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Empirical and Normative Theories in Business Ethics

The article by Donaldson (1994) argues that since two theories, empirical, or descriptive, and normative, or prescriptive, are opposing in nature, they take completely opposite logic and, therefore, cannot be relevantly combined in a single integrative theory. However, Weaver and Trevino (1994) discuss three approaches to the combination of the two theories, including parallelism, symbiosis, and integration.

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When explaining the rationale behind the denial of the possibility to merge the two theories, Donaldson (1994) states that “a half-normative, half-empirical methodology in business ethics will lead to confusion, dilettantism, and, eventually, irrelevance” (p. 157). It is impossible, in the author’s opinion, to combine an approach that prioritizes the ideal norms of a research issue with an approach that tends to investigate it from an objective point of view.

The events or principles viewed from the empirical perspective are perceived as factual information without any regard to the desired outcomes. Secondly, the normative is addressed from an opposite view, where the statements are used as guides to actions prioritizing the desired outcomes. The author appeals to other philosophers’ particular attempts to combine the empirical with the normative.

Donaldson (1994) describes how naturalistic approaches fail to become mainstream philosophical doctrines due to their invalidity. He demonstrates the irrelevance of the integration of the two approaches by referring to the attempt to explain ethical issues by naturalistic, or factual means. Indeed, it is obvious that most people can easily come to an agreement on some factual information, such as racial discrimination. However, different people will always have different views on the ethical side of the problem.

Besides, Donaldson (1994) refers to the failed attempt to integrate the two approaches in naturalism that is called Hume’s Guillotine. It states that the naturalistic approach to determine any natural predicate as good does not exclude the possibility to ask an open question asking, “Is what the normal, knowledgeable person wants in twentieth century North America good?” (Donaldson, 1994, p. 160). In the author’s opinion, such naturalistic fallacy undermines the potency of relevant hybrid theory. Such an omnipresent dichotomy between “is” and “ought” imposes significant obstacles to the relevance of an integrative empirical/normative theory.

Weaver and Trevion (1994) discuss all three approaches to the relations between empirical and normative theories (parallel, symbiotic, and integrative) and conclude that symbiosis of prescription and description has the most relevant future for business ethics. Such a relation between the two approaches implies the interchanging of ideas between them without fully merging into one framework. Similarly, Donaldson (1994) also refers to the symbiotic connection as the only possible form of a combination of the empirical and normative.

The author states that there are two issues where the empirical and the normative could come to a near intersection. They are natural humanity, on the one hand, and the promises and ideals it tends to follow, on the other. Donaldson (1994) explains that although human ‘is’ (nature) and ‘ought’ the ethical ideals are different, still, “healthy human development serves as a critical resource in drawing our ethical map” (p. 167). Therefore, this is the closest connection between the empirical and normative approaches, which is why they cannot merge but only combine in symbiosis. Finally, the author concludes by emphasizing the importance of separate utilization of the two theories. He claims that only such an approach will provide more relevance and clarity to the field of ethical philosophy.

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Donaldson, T. (1994). When integration fails: The logic of prescription and description in business ethics. Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(2), 157-169.

Weaver, G. R., & Trevino, L. K. (1994). Normative and empirical business ethics: Separation, marriage of convenience, or marriage of necessity? Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(2), 129-143.

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