The history of “business ethics” depends on how one defines it. Although the term is used in several senses and varies somewhat for different countries, its current use originated in the United States and became widespread in the 1970s. The history of business ethics in the United States can be viewed as the intersection of three intertwined strands. Each of these in turn can be divided into at least two related branches.
The first strand, which I shall call the ethics-in-business strand, is
the long tradition of applying ethical norms to business, just as it has
been applied to other areas of social and personal life. This strand
can be divided further into the secular and the religious branches.
second strand is the development of an academic field, which has been
called business ethics.
It also has two main branches, one being the
philosophical business-ethics branch, which is normative and critical,
and the other the social-scientific branch, which is primarily
descriptive and empirical.
The third strand is the adoption of ethics or
at least the trappings of ethics in businesses. This again subdivides
into the integration of ethics into business and business practices on
the one hand and the commitment to corporate social responsibility on
Business ethics was introduced into Europe and Japan in the
1980s although the term did not translate easily, and the development in
each country varied from that in the United States because of
socio-political-economic differences. It then spread in a variety of
ways to other parts of the world, each time with a different local
emphasis and history. On the world-wide level it became associated with
the UN Global Compact, initiated by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi
Annan in an address to The World Economic Forum on January 31, 1999, and
officially launched in July, 2000.
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