The Normative Theories of Business Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed

The three leading normative theories of business ethics are the stockholder theory, the stakeholder theory, and the social contract theory. Currently, the stockholder theory is somewhat out of favor with many members of the business ethics community. The stakeholder theory, in contrast, is widely accepted, and the social contract theory appears to be gaining increasing adherents. In this article, I undertake a critical review of the supporting arguments for each of the theories, and argue that the stockholder theory is neither as outdated nor as flawed as it is sometimes made to seem and that there are significant problems with the grounding of both the stakeholder and social contract theory. I conclude by suggesting that a truly adequate normative theory of business ethics must ultimately be grounded in individual consent.