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MEET J.S. NELSON

J.S. Nelson is a professor of law and expert legal consultant with a deep, diverse background bridging law and business school. Last year, she was a visiting professor at Harvard Business School, and this year she is a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School. She also holds the first tenure-track appointment in a U.S. law school specifically to teach business ethics and develop law-school curricula around the subject. She serves as an associate professor of law at Villanova Law School, has a courtesy appointment in Villanova Business School, and is a senior fellow at the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

She writes on business issues, the federal courts, and white collar crime. Her work has been published in the Harvard Law Review, Cornell Law Review, Georgetown Law Journal, Cardozo Law Review, U.C. Davis Law Review, Berkeley Business Law Journal, Journal of Management Inquiry, Journal of Legal Studies in Business, and the Academy of Management Learning and Education journal.

She is the co-author with the late Lynn Stout, Distinguished Professor of Corporate & Business Law at Cornell Law School, of Business Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2022). 

QUICK Q&A WITH J.S. NELSON

WHAT ARE BUSINESS ETHICS?

Business ethics are the set of moral principles that govern behavior in a specific sphere of life:  the world of business. Some people think of the business environment as a cutthroat place in which people will do whatever they can get away with, including violating the law and misleading and harming others, in order to get ahead. This view, however, is misleading and inaccurate. Certainly, you can see instances of bad behavior in the business world (as in other areas of life), but most people with real experience in business will tell you that sound ethics are integral to a successful business career.

WHAT DO BUSINESS ETHICS HAVE TO DO WITH MAKING MONEY?

It’s nice to make money, and sometimes it’s a necessity. Business ethics teach; however, that we have a moral responsibility to pay attention to how we make money. Some ways of earning a living are better than others, and some ways of making money are simply ethically unacceptable (not to mention possibly illegal).

HOW ARE BUSINESS ETHICS DIFFERENT FROM GENERAL ETHICS?

Most people follow at least some ethical rules in their daily lives. The world of business, however, presents some unique issues, which is why they have evolved as a specialized field of ethics. One of those unique issues is the sheer size and frequency of the ethical challenges that businesspeople must meet. It is not unusual for those in business to be presented, almost daily, with opportunities to personally profit by violating the law or by harming or misleading others.


A second unique aspect of business ethics is that it operates in a social environment—business dealings—in which people, to some extent, tolerate, expect, and even praise the selfish pursuit of personal gain. This makes the business environment quite different from many other social environments in which we interact with other people


Third, business ethics emphasize the obligations we owe not only to our friends and family, but also the obligations we owe to people with whom we have only an “arm’s-length” business relationship, and even obligations owed to total strangers. Indeed, sometimes business ethics go further still, and teach that we have obligations to intangible legal entities like corporations.


Finally, a fourth distinguishing characteristic of business ethics is that ethical problems in this context tend to involve unique concepts and rules specific to the business world.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE AN ETHICAL DUTY?

An ethical duty is an obligation or responsibility that must be met without regard to one’s immediate self-interest. In other words, ethics require us to do our best to meet our obligations, even when we don’t particularly want to. Ethical duties, including business duties, generally are intended to protect other people, like employers, customers, clients, contract counterparties, and the general public. Ethical duties require that we consider the welfare of others, not just our own welfare, in choosing how to act.