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Special issue: open calls for submission

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Special Issue: Normativity in Business Ethics and Beyond

Guest Editors

N. Craig Smith, INSEAD, France
Thomas Donaldson, University of Pennsylvania, USA
Sareh Pouryousefi, Toronto Metropolitan University, Canada
Markus Scholz, TU Dresden, Germany
Laura J. Spence, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


The purpose of this special issue is to address fundamental questions about a possible deficit of normativity in management research, practice, and education—especially as it relates to the field of business ethics and its neighboring disciplines, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. Questions regarding the role of normativity are familiar in many respects and have been the subject of long-standing debates in BEQ (e.g., with respect to the “separation thesis”). These questions are of renewed importance, if not urgency, against the backdrop of 1) the so-called grand challenges (George et al. Reference George, Howard-Grenville, Joshi and Tihanyi2016) and 2) the meteoric rise of dominantly descriptively and functionally oriented CSR and sustainability research and teaching.

By “normativity” in this context, we refer to explicit and implicit values-driven decision-making that is action guiding (i.e., prescriptive). The domain of the normative covers all forms of business decision-making, such as addressing systemic injustice, grand societal challenges, organizational narratives, institutional arrangements, corporate purposes, economic optimization norms, broader systemic design, and the decisions of individual managers. We seek different perspectives on the possible deficit of normativity in business, including alternative views suggesting that the problem is overstated or concern is misplaced.

Aims and Scope

We aim to take stock of the perceived decline in normativity in the field of business ethics (within which we include “micro” or individual-level behavioral ethics research and the neighboring fields of CSR and sustainability) and consider its implications for the field and beyond. Concern about the role of normativity in business ethics ranges over questions about the adequacy or usefulness of research that disregards normative considerations or implications, empirical research that does not come clean about normative presuppositions, empirical methods that squeeze out normative methods, and instrumental “business cases” that dominate ethics teaching. Fundamentally, these concerns reflect uncertainty, if not disagreements, about the identity of the field writ large.

Although we applaud the growing interest in business ethics—both as a field in itself and as the subject of research in other fields—we are concerned about recent developments, especially the apparent entrenchment of two camps in the field of business ethics. One is empirically oriented, investigating issues of CSR and sustainability of various kinds, often with largely managerial and instrumental intentions. The other is focused on normative issues, asking “what is the right thing to do?” and aiming to provide normative reflections and orientations for business. To be sure, there are echoes here of debates within the field that fuel or reject this bifurcation dating back decades (e.g., Donaldson Reference Donaldson1994; Frederick Reference Frederick1994; Freeman Reference Freeman1994; Sandberg Reference Sandberg2008; Singer Reference Singer1998; Trevino and Weaver Reference Trevino and Weaver1994; Werhane Reference Werhane1994), as well as of the foundational disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences.

Academic business ethics in its early days was largely normative (Seele Reference Seele2016), but many believe that this dominance is decreasing. Although BEQ, as the leading journal in the field, is still largely dedicated to normative and conceptual publications, we observe that most academic CSR and sustainability as well as business ethics articles published in other specialist or mainstream management journals are now of an empirical nature and tend not to include normative considerations. What are the consequences of this development?

We invite submissions that revisit the earlier debates in BEQ and elsewhere about the role of normativity in business ethics, including the epistemological and ontological implications of the “separation thesis” today and prospectively. We are particularly interested in whether a lack of normativity hinders business responses to the “grand challenges” facing society. All agree that the world is facing immense ecological and social problems: climate change, a loss of biodiversity, global poverty, severe human rights violations, modern slavery, social and political segregation, gender inequality, health issues, and a rise of potentially harmful artificial intelligence systems. To what extent, if at all, might attention to these challenges be impeded by research and teaching that are purportedly normatively neutral or strictly descriptive by design? How can research and practice better reach action-guiding conclusions?

Thus the scope of potential submissions is broad, addressing the question of the role of normativity in both business decision-making and business ethics research.

Further Information

Further information regarding this special issue call can be found here.

We welcome proposals for future special issues or sections from groups of 2–5 individuals who would compose a guest editor team. Proposals for a special issue are to be submitted, once a year, by November 30, to the journal’s managing editor ( The editors select one of the submitted proposals. Their decision is communicated in January. The selected proposal may require further development; the final text is published on the journal’s website and in the July issue of BEQ. For further guidelines, please refer to the pdf.