Journal of Business Ethics
Human Dignity-Centered Business Ethics: A Conceptual Framework
for Business Leaders
William J. Mea1,2 · Ronald R. Sims3
Received: 19 December 2016 / Accepted: 18 May 2018
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018
This paper is a contribution to the discussion of how religious perspectives can improve business ethics. Two such perspectives are in natural law of antiquity and recent Catholic social doctrine and teaching (CSD/T). This paper develops a conceptual framework from natural law and CSD/T that business leaders can adopt to build an ethos of humanistic management.
This “Human Dignity-Centered” framework fills the gap between time-tested Christian norms and contemporary firm-leaders’
concrete needs. “Human dignity” is used as a rhetorical device to convey the idea that firms are composed of dynamic social
networks, with an ultimate purpose of serving human needs. Ultimately, the principles and virtues the framework employs
have a logic that should inspire excellence, as ethical practices and concern for human welfare lay a foundation for long-term
business prosperity. In a one-frame visual representation, this paper portrays: firm leadership challenges; a transforming
ethical prism of principles and virtues; and results and feedback mechanisms. The accompanying narrative describes each
element and how each affects humanistic management. Finally, illustrative company examples and questions are provided
to illustrate how the framework can be used to benefit human flourishing. The framework provides an adjunct to current
formulations of improving managerial excellence.
Keywords Human dignity · Business ethics · Spirituality · Leadership · Management models
Humans are naturally repelled by evil and inspired by
goodness, logic, and beauty. However, the pressures of
modern business culture make it difficult to sort out what
lies between. “What is the right thing to do?” can seem a
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the views of the Office of
Management and Budget, the Administration, or the United States.
The authors have no financial interest in or ownership of any
companies mentioned in the article.
* Ronald R. Sims
William J. Mea
U.S. Office of Management & Budget, Washington, DC,
Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA
Raymond A. Mason School of Business, College of William
and Mary, 101 Ukrop Way, Williamsburg, VA 23185‑8795,
perplexing question as one climbs the ladder pole of success. Spectacular ethical disasters in recent decades should
force us to look for new sources to improve business ethics.
Increasingly prescriptive laws (e.g., Sarbanes–Oxley Act of
2002, Public Law 107–204) in legalistic frameworks offer
one approach to ethics. But without a foundation in moral
norms, businesses cannot prosper in the long run. Firms that
intend to endure need to value human dignity and build a
culture of humanistic management. As Melé (2009b) states,
the “whole ethical problem lies in acting in accordance with
the real good, in spite of the apparent attraction an apparent
good exerts” (p. 234).
One alternative response to corporate failings is a newfound interest in faith-inspired lessons to improve corporate
ethics (Emerson and McKinney 2010). Recent interest in a
religious dimension of business life corresponds these topics appearing in top-tier journals (McGhee and Grant 2015;
Hunsaker 2016; Melé and Fontrodona 2017). This paper is
a further contribution to this discussion.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a practical ethical framework for just and effective managerial practices.
“Ethics are well-founded standards of right and wrong that
W. J. Mea, R. R. Sims
prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of
rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific
virtues” (Velasquez 2011, p. 10). We explore the question,
“How can we provide a practical framework drawn from
time-tested principles and virtues, one that leaders can use
to build a humanistic management culture in their organization?” This paper draws from a rich heritage of Catholic literature, and robust efforts by previous authors who
have incorporated Catholic teachings into management
models. From these sources, we develop a “Human Dignity-Centered” (HDC) framework to guide business ethics.
We answer the research question by summarizing foundational concepts from Catholic Social Doctrine and Teaching (CSD/T), and explain the HDC framework via a visual
representation, with corporate examples and relevant ethics
This paper consists of four main sections. First, we review
concepts from natural law and CSD/T that provide a foundation for the framework. Second, we scan other works that
use CSD/T as a base for management models, and describe
conceptual underpinnings of our framework. Third, we discuss the various components of the framework. Finally, we
describe how ethical business organizations seeking a higher
purpose and HD focus reflect these components, providing
illustrative examples and accompanying questions to guide
We need a foundation for making good decisions, that is,
rules of good conduct for our ethical reasoning. Natural law
(a basis for Catholic social teaching) provides that foundation. Prior to considering a faith-based perspective on ethics,
it is worth briefly discussing natural law, which has a history tracing back to Aristotle. Natural law “consists of the
insights of human conduct and behavior that our Creator
built into our nature” and it “is discernable through natural
reason” (Engelland 2017, p. 31). One might consider it a
common-sense user manual for life’s conduct—if one disregards practical instructions individuals and society both suffer. The virtues we discuss later in our proposed framework
stem from natural law. Natural law is universal, and it applies
well to ethical issues business leaders face. The framework
we propose later accepts the premise that ethical business
practices (i.e., moral corporate behavior), relies on a logic
found in natural law rather than positive law.
Natural law arises from universal sources and is a higher
kind of law, one that every human being knows intuitively.
According to Thomas Aquinas, “humans are capable of
apprehending certain general principles implanted in (their)
human nature,” and states that the first principle of Natural
Moral Law is that “good is to be done and pursued, and
evil avoided.” (Aquinas 1981a, I–II, q. 94, a. 2). Interpreting Aquinas, Maritain (1947) states “There is a natural law
whose common principles—universal, indemonstrable,
self-evident, and immutable—command always and without exception” (p. 98). It is universal, “rational and rooted
in the human heart” (Mea and Wall 2016, p. 8). According to George and Tollefsen (2013, p. 3), the “first principles of practical reason are underived and self-evident.”
For instance, killing is an evil even in primitive societies.
Schockenhoff and McNeil (2003) note, “(t)he insights of
natural law are not simply unrelated to the anthropological
constructions of meaning that offer us an image of successful human existence” (pp. 290–291).
Natural law originated in ancient philosophies of Plato,
Aristotle, and the Stoics (George and Tollefsen 2013);
Aquinas further developed its principles by explaining
how people with no faith can live moral lives when they
act rationally, in accord with natural law. Natural law establishes practical principles for choice, and these reach their
fulfillment in the well-being of persons, including in the
economic context. Businesses are one means by which a
society fulfills its members’ ultimate needs—not just utility but as a vehicle for self-actualization. Natural law has a
prominent place in CSD/T ethics and our proposed HDC
framework. Other alternative approaches to ethics (e.g., egoism, relativism, deontology, and utilitarianism) are available,
yet Engelland (2017) asserts these lack natural law’s wellintegrated appeal.
Catholic Social Doctrine and Teaching
More than two decades ago, Rossouw (1994) noted that few
Christian ethics formulations appeal to postmodern business culture. The current failure of legalistic norms makes it
worth considering what religious sources could contribute.
An intertwining of faith and reason brings forth the potential
of a more nuanced business character. De George (2006)
argues that Christian thinkers have made significant contributions to business ethics throughout the centuries. Christian
thinkers as early as the thirteenth century, accompanied with
further developments up to the seventeenth century (Melé
2012, 2013; Schlag 2013; Alves and Moreira 2013), focused
on fairness in contracts and transactions. Theologian Bartolome de las Casas defended universal human rights in the
sixteenth century and Francisco de Vitoria pioneered international law (Scott 1934). The Church explicitly defended
labor rights starting in the nineteenth century. Christian
scholars lifted commerce business out of the profane into
the profound, highlighting that orderly business contributes
to spiritual uplifting.
Human Dignity-Centered Business Ethics: A Conceptual Framework for Business Leaders
CSD/T offers a particularly rich source of ideas for ethical
management practices and decision-making. Church teaching on such matters of social justice involve issues of poverty
and wealth, economics, social organization, and the role of
the state (Curran 2002) and address important matters of
relationships among people and institutions (Clarke et al.
Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII 1891) set
the stage for principles guiding ethical economic behavior. “Ever since (this) …, the concept of human dignity has
been called the guiding principle in Catholic social doctrine”
(Lutz 1995, p. 173). Numerous Catholic encyclicals and
documents speak to business ethics (e.g., Vatican Council
II 1965; John Paul II 1981, 1991; Catechism 1994; Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2004, 2012; Benedict XVI
2009; Francis 2015). These writings guide how Christians
can behave with greater integrity in economic activities
(Melé 2012). The “Compendium” (Pontifical Council for
Justice and Peace 2004) is the authoritative document on
Catholic Social teaching to date.
Conceptual Underpinnings of a Human
Dignity‑Centered (HDC) Business Ethics
We concur with Clarke et al. (2005) that CSD/T provides
a coherent set of ethical principles in todays’ increasingly
complex, global and technologically driven business world.
The Catholic Church’s global reach helps explain why its
moral guidelines are particularly relevant (Doak 2016, Personal communication on natural law). Academic researchers can also gain from CSD/T insights. In this section, we
scan other researchers’ works from whose models we draw
ideas and introduce the idea of Human Dignity and related
concepts. Understanding natural law and CSD/T enhances
our understanding of human dignity as it relates to economic
activity (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, n.d.; U.S.
Meritorious Formulations and Models
In addition to drawing from natural law and CSD/T, our
framework builds upon works of recent authors. Orsini
(2016) details shortcomings in materialistic management
theories, and his text provides management models Catholic principles in mind. While not focused on ethics per se, it
offers useful insights and schematics. Havard’s (2007, 2014)
engaging works examine virtues for business leaders. The
works focus more on personal transformation as opposed to
ethics, but they provide clarity on what makes for authentic
Bolton (2010) expands upon and provides a useful model
with insightful reflections on the dimensions of dignity at
work. Melé’s many works (especially Melé 2012) provide
robust direction and useful diagrams. Ferrell et al. (2015)
and Engelland’s (2017) works provide additional sources
with practical utility.
Subsections that follow discuss several concepts that, tied
together, result in humanistic management that reflects deep
respect for human dignity. Humanistic management, according to Melé (2012), “is about recognizing what people are,
treating them accordingly and fostering their development”
We have adopted the concept of Human dignity (HD) from
CSD/T as a rhetorical umbrella term for our framework. HD
is but one of the four core principles in CSD/T, but we find
that it appeals to business audiences with an authentic interest in improving an ethos of ethics. HD is the idea that every
human being has transcendent value that resides within his
or her essence. It is an indispensable aspect of what makes
a human a person. Humans are ends in themselves, and as
individuals, they have a right to treatment that reflects a deep
respect for rights that dwell in them as said humans.
Mattson and Clark (2011) say that this concept is “in
unhelpful disarray … (being) variously viewed as an antecedent, a consequence, a value, a principle, and an experience from philosophical, legal, pragmatic, psychological,
and cultural perspectives” (p. 303). Smith (1995) points out
that the principles of HD may in some respects appear contrary to the common good, yet he avers that HD “is perfected
by the common good” (p. 1). Melé (2015) describes HD as
the idea that every human person is worthy of esteem, honor,
and respect. It traces back to the Latin dignitas, specifying a form of status that imposed an obligation of recognition (Novak 1998). While the term may appear abstruse, its
meaning is more specific in CSD/T. In John Paul II’s formulation, persons are both ends in themselves, a “responsible
subject, one endowed with conscience and freedom, called
to live responsibly in society and history” (p. 119). Stark
(2009) sees a contradiction in rational HD arguments, but
Lutz (1995) provides secular explanations with an emphasis
on social economy.
Sison et al. (2016) states that dignity is “developed to
fullness when human beings exercise reason and free choice
through effective and skilful action” … (and that) “rationality serves as a foundation for acts of solidarity and subsidiarity leading to the attainment of the common good and
human flourishing” (p. 509).
In the economic sphere, people are not just one more
element in a means of production; they, humans, are the
purpose. Wojtyla (1979) asserted that each person “ought
to be affirmed for his or her own sake” (Gronbacher 1998,
p. 8). Bolton (2010) insightfully offers that there are two
W. J. Mea, R. R. Sims
dimensions of HD in a work context, dignity “in” work
and dignity “at” work. Dignity in work encompasses such
concepts as autonomy, work satisfaction, meaningfulness
of work itself, respect for workers, and personal development. Dignity at work encompasses, “wellbeing, just
reward, voice, security, (and) equal opportunity” (p. 19).
Mattson and Clark (2011) offer that HD should be viewed
“as a commonwealth of individually assessed well-being,
shaped by relationships with others, affected by the physical world and framed in terms of values” (p. 303). We
Dierksmeier (2015) neatly ties together many themes
from classical to more modern appreciation of HD. He
The mechanistic anthropology of neoclassical economics must finally yield to a renewed concern
for the interconnected dimensions of human life in
relations with nature, society, and culture, the historicity of human existence and the uncertainty and
fluidity of human knowledge. Once … we replace
the reductionist model of the fictional homo oeconomicus with an economics based on the relational
nature of the real conditio humana, we shall see that
values and virtues are not marginal to economic
action (p. 32).
Referencing Drucker’s (1994) and Novak’s (1996) Tripartite Model of Society, Goodpaster (2017) notes that
business must simultaneously concentrate on core mission and simultaneously be aware of social need that first
called a firm into existence. In other words, businesses
are institutions in a broader social context and need to be
moral agents. Moreover, their leaders’ decisions need to
respect HD, flourish, and provide for the common good.
Dierksmeier and Celano (2012) state that for Aquinas’
virtue ethics has a quality transcending contexts in modern global business situations: “the fundamental imperative to advance the natural goods of human life helps …
(with) the positive effects of justice upon its practitioner”
(p. 252). An unnatural form of wealth seeking upsets the
social order if others become a means to an end rather
than ends in themselves. Thomas’ more humanistic perspective transcends purely materialist approaches to business because firms are “an encounter of persons in the
service … of needs of one another” (p. 262).
More recently, Pirson et al. (2016) expand upon the
meaning of dignity as applied to business ethics. They
point out human dignity is inherent and universal. While
this concept has gained understanding from psychologists’ management research, an effective understanding
falls short when it ignores the social nature of humans
and focuses alone on utilitarian outcomes.
Humanistic Management and Personalism
An HD approach to persons contrasts with the impassive
dealings that typify some modern firms, where relationships
are transactional rather than personal. For many in the world,
work is anything but dignifying. Lutz (1995) notes, “the real
world economy is also replete with unequal power relations:
if workers are often “forced” to choose among jobs that are
demeaning, exhausting, and health threatening, then economic freedom would also require corrective action aiming
to equalize power among economic agents” (p. 188).
CSD/T offers an alternative, where “(t)he person represents the ultimate end of society; by which it is ordered to
the human person. … (T)he order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons, and not the other way around”
(Pontifical Council 2004, Sect. 1912). According to Sison
et al. (2016), “insofar as human beings are accorded dignity
by virtue of their personhood, this is known as the personalist principle” (p. 506).
When the object of relationships at work is HD, the purpose is to serve the other. Gronbacher (1998) states, “the
value of the person is not derived from an individual’s contributions, talents, or achievements but has to do with the
ontological significance of their being” (p. 7). Humanistic
management is viewed in many ways (Melé 2003, 2009a).
The concept “emphasizes the human condition and is oriented to the development of human virtue, in all its forms,
to its fullest extent” (Melé 2003, p. 79).
Coughlin (2003) notes John Paul II’s defence of the
concept of HD links to ancient truths; free will and intellect characterize human beings. He rejects Kant’s idealism
and determinism. For John Paul, every person is a “psychophysical unity, each one a unique person, never again
to be repeated in the universe” (p. 68). Further, “positive
freedom focusses upon the basic human goods identified by
the intellect and the power to pursue these goods in one’s life
through the exercise of free will” (p. 70). This approach is an
alternative to many modern economic assumptions that see
humans whose goal is consumption of ever-greater materialistic goods. While John Paul endorses market economies,
the locus of HD is capacity to think and act congruent to “an
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