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The stranger, the wager and the ethics of office

I recently travelled down to the School of Management at the University of Leicester to give a talk titled ‘The stranger, the wager and the ethics of office’. With a bombast designed to obscure my lack of confidence on the topic, the abstract staked my skin in my own wager that arch post-modernist Richard Kearney and Max Weber, high priest of rationality, could somehow be made to speak to one another. In the event, though, I played it cool and confessed the project to be very much work in progress. My good colleagues at Leicester listened helpfully and offered many interesting comments questions. After glass or two of local beer and a fantastic Leicester curry to finish the evening, I returned home full of ideas and enthusiasm. Academia isn’t always such a tough job.

Here’s a lightly polished version of my notes for the talk.

‘Many thanks for inviting me here today to share some thoughts and ideas with you. The project remains at a very early-stage, but perhaps there are the makings of an interesting paper. You will have to tell me what you think.


Max Weber

As some of you may know, my research is inspired by Michel Callon and the performativity/market studies program, with a particular interest in market-type arrangements as organisational devices and all their attendant consequences. By consequences, I mean the moral dimensions of market-type arrangements and their effects upon personhood. You may wonder what leads a scholar of management to this particular topic. But I wasn’t always in a management school. Misspent undergraduate years as a theologian left me with abiding interest in the nature of good personhood, and a conviction that neither good nor personhood can be abstracted from context or described by universal, rational rules. You can see, I hope, how a management scholar with a background such as mine can arrive at the conclusion that organisation and personhood are irrevocably linked.

There are three unexplained phrases in the title – the stranger, the wager, and the ethics of office. I’ll work through them all, and by the end of the talk you’ll have a sense of what I’m up to, I hope. Let’s start with the ethics of office, which of course comes from the work of Max Weber, particularly as represented by du Gay (2000, 2008).

Yikes, you might say! How can Weber possibly sit with Callon’s actor network constructivism? In fact, it sits more comfortably than you might think: Callon explicitly casts his work in the Weberian tradition, for Weber the anthropologist is interested in the ethical possibilities of action open to persons placed into various life spheres, where the ethical character of individuals is determined by institutional constraints. (du Gay helps us distinguish between the anthropologically inclined Weber, and the Weber of rationalist theory whose formalist-substantivist distinction has been used to front various kinds of critical political economy, doing Weber something of a disservice in the process).

The crucial point is that for Weber, and Callon too, good character means being able to live up to the ethical standards embedded in one’s office. This idea of specific, ethical practices, irreducible to common principles, ‘appears quite foreign to those for whom a common or universal form of moral judgement is held to reside in the figure and capacities of the self-reflective person’ (du Gay 2008, 131). Weber can be seen as a late practitioner of an earlier tradition – the ethical tradition of office – where office-holders are personae, bundles of instituted rights and duties.

But there remains a problem: if ethics are embedded in particular offices, rather than the person of the moral agent, how can we talk of business ethics at all. How can we attempt to establish normative commonalities that might transcend, for example, the office of the arms dealer, or bond trader? To put that another way, how can we stop ourselves from falling into anything-goes relativism, where the sole merit attached to a job is the discharge of the technical requirements of that role? Continue reading

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