10), 1337–1355. doi:10.1177/0170840608093546