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Title of Journal: J Bus Ethics

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Abbravation: Journal of Business Ethics

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Springer Netherlands

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Virtuous Structures

Authors: Dirk Vriens, Jan Achterbergh, Liesbeth Gulpers,

Publish Date: 2016/04/19
Volume: 150, Issue:3, Pages: 671-690
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To discuss moral behavior in organizations, a growing number of authors turn to a ‘virtue ethics’ approach. Central to this approach is the so-called moral character of individuals in organizations: a well-developed moral character enables organizational members to deal with the specific moral issues they encounter during their work. If a virtue ethics perspective is seen as relevant, one may ask how organizations can facilitate that their members can exercise and develop their moral character. In this paper, we argue that the way tasks are defined and interlinked (the organization’s structure) has a profound influence on “exercising and developing moral character”—it can enhance and frustrate it. In order to show how structures may support organizational members to exercise and develop their moral virtues, the paper first describes what it means to exercise and develop virtues in an organizational setting and what is required for it. Next, the paper sets out to explain how specific values on different structural parameters (formalization, decentralization, specialization, and unit grouping) at different structural levels (micro, macro, and network) relate to exercising virtues in organizations.For some years now, there has been a growing interest in virtue ethics in organization literature. That is, many scholars have turned to virtue ethics to understand and guide ethical conduct in organizations (see, for instance, the special issues of Organization Studies (2006), Business Ethics Quarterly (2012), Journal of Business Ethics (2013), and Business Ethics: a European Review (2015), which were all devoted to virtue ethics).What sets virtue ethics apart from other ethical approaches is that it frames ethics in terms of the question “How should I live my life?” instead of “What should I do”? (cf. Weaver 2006, p. 349). Virtue ethics is about living one’s life in the best possible way, that is: about striving to develop one’s characteristically human capacities into virtues (cf. Achterbergh and Vriens 2010). Part of living one’s life in the best possible way is cultivating one’s “moral character.” A well-developed (virtuous) moral character disposes one to desire, choose, and do the right thing: just acts stem from a just character (cf. Aristotle 1984, 1105b1-10). As Weaver (2006, p. 341) summarizes, the emphasis of virtue ethics is on “[…] virtue or character: what a person is or has rather than merely what a person does.”Translating this to ethical conduct in organizations, virtue ethics inspired business ethicists stress the exercise and development of our moral character1 (as part of living a fulfilled life) in an organizational context and rely less on mere compliance to rules (see also Hartman 2008). But, if exercising and developing our moral character becomes an issue, it also becomes relevant to understand the organizational conditions fostering it (cf. Weaver 2006, p. 357; Moore and Beadle 2006).In this paper, we want to highlight one particular organizational condition: the way jobs are defined, related, and coordinated. With Mintzberg (1983) we refer to this condition as the organizational structure. We believe that organizational structures make a difference with respect to the prospect of exercising and developing virtues in organizations (a belief we share with others—e.g., MacIntyre 1985, Jos 1988; Luban et al. 1992; Moore 2005a, b; Moore and Beadle 2006; Breen 2012; Beadle and Knight 2012; Weaver 2006). In fact, as some authors argue, some structures frustrate the exercise and development of our moral character (typically bureaucracies, cf. MacIntyre 1985; or Tayloristic, “technicist” structures, cf. Breen 2007, 2012) while other structures may enable us to exercise and develop our moral character (as, for instance, discussed in Achterbergh and Vriens 2010; Moore and Beadle 2006; Beadle and Knight 2012; Schwartz and Sharpe 2010; Schwartz 2011; Breen 2012).In this paper, we focus on these enabling, supportive structural conditions [an endeavor, also called for by Hartman (2008), Beadle and Knight (2012) and Weaver (2006)] in a systematic way. More specifically, we follow scholars on organizational structures (e.g., Mintzberg 1983; de Sitter 1994) to specify supportive structural conditions for exercising and developing virtues at two “structural” organizational levels (at the micro-level of individual jobs, and at the macro-level of the organization) and at the level of organizational networks. To this purpose, we use four structural parameters: unit-grouping, decentralization, job-specialization, and formalization. In doing so, we set out to contribute to the current discussion about “virtuous structures” by providing a detailed (organizational theoretic) description of the structural characteristics enabling virtuous behavior in (networks of) organizations.The main strategy to realize our goal is that we identify (1) requirements for exercising and developing moral character in organizations, and (2) structural characteristics (at two organizational levels and at the network level) contributing to these requirements. Thus, we characterize supportive, “virtuous” structures. But, it should be clear from the outset that structures, however much they are geared at the requirements for exercising and developing virtues, they do not by themselves guarantee or determine virtuous behavior. Our thesis is that structural conditions increase the possibility of exercising and developing moral character (a thesis shared by others—as we will discuss below) by their contribution to its requirements.The paper is organized as follows. In the next section, we discuss the importance of a systematic treatment of structural conditions for exercising and developing virtues. In “What is Required for Exercising and Developing Virtues in Organizations?” section, we discuss what it means to exercise and develop virtues in organizations and identify three requirements for the prospect of doing so. In “Virtuous Structures at the Enterprise Level” and “Virtuous Structures at the Job Level” sections, we will discuss supportive structural conditions at two organizational levels: at the “enterprise” level (“Virtuous Structures at the Enterprise Level” section), and at the level of individual jobs (“Virtuous Structures at the Job Level” section). In “Virtuous Structures and Networks” section, we treat “virtuous networks” by going into the structural characteristics of networks of organizations. Finally, the last section summarizes and reflects on our findings.



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