John Commons on Customer Goodwill and the Economic Value of Business Ethics

Business Ethics Quarterly 4 (3):359-365 (1994)
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This paper shows how John R. Commons’ analysis of a firm’s goodwill value gives analytical support to Professor Amartya Sen’s contention (BEQ, 1993) that business ethics makes economic sense. A firm’s market value consists of the value of both tangible and intangible capital, including the goodwill value of ongoing customer relations. If a firm is to defend its goodwill value, it needs to have the protection of the courts and to pursue ethical practices. The courts defend fair competition by giving protection from unethical competitors while the firm defends its reputation with honest dealings.By implication, firms which depend on ongoing customer relations will tend to engage in more ethical business practices than firms which do not. Even a firm which makes a mistake that compromises its product’s safety may reduce the loss of goodwill value over time by admitting the mistake early rather than hiding it.Also by implication, the transition from a command socialist economy to a market economy cannot be made instantaneously since trust, reputation, and these ongoing customer relations-key institutions of market economics-cannot be generated instantaneously.



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