book spotlight: the moral background by gabriel abend
Gabriel Abend has just published The Moral Background, a book that investigates the rise of business ethics. It’s certainly a history of American business ethics, but it has a much more ambitious purpose. Abend uses the history of business ethics to illustrate and promote a specific sociological idea: “the moral background.”
This is an important idea so I’ll try to give you a sense of what it means. Roughly speaking, morality – the labeling of things as good or bad – depends on a number prior ideas and cognitive processes – the “background.” In Abend’s account, the “background” has many dimensions, such as a repertoire for argument, an ability to perceive certain people and actors as capable of moral actions, and tacit assumptions about how the social world works. In other words, moral judgments rely on a gut feeling of what should be moral, an understanding who can be moral, and tools for making arguments about good and bad.
Business ethics, it turns out, is an amazingly good case study because for a long time the concept didn’t exist in quite the same way as it does today. Now, there are business ethicists, a Better Business Bureau and over a century of arguments about what responsibilities business should have. I am not doing justice to this meaty book, but the book’s empirical chapters are quite fascinating (and very detailed) explorations of how the “moral background” of business was defined in the corporate office, the church and the business school.
This book represents, in a sense, the full expression of some emergent themes in cultural sociology that were well expressed in Isaac Reed’s book, which argued that what sociologists do (or ought to do) is study “cultural landscapes.” When you combine this book, Reed’s book, and others like Glaeser’s book, you see that cultural sociology has now made a notable move from the study of cognition (Griswold), toolkits (Swidler) and actions (Joas) and established, or re-established, the primacy of symbolic systems as the focus of its inquiry.