The disinheritance of management ethics: rational individualism in Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive

Steven P. Feldman (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA)

Journal of Management History (Archive)

ISSN: 1355-252X

Publication date: 1 December 1996


Refers to Chester Barnard’s classic work in management theory, The Functions of the Executive, which includes one of the first systematic discussions of management ethics, and is an attempt to create a new justification for executive control and organization freedom. The literature reviewing Barnard’s effort has focused on the various arguments he uses to justify these ends. Contends that the key fact in understanding Barnard’s work on management ethics is that he broke with any historical continuity of (traditional) moral belief. Barnard attempts to replace traditional moral beliefs with a rational process of moral conflict resolution controlled by the executive. He develops a complex system of dichotomies, assumptions, and concepts in order to incorporate the individual into the organization and demonstrate the moral superiority of the individual executive. This conceptual system, however, is shown to be based on a contradictory reversal of the definitions in the individual‐organization dichotomy. This reversal supports Barnard’s objectification of organization which enables him to reduce morality to a functional role within the organization. In other words, morality is reduced to politics. The argument is based on the dubious ambition that only organizations, not society, can provide an integrated moral whole. Barnard’s justification fails in that rational individualism cannot provide a stable or legitimate moral system.



Feldman, S. (1996), "The disinheritance of management ethics: rational individualism in Barnard’s The Functions of the Executive", Journal of Management History (Archive), Vol. 2 No. 4, pp. 34-47.

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Copyright © 1996, MCB UP Limited

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