What Do Business Executives Think About Distributive Justice?

Journal of Business Ethics 174 (1):15-33 (2021)
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While there exist extensive literatures on both distributive justice and senior executive pay, and a number of authors (notably the French economist Thomas Piketty) have addressed the implications of high pay for distributive justice, the existing literature fails to address what senior executives themselves think about distributive justice and whether they consider high income inequalities to be morally acceptable. We address this gap by analysing a unique dataset comprising the views of over 1000 senior executives from across the world, which was constructed using a survey instrument designed by the authors based on a thought experiment resembling John Rawls’s original position. We report four main findings. First, executives conceptualise distributive justice in a pluralistic manner, endorsing different and sometimes apparently conflicting philosophical principles: to explain how this plurality can be accounted for we propose a novel field-theory framework for conceptualising beliefs about distributive justice. Second, executives support similar philosophical approaches at both society and company levels of analysis, thus countering the idea that companies should leave matters of distributive justice exclusively for governments to deal with via the tax system. Third, executives believe that they live in societies and work for companies that fall short of desirable distributive justice outcomes. Fourth, the distributive justice views of the executives in our sample fall into four distinct clusters that are correlated with certain socio-demographic markers. Finally, we note the distinction between distributive justice beliefs and behaviours, from which we derive a number of managerial and public policy implications.



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Author Profiles

Susanne Burri
Universität Konstanz
Alex Pepper
University of Manchester

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