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.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 14, 2014 at 12:08 am

4 Responses

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  1. I was wondering whether this seemingly new turn to cultural landscapes represents a turning back to Geertz. Even if there are differences, the idea of analyzing cultural landscapes evokes the idea of studying culture as Geertz proposed. Is there a meaningful difference?

    That said, I am looking forward to read the book!



    May 14, 2014 at 8:22 am

  2. @mekral: Check in tomorrow, but I think you are on target. It’s a return to Geertz, but combined with various philosophical and social science ideas about landscapes. It’s a way to add some structure to the argument.



    May 14, 2014 at 2:44 pm

  3. Thank you for the short review! I have some questions… Boltanski/Chiapello argue in their book “the new spirit of capitalism”, that the new rise of ethics since the 1980s is part of what they call a new spirit of capitalism (as a new set of justifications). (Boltanski’s approach to legitimation and common sense differs in several points from Geertz). A more Foucauldian approach (Rose etc) would see (new) business ethics as an attempt to intensify the self-governing of individuals and to lower the costs of control. Does Abend make reference to those approaches? And if so, how? How does he situate business ethics in a broader context? Is there a family likeness between “moral background” and doxa (Bourdieu)?
    Is there any chance, that Abend presents some of his thoughts here on orgtheory as a guest blogger?

    And last but not least I have a more general bleg. Since I’m not very familiar with the developments in American sociology (obviously) I’d like to know if there’s any good and critical work on ethics, that I should read…

    Liked by 1 person


    May 15, 2014 at 9:22 am

  4. @Juju: Yes, I could ask Professor Abend about this…



    May 15, 2014 at 5:12 pm

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