Dilbert, if you don’t know… is a cartoon about being in business. Much like Office Space, it deals with some basic issues confronting people in business. The first question in any ethical analysis should be, who are people or groups involved in the problem?
I think the “players”, for lack of a better term, fall into three categories..
In this case, individual people can be employees, customers, shareholders or an individual person impacted by the decision. Sometimes individuals are making the business decisions as well… and often times the individual employee’s problem is that they are going counter to the direction of the business.
The other two “players” are made up of groups of individuals. In a way it seems odd to conceive of these groups as players distinct from the individuals that make them up, but I think they are. A group takes action as a unified whole. That action may have ethical implications. A group can also decide on a set of guiding moral principles, or not… as the case may be.
I think the most general definition of a business is a non-government enterprise organized with the goal of producing a product or service. Notice, there is nothing about profit in that definition — because, some businesses (credit unions, for example) are not aimed at making a profit. Where ethical concerns come into play on one side is the way in which they produce the product or the product itself. So, a business that behaves ethically will produce a product or service that performs in a minimally acceptable way and will do so in ways that don’t violate other ethical codes.
Government/society as a whole is the third player here. Generally, the interactions that are important are those between the business and other organizations that aren’t businesses. The most basic example of this is when a company needs a contract enforced, it requires government intervention to make it happen — or when the government decides that a regulation is needed to protect the general public and it puts a restriction on the way in which a business produces their goods.
Society is an interesting player… perhaps the idea is about the vague thing called “public opinion”… if a company takes a political stance and a segment of society disagrees and makes a stink, organizes boycotts etc… that influences the public image of the company and persuades people to do (or not do) business with them. The relatively recent addition of social media and the internet has increased the ability of those who want to protest to do so.
All in all, the relationships between all three players are the stuff of business ethics. In the most general terms, I think they can be conceived of as duties. The basis of these duties may shift, but overall I think they have the moral weight of a duty.