Theonomous Business Ethics


In this paper I engage the theonomous ethics of Paul Tillich to argue that morality is a matter of conviction and concern not determination of right or wrong, and moral imperative is not about doing what “right” is, rather it is the self-actualisation of individual through her intersubjective relationships. The motivational force behind self-actualisation stems from the strength of one’s hold on “ultimate concern”, and not the content of “ultimate concern” that maybe referred to by various names including God. The ultimacy and unconditionality of “ultimate concern” gives morality its religious character and imperativeness. The paper suggests that business should provide an environment in which individual’s moral motivational force can be strengthened through removal of the impediments that weaken one’s hold on “ultimate concern”.


Business ethics is no longer a new discipline. Since the 70s, scholars have sifted through existing philosophical theories or devised various new methods and rules in an attempt to clothe the body of business with the attire of ethics. But business as a practice is still quite naked, and our tailored garment of ethics increasingly looks ragged, torn and a misfit. Despite an impressive array of research focused on ethical judgement in business ethics (Sparks and Pan 2010), there are still frequent outburst of unethical behaviour across the globe (Debnath et al. 2018). The failure to derive ethical conduct from the application of rules and normative theories has raised “scepticism that philosophical theories even have practical implications or applications” (Beauchamp 2005, p. p.14) and has led scholars to call for a more fundamental re-examination of the field. (Collste 2007, p. p.63; Cortez 2015, p. p.98; Freeman 2011, p. p.xiii; Jones et al. 2005, p. p.3) Business ethics, warn Boda and Zsolnai (2016, p. p.102), is at risk of disappearing if it does not “go beyond the conventional reach of BE [Business Ethics]” and contribute to the “transformation of business”.

Such calls get added weight if we accept Vogal (1991, p. p.118)’s assertion that since business ethics has been trying to address the same problems over and over again, these problems must be “rooted in the nature of a market economy, if not in human nature itself”, and if indeed “[m]orality in business is no different from morality in any other sphere of life” (DeGeorge 2006, p. p.385), then it is the human nature rather than the nature of a market economy that we should turn to for possible answers. Taking human nature into account entails understanding the “spiritual connection to the creative energy that is God”. (Allen 2019, p. 303).

With this in mind and in an attempt to take a fresher and different look at the crisis of ethics and value, in this paper I turn to Paul Tillich, whose ethical philosophy despite cursory mentions by Eabrasu (2019) and MacMillan et al. (2012) in recent years, appear to have escaped serious consideration in the philosophy of management scholarship. Tillich was regarded as the most influential Protestant theologian of twentieth century. A theistic existentialist like Marcel, Buber and Levinas, he would disagree with the atheistic existentialists view spearheaded by Sartre that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre 1960, p.292).Footnote 1 For Tillich, a solution to an existential problem such as that of ethics, cannot be found in existence itself. Tillich’s ethics is not about moral content, it is not about identifying what one ought to do. He agrees with Kant that morality has to be a categorical imperative, but insists that moral imperative does not produce the motivation to act rather moral motivation is the driving force behind the act and needs to transcend the moral imperative itself, it needs to be found in an essence that precedes existence.

The structure of this paper is as follows. I begin by describing Tillich’s theonomous ethics, pointing to our existential predicament which Tillich attributes to a rupture in existence, the separation of our essential being from our existential being. His proposed ethics then, is an attempt to reunite these two elements of our being, making us whole again, a self-actualisation to become a person. To this end, he identifies a number of ontological concepts that he takes as a priori or absolutes, in particular “being-itself” as the unconditional. Tillich’s theonomous ethics hinges on the understanding of religion not as a set of beliefs, but as an infinite concern for the unconditional, for God, or as Tillich defines it, “ultimate concern”, which I will describe.

Theonomous ethics is an attempt to overcome the deficiencies of autonomy and heteronomy, underpinned by the transcendental dimension or God. Indeed, as I will try to make clear, the common thread throughout Tillich’s project is an insistence and demonstration that morality is intrinsically religious and religion is intrinsically ethical; therefore, there can neither be any conflicts between reason-based and faith-based ethics, nor could religion and ethics be substituted for one another. The strength of moral motivation does not come from the omnipotence of God, but from the strength of conviction towards what one takes as God or “ultimate concern”.

I will then describe how Tillich identifies a religious element in all three components of morality; those of moral imperative, moral content and moral motivation, to conclude that it is the moral motivation, determined by one’s hold on one’s “ultimate concern”, that is the driving force behind moral imperative. This leads me to suggest that perhaps the recognition and awareness of our transcendental dimension, whether this is labelled as God, religion or “ultimate concern”, as well as the removal of impediments that weaken one’s hold on her “ultimate concern”, could be an essential factor in fostering ethical conduct in business.

Theonomous Ethics

“Morality is not a subject - it is a life put to the test in dozens of moments.”

Paul Tillich

Tillich employs the “method of correlation”Footnote 2 to argue that unlike Nietzsche’s revaluation of values which sought the solution to the existential problem of nihilismFootnote 3 in existence itself, a proper revaluation should look for the solution outside of existence, because an existential problem cannot have an existential solution. “Man is the question, not the answer” (ST-IIpp.14–15). Correlation means that, although there is interdependence between the question and the answer, in this case between our existential predicament in the form of the crisis of value, and the solution to it, the question and answer are independent of each other; so much so that it is impossible to derive the answer from the question. Tillich’s own revaluation of values, his ethical philosophy, is an attempt to find a theological foundation for ethics as the solution to the crisis of value and meaning facing human beings.


Tillich considers morality as fundamentally ontological (Graber 1973; O'Keeffe 1982), because “being precedes action in everything that is, including man,…” (Tillich 1995, p. 14); and since “ontology precedes every other cognitive approach to reality” (Tillich 1954, p. 20), understanding the nature of human being as well as the “being-itself” is essential in understanding his ethical philosophy. This is so, because “only the ‘good tree’ brings ‘good fruits’. Only if being precedes that which ought-to-be, can the ought-to-be be fulfilled” (Tillich 1959b). Tillich asserts that “value is man’s essential being”, (Tillich 1959a, p. 195) rooted in the essential nature not his existential, so it cannot be derived from existence but from the “essential structures of being which appear within existence” (Tillich 1959a, p. 193). The important ramification for morality based on this belief is that morality “can be maintained only through that which is given and not through that which is demanded” (Tillich 1959b, p. 142). On this basis, “man cannot solve any of his great problems if he does not see them in the light of his own being and of being itself” (Tillich 1954, p. 125), so the answer to all questions about morality, the source, content and motivational power behind it, directly or indirectly, is related to ontology.Footnote 4

Existential Predicament

For Tillich, modern society is best characterised by the dominance of technology and technical reasoning, where the only dimensions of being are considered to be “those which can be totally grasped with the tool of formal logic” (Tillich 1964d, p. 90). He views capitalism as “the symbol of self-sufficient finitude” (Tillich 1932, chap.2-I), believing that it is contrary to existence (Clary 1994) because within capitalism, human beings come to be detached from their transcendental moorings, as “petrifying calculations” take the place of “creative life” (Tillich 1932, chap.1-I). God becomes superfluous and is replaced by “the system of finite inter-relations we call the universe”, a system which is self-sufficient, calculable, manageable, and open for improvement by its masters, human beingsFootnote 5 (Tillich 1959b, pp. 43–44). “Technical reason” he writes, “dehumanises man if it is separated from ontological reason” (Tillich 1964b, p. 81), it transforms human beings into commodities “which pure science can calculate and technical science can control”Footnote 6 (Tillich 1952, p. 137).

Tillich believes that the crisis of morality is the consequence of “the separation and interplay of the essential and existential elements of [our] being” (Tillich 1964c, p. 137), the elements of “created goodness and estrangement”, the good and evil dichotomy. All our behaviour he insists, is motivated by the tension between these two elements, and this means the impossibility of achieving goodness under the condition of existence alone. He writes: “Man as he exists is not what he essentially is and ought to be. He is estranged from his true being” (Tillich 1964d, p. 45). And not only “Man is split within himself” (Tillich 1955b, chap.19 para.10); he is also separated from the “ground of our being”; and has lost his “embedded connection to God” (Allen 2019, p. 325) or his “experiences of the divine Beyond” (Peltonen 2019, p. 231). For Tillich, values and morality are rooted in divine reality and detached from it, fall apart. This then is the crux of our moral problem, and if the solution to this problem is sought in secular ethics, it is because the religious message of love and grace have “disappeared behind the preaching of religious or moral law” (Tillich 1995, p. 14).

According to Tillich, human beings long to heal the rift between their essential and existential beings. They long for an unambiguous life; which is a return to their essential and created goodness. On this basis, he contends that the answer to the crisis of morality cannot be found in existence which itself is the domain of ambiguities; and although religion is not an answer to this problem either, because it is also a sphere of ambiguities in the sense that it is a function of life (Tillich 1964c, p. 80),

“since religion is the self-transcendence of life in the realm of spirit, it is in religion that man start the quest for an unambiguous life and it is in religion that he receives the answer” (Tillich 1964c, p. 114).

Tillich is in accord with Nietzsche that the crisis of nihilism has come about because of the absence of an untenable God, but unlike Nietzsche, he does not believe that we could do away with God, rather, he sees the remedy in a revival of the bond that links us to our ground of being, or God. Thus God, for Tillich, never died but was withdrawn from our lives.

For Tillich ethics should not only cater for a degree of flexibility to prevent values from becoming rigid and irrelevant, but also accommodate for an absolute element, to give values authority and validity in resisting relativism; and “both [these requirements] must be united” (Tillich 1995, p. 87). To this end, he finds the necessity of uncovering a number of self-evident absolutesFootnote 7 or central concepts without which ethics, and hence meaningful life, will be impossible. Absolutes must exist, because relativism by definition is possible only on the basis of the structure of absolutes. There is no such thing as “absolute relativism”, the term is self-contradictory (Tillich 1967, chap.2 para.7). Thus, even if the statements about absolutes are relative, “the absolutes themselves are not relative. One cannot escape them. Even if I had argued against them, I’d have had to use them to do so” (Tillich 1967, chap.2 para.49). Tillich identifies a number of ontological concepts which he takes as absolute, in particular “being-itself” as the most fundamental absolute that “underlies all the other absolutes …, the absolute that makes the idea of truth possible”; this is the absolute that contains “the norms of every ethical command” (Tillich 1967, chap.2 para.55). Being-itself is absolute because no one can imagine non-being nor can deny the “is-ness” of being. It “is beyond essence and existence” (Tillich 1965,3rd. dialogue), yet contains the essence of every being; hence, it is the basis of truth, it is “the Holy”, the unconditional.

Ultimate Concern

Tillich’s unique view of religion illuminates his entire philosophy in particular that of ethics because in contrast to religion understood in its common or narrower sense, he defines a larger concept of religion and faith as the state of “being grasped by an ultimate concern, by an infinite interest, by something one takes unconditionally seriously” (Tillich 1995, p. 30). He writes: “God is the name of the content of the concern” (Tillich 1959b, p. 40) for the adherents of various religions. In other words, religion, rather than being a mere collection of rules and traditions, is a “direction toward the Unconditioned” (Tillich 1932, chap.1-II).

Each of us, Tillich observed, has something in our lives that concerns us above all other concerns, or concerns us ultimately. Ultimate concern is what one takes “seriously without any reservation” (Tillich 1955b, chap.7 para.12), and can only be applied to something that is most important and unconditionally important, something that is taken as the deepest and most fundamental in our lives. For Tillich, “no human mind is entirely without an ultimate concern and some practical and theoretical expression of it …” (Kegley and Bretall 1952, p. 347). So everyone must have an ultimate concern because everyone is concerned about his/her being and meaning, and about that which determines his/her ultimate destiny (Tillich 1964b, p. 17).

Since everyone has an ultimate concern and being grasped by issues of ultimate concern is to be “grasped by something unconditional, holy, absolute” (Tillich and Taylor 1991, p. 123), then everyone including atheists can be defined as religious (Beck 2004). Even the sceptics of the concept of “ultimate concern” have an ultimate concern, namely their scepticism. In other words, there is something “holy to everyone, even to those who deny that they have experienced the holy” (Tillich 1967, chap.4 para.15). Since “we can never be without” our ultimate concern (Tillich 1957, p. 16), Tillich believes in the “utter impossibility of atheism” (Tillich 1955a, para.11), asserting that secular cultureFootnote 8 and atheism “presuppose the unconditional element and both express ultimate concern” (Tillich 1959b, p. 27).

Our ultimate concern is our attempt to go beyond all conditions to the unconditional and in doing so give meaning to all conditions. It provides “direction and unity to all other concerns, and with them, to the whole personality” (Tillich 1957, p. 105).

Since anything can potentially become the object of ultimate concern for us, say an object, a political movement or an aspiration, a scientific endeavour, a principle (e.g. justice) or a philosophy, the notion of “ultimate concern” could quickly lose its potential usefulness. Mindful of such a problem, Tillich insists that “no ultimate concern is ultimately ultimate unless it is ultimate concern about the Ultimate” (Midgley 1967, p. 34). Anything less than the ultimate, anything finite, can be a matter of concern but not of ultimate concern, and the elevation of a finite or preliminary concern to ultimate results in idolatryFootnote 9: for instance, the idolatry of the self as is manifest in the principles of ethical autonomy; or idolatry of something else, as seen in ethical heteronomy (Tillich 1964b, p. 16). Tillich asserts that “[t]he unconditional concern … is the concern about the unconditional.... The ultimate concern is concern about what is experienced as ultimate” (Tillich 1957, p. 9).

It is important to note that Tillich differentiates the act of concern from the content or the object of that concern. The content or the focus of ultimate concern may vary, but the form of ultimate concern remains the same. For example, a religious person may be ultimately concerned about God or his spirituality (the content of his concern); however, replacing God with another ultimate concern, say another god or ideal, should not change the depth of his concern nor diminish his total conviction or surrender that he is capable of and willing to offer for this new content, because “whatever concerns man, ultimately becomes god for him” (Tillich 1964b, p. 234). It is “the passion of the infinite and not its content that is decisive; for its content is just what it is itself”Footnote 10 (Kierkegaard 2009, p. 155).

Tillich’s concept of ultimate concern allows him to address the problems associated with moral theories that take moral rules to be universal, absolute and unchangeable, because when ultimate concern is involved, the reliance on the universal rules is removed and placed on the existence of one’s ultimate concern, which will always be valid for the person having this concern. Such a concern is unique, and “because of this uniqueness, it is incomparable to anything else and is therefore beyond any laws of necessity or probability” (Beck 1946, p. 289). Since only that which is our ultimate concern “should concern us ultimately” (Tillich 1964a, p. 51), the truly ultimate should become the norm by which every human endeavour must be judged (Midgley 1967). The individual here has no objective proof whatsoever to rely upon. It is his ultimate concern that provides the subjective certainty,Footnote 11 the imperativeness and assurance for him, which results in conviction and commitment to act. In respect of morality, it could be said that for Tillich, morality is considered essentially to be a matter of conviction and concern, not content. Morality is not about rules or principles.

The point to stress here is that “ultimate concern” is not about anchoring our conduct in some absolute set of rules or values, it is not about resurrecting Nietzsche’s dead god; rather, it is about our total and unconditional reliance on our own concern. The concern is not towards some universal object out there either; rather, it is inward. A genuine ultimate concern appears in our experience, in our person-to-person encounter, as the fundamental source of our being (Dorrien et al. 2007); it “represents what we essentially are and therefore ought to be” (Tillich 1957, p. 56). Since one’s ultimate concern is not necessarily the same as those of others, the issue of moral relativity could still be raised here: that is to say, it could be asked if one’s ultimate concern should be interdependently connected with others? Tillich would respond to such an issue by reminding us that such questions arise only if we confuse the “ultimate concern”, which is absolute, with the content of ultimate concern, which is relative.

Theonomous Ethics

Ontology, as the foundation of all values and meaning, leads Tillich to be dismissive of all value theories that depend on a valuating subject, choosing among a number of relative values through some valuation process. To move away from the relativity in such a process, we cannot rely upon the existence of some chosen absolute or basic values as the criteria for a hierarchy of values because such absolute values themselves require another foundation, as Nietzsche’s genealogy revealed. “[T]he whole theory” of values, Tillich concludes, “is wrecked by the necessity of distinguishing between relative values, which can be reduced to valuations, and absolute values, which require another foundation because they command valuations” (Tillich 1959a, p. 192).

Tillich places the solutions offered by other ethical theories into three categories: a) heteronomy, b) autonomy, and c) rationalistic-progressive (Tillich 1995, p. 83). Although these solutions are mutually exclusive, Tillich attempts to combine the respective strengths of each and eliminate their weaknesses, to formulate a unique form of ethics (Novak 1986).

In heteronomous ethics, the self is recognised as part of a larger structure and needs to conform to the commands and precepts of an external authority such as God. Tillich rejects heteronomous values, because such commands do not provide the required moral imperative and motivation. “How can commandments” he asks, “coming from beyond existence possess obligation for existing beings with whose being they have no essential relationship?” (Tillich 1954, p. 75). Such commands suffer from an inherent rigidity and inadaptability resulting in the degeneration of morality into moralism and “the distortion of the moral imperative into an oppressive law” (Tillich 1959b, p. 133). On Tillich’s account one must resist obedience to any command that is not stemmed from one’s inner being because such commands deny one’s dignity as a person.

Ethical autonomy sits at the opposite extreme to that of heteronomy. Here the self is meant to be the ultimate moral authority. Within the camp of autonomous ethics, Tillich includes existential philosophies where truth is taken to be relative, and change has been made the chief character of the ethical principles. The autonomous approach however, results in relativity in ethics, due to absence of any absolute or ultimate principles; and Tillich is dismissive of the idea that values can be derived from existence or life itself or be dependent on their relation to life, because existence itself is the domain of estrangement, and life stands within the hierarchy of values, not detached from it.

Other theories within the category of ethical autonomy attempt to redress the deficiencies left open by pure autonomy by taking a pragmatic stance, and appeal to experience or reason to provide ethical norms.Footnote 12 Tillich refers to these as the “rationalistic-progressive” solutions, which establish some principles, such as equality, responsibility, happiness or freedom, in the name of absolute moral laws in nature or in human reason. Tillich finds this approach ineffective too, because “in their basic ideas, they agree with the principles of the philosophy of life” of ethical autonomy (Tillich 1995, p. 85). Tillich concludes that “neither autonomy nor heteronomy, isolated and in conflict, can give the answer” (Tillich 1964b, p. 96). Ethics should be,

“concerned with neither the Good nor obligation, with neither the personal order nor the legal order. It is not moral philosophy; it is the science of ethos, that is, the science of the realization of the Unconditioned within meaning-fulfilling existential relationships” (Tillich 1981, p. 203).

In marrying autonomy and heteronomy, Tillich establishes a theonomous form of ethics, claiming that it can overcome the inadequacies and problems of ethical relativity as well as the rigidity and absolutism of law. It “transcend[s] both graceless moralism and normless relativism in ethical theory and moral actions” (Tillich 1995, p. 14). This is achieved by showing the distinction between the moral imperative which is absolute and unchanging, from the moral content which is relative and dependent on the cultural norms and the particular concrete situation in which the moral decision is being made.

Theonomy, Tillich clarifies, is not “the acceptance of the divine law imposed on reason by a highest authority [that is heteronomy]; it means autonomous reason united with its own depth” (Tillich 1964b, p. 94), which is the ground of our being or being-itself. Theonomous ethics is autonomous, although “the ethical principles and processes are described in the light of the Spiritual Presence” (Tillich 1964c, p. 285). Clearly, autonomy for Tillich does not mean having the freedom to do what one pleases; rather it refers to “the obedience of the individual or society to the law found in its own being” (Midgley 1962, p. 251). Ethics, he writes “is purely autonomous, entirely free from all religious heteronomy and yet ‘theonomous’ as a whole in the sense of the fundamental religious experience”.Footnote 13 Unlike autonomous and heteronomous ethics which are “without ultimate moral motivating power” (Tillich 1964c, p. 292), theonomous ethics, through the spirit-created love, can provide moral motivation.Footnote 14 Theonomous ethics, Tillich elaborates, is an ethics in which, under the influence and impact of God or “Spiritual Presence, the religious substance - the experience of an ultimate concern - is consciously expressed through the process of free arguing and through an attempt to determine it” (Tillich 1964c, p. 285). It takes into account the ontological foundation of values by considering the command of God as being that of “man’s essential nature put against him as a law” (Tillich 1954, p. 76). It is thus the natural moral law (Tillich 1995, p. 33), according to which a human being, by his very nature, has an awareness of universally valid moral norms. Such norms are rooted in his essential nature and ultimately and by implication, in the structure of being-itself. As our essential nature, moral laws are neither autonomous, that is we have not imposed it on ourselves, nor are they heteronomous, not something imposed on us from outside. Tillich believes that “the contrast of ethical demands in separated cultures is not a contradiction, but a different expression of a common fundamental principle” (Tillich 1995, p. 31).

Within theonomous ethics, morality and each moral act has a religious component, pointing to its transcendental dimension which gives it its seriousness. I turn to explore this religious element in every moral act.


Tillich asserts that “the moral law is experienced as law only because man is estranged from the structural law of his essential being, namely, to become a centred person”Footnote 15 (Tillich 1995, p. 48), so moral experience is in fact an expression of one’s encounter with reality (Tillich 1967, chap.3). A non-moral act then, is not the violation of a list of rules or disobedience to a commandFootnote 16; rather, it is a condition or state in which one exists, separated from one’s initial essential nature. It is the transition from our essential into an existential state; the transition out of our original state of unity. The essential nature is our created state, and since God’s creation can only be good, our essential state must also be good and in unity with the ground of our being. A non-moral act is our act of turning away from the participation in the ground of our being (Tillich 1963, p. 56).

In contrast, a moral act is the act of transitioning back to our essential state where we are reunited with the ground of our being, overcome estrangement, and become whole again. “True ethical principle is the reconciliation with one’s own being” (Tillich 1965,3rd. dialogue). Thus, “morality is the constitution of the bearer of the spirit, the centred person” (Tillich 1995, p. 17) and moral act is the act of establishing oneself as a person through self-realisation, self-actualisation and self-constitution in encounter with other persons (Tillich 1964c, p. 169; 1995, p. 21), and not obedience or “subjection to laws” (Tillich 1962, p. 51), whether divine or human.

Drawing on Tillich’s conception of religion as “ultimate concern”, we can examine the components of morality, those of moral imperative, moral content and moral motivation, to show that each has a religious character.

Moral Imperative

The moral imperative is the “ought-to-be” (Tillich 1959a, p. 195) rather than “ought-to-do”. It “is the command to become what one potentially is, a person within a community of persons”; where one’s “true being shall become his actual being - this is the moral imperative” (Tillich 1995, p. 20). As an imperative, the moral command must have an absolute and unconditional character irrespective of its content and regardless of whether one obeys the command or not. But “it is impossible to derive a moral imperative from other sources than its own intrinsic nature” (Tillich 1967,chap.3 para.5), because if we were able to derive it, say, through some calculations of utility or fear of reward and punishment or other means, moral imperative would then depend on something else, becomes a conditional imperative, and loses its absolute seriousness and unconditionality. The moment one recognises something as a moral duty, the duty becomes unconditional, categorical, absolute and imperative.

Tillich’s ontological foundation of values dispels the gap between “is” and “ought” perceived in value theories. The moral imperative, “the ought-to-be which is implied in the objective value is rooted in the essential nature of man”; so it is in fact one’s essential nature that appears “as commanding authority” (Tillich 1959a, p. 195). Thus, it is not an external law that demands our obedience, rather “the ‘silent voice’ of our own nature” (Tillich 1995, p. 24). This “silent voice” is an indication that despite one’s estrangement from one’s essential being, he/she is not completely separated from it, and the moral command is unconditional because it is we ourselves commanding ourselves. “This alone makes it obligatory and …. accounts for the unconditional form of the moral imperative, however conditioned the contents may be” (Tillich 1954, p. 77).

Since a person becomes a person in his encounter with another person and in no other way (Tillich 1994, p. 248), any attempts to objectify or dehumanise the other in this encounter in effect destroys one’s own humanity, and “he never can become a mature person” himself (Tillich 1962, p. 51). It is this potential for destruction or damage to one’s own constitution as a personFootnote 17 “…that creates the unconditional character of the moral imperative” (Tillich 1967, chap.3 para.9).

The moral act unites our essential being with our actual being, and once this unity is achieved, once we have fulfilled the moral imperative to “become a person” (Tillich 1995, p. 20), there would be no need for a moral command, because “We would be what we should be, and do what we should do. There would be no ‘ought to be,’ no command, ‘Thou shalt.. .’ only simple being” (Tillich 1967, chap.3 para.11). Ethics then is not something one has or does, but something one is. (Tajalli and Segal 2019) A non-moral act on the other hand, hinders our self-actualisation and self-affirmation as a person.

Self-actualisation then comes to be Tillich’s answer to the question “why be moral?” It is imperative because it is the telos for which we are created, and is unconditionally valid because it is our own “essential being that confronts us in the moral command, demanding something from us in our actual being with all its problems and distortions” (Tillich 1967, chap.3 para.10).

Morality must be categorical not hypothetical; it must be imperative, otherwise it will not be a moral act.Footnote 18 It is this imperativeness, this unconditional character of an act that makes the act a moral one, not the content of the act itself. This is an important claim, because it means that faced with a number of alternative decisions, each one might be justified as a moral act in a particular situation as long as the decision is done “with the consciousness of standing under an unconditional imperative. The doubt concerning the justice of a moral act does not contradict the certainty of its ultimate seriousness” (Tillich 1995, p. 23).

Of course, every moral decision carries a risk, the risk of being the wrong decision; but for Tillich, the wrongness of the decision does not make the decision immoral, because a moral decision is only dependent on the unconditionality, the “ought to be” of the moral imperative.

The unconditionality of moral imperative implies something above finitude and transitoriness (Tillich 1995, p. 28); and as religion is defined as the state of being infinitely concerned with the unconditional, Tillich concludes that moral imperative has a religious dimension, and religion is its intrinsic unconditional character and quality. This is to say that “morality points beyond it to its religious foundation” (Tillich 1995, p. 15). Of course, if indeed religion is intrinsic in moral imperative, there can then be no conflict between religion and secular ethics (Tillich 1995, p. 30).

In short, religion is the state of being grasped by ultimate concern; everyone has an ultimate concern hence everyone is religious. “Morality is self-affirmation of our essential being” (Tillich 1959b, p. 136), but “our ultimate concern [also] represents what we essentially are and therefore ought to be” (Tillich 1957, p. 56). Since the moral imperative “consists of actions taking the character of the ultimate concern” (Hummel 1987, p. 126), we could say that an ethical act is in fact an expression of the ultimate concern. It has a clear religious dimension and is an unconditional imperative because of this religious quality.

Moral Content

Although the moral imperative has an unconditional and absolute character, the moral content that is the relationship itself is relative, because each situation in which the individual finds herself is unique.

For Tillich, an individual is always in a relation and cannot be studied apart from her relations.Footnote 19 A relationship or “ethical content is a product of culture and shares all the relativities of cultural creativity” (Tillich 1964c, p. 170), hence it pertains to norms and standards current in society, that is to say, it is always a socially conditioned relationship (Tillich 1981, p. 188). Tillich holds that in every system of thought, “there is a point where individual experience, traditional valuation, and personal commitment must decide the issue” (Tillich 1964b, p. 8); and as Taylor (2009) notes,Footnote 20 for Tillich “there is really no self-constitution, [and] no moral act without participation in culture”. However, if ethical content shares the relativities of culture, would ethical relativism across cultures and times be justified? In other words, are there still any absolute guiding principles that help us make ethical decisions?

To address the normative aspect of ethics, Tillich describes the ethical relationship in terms of the principles of justice, love and power, and contends that all three concepts have ontological foundation and need to be understood as part of the structure of the being-itself, “metaphysically speaking as old as being itself” (Tillich 1954, p. 20).

Within an ethical relationship, the other person in the relation demands by his very existence to be acknowledged as a person (Tillich 1954, p. 60); he demands justice. Justice is needed to recognise and affirm “every person as a person” (Tillich 1954, p. 43). Justice, then, is the form in which a person maintains the relationship with the other and actualises himself in the process.Footnote 21

Since failure to treat the other as a person is to damage the relationship and hence depersonalise oneself, “injustice against the other one is always injustice against oneself” (Tillich 1954, p. 78). Tillich’s view of justice is not in terms of equality and retribution which can be detached and objective, and performed as an external act without creating a relationship between the parties. The person to person encounter, always implies involvement, mutual participation and communion; it is a union between two beings, “mere objectivity never occurs between human beings” (Tillich 1995, p. 38); indeed, decisions “based on the abstract formulation of justice alone is essentially and inescapably unjust” (Tillich 1954, p. 15) and can never be applied or be considered appropriate and effective for a given concrete situation.

Tillich asserts that “justice is not an abstract ideal standing over existence; it is the fulfilment of primal being, the fulfilment of that which was intended by the origin”,Footnote 22 and what was intended by origin is the unity and participation of the separated. “The name of this participation is love” (Tillich 1994, pp. 248–249). Love is the desire and urge for the “union of the separated who belong to each other and want to reunite” (Tillich 1967, chap.2 para.12). Thus, the dynamic driving force towards the reunion of persons in a relation is love not justice, it “is love which creates participation in the concrete situation” (Tillich 1954, p. 15).Footnote 23

Love has an ontological foundationFootnote 24 because human love cannot be through one’s initiative; that is to say, autonomy cannot be the ground of love, as we do not choose to love, we just love. The ground cannot be heteronomous either, because love is not something we could elicit. To prevent the relation or encounter with the other degenerating into sentimentality or becoming a mere act of obedience to the law, or mere identification with the other person, love in the sense of its agapeFootnote 25 quality, takes justice into itself as its unconditional element and transcends the finite limits of human love. In so doing it converts justice into a “creative justice” (Tillich 1995, p. 42). Creative justice is the place where justice united with love becomes the type of justice needed in the person-to-person encounter. It explains the relation and the unity necessary in recognition of the other person. Love does not eliminate the need for justice nor can it give what justice cannot; rather, it is the creative element in justice. With respect to love, justice “is the secondary and derived principle”; love is the primary, “the creative and basic principle” (Tillich 1995, p. 94) and the criterion of ethical judgements. Love binds the moral imperative, which is always unconditional, with the content of the moral, which is conditional, and it can do this because “love is unconditional in its essence, conditional in its existence” (Tillich 1964c, p. 290). Love can transform itself according to the concrete situation without losing its unconditional validity, and in doing so “offers a principle of ethics that maintains an eternal, unchangeable element but makes its realisation dependent on continuous acts of a creative intuition” (Tillich 1995, p. 88). The historical and cultural relativity of ethical content does not contradict the unconditionality of the moral imperative, because in order to be valid, all contents must “confirm the reunion of man’s existential with his essential being”; this means that all contents must be expressions of love (Tillich 1964c, p. 290).

Moral Motivation

Drawing a distinction between commanding law and moral law, Tillich dismisses the motivational force of the commanding law, because the very existence of such law is the expression of man’s estrangement from his nature. Without this estrangement there would be no need for the law to demand reunion in the first place, hence it makes no sense to expect the law itself be able to overcome this estrangement. The command to be good or to do good, which is the case in heteronomous morality, does not make us do good (Tillich 1995, pp. 49–51). Rather it is the moral motivation which is “the driving or attracting power of that which is the goal of the moral command - the good” (Tillich 1995, p. 60). It is the goal of the moral command not the command itself that provides the motivation. The moral goal then, needs to transcend the moral command or the moral imperative itself.

The fulfilment of moral command, to become a person, must be conditioned on something above the command itself, on “something in which the spilt between our essential and our existential is overcome” (Tillich 1995, p. 64).

The moral goal cannot be produced intentionally.Footnote 26 To command or demand love from someone results in a superficial and non-genuine response, because “love intentionally produced shows indifference or hostility in perversion” (Tillich 1954, p. 4); and indeed, any attempt to inject or engender moral motivation inevitably degenerates theonomy into heteronomy.

Tillich holds the view that we are motivated to affirm our essential being and seek reunion, when we become aware of our “belonging to a transcendent union of unambiguous life which is the Divine Life”Footnote 27 (Tillich 1964c, p. 169). In other words, the act of our faith, that is being grasped by the transcendent union, our ultimate concern, “and the fact of accepting the moral imperative’s unconditional character are one and the same act” (Tillich 1964c, p. 169).

Theonomous Business Ethics

Tillich’s theonomous ethics would call for a reorientation of the way business ethics as a field, has approached ethics. Theonomous ethics is not in any specific act but is in the holistic act that constitutes the self as a moral subject. The moral imperative is not the application of some rules or duty to a situation, rather it is the self-actualisation of oneself as a person within or through the relationship with others. This is significant because it means that without others, there can be no intersubjective relationships and as such not only the moral imperative cannot be fulfilled but the very notion of ethics disappears.

Since “[b]usiness organisations are undeniably human affairs” (Cohan 2002, p. p.291) and how they are managed “can have a major impact on human connection with meaning, transformation, and a goal of transcendence” (Allen 2019, p. 304), they provide an arena within which human beings could fulfill their moral imperative, and become a person. If as Charles Taylor argued, the sacred survives the secular and secularism is not the reduction of religious belief or practice rather a change in the condition of belief (Beltramini 2019), then modern secular business and management practice is not totally bereft of the element of sacred and as such the accommodation of “ultimate concern” and an element of theonomy should not be considered as an implausible or unpalatable proposition for organisations. Of course business condition and organisational culture and environment could become a hindrance to self-actualisation, for example, when profits and share value maximisation take priority over people and relationships. Indeed the prevalence of economic paradigm has made modern organisations amoral if not immoral, and an amoral organisation discourages its members from applying their own moral values and may even transform them “into individuals without moral standards” (McKenna and Tsahuridu 2001, p. 67).

In an organisational setting, the ethical content or intersubjective relationship between various stakeholders, is a function of the organisational culture. The establishment and maintenance of such relationship is conditioned on the need for creative justice which requires recognition and respect for the other person as a human being, based on genuine love. But genuine love cannot be manufactured, much less through organisational processes and techniques. What business and management could do however, is to remove the impediments that prevent manifestation of love in these relationships. Excessive materialism for instance, prevents formation of genuine love because materialism focuses on the construction and maintenance of the self (Shrum et al. 2013) and emphasises products over experiences (Van Boven and Gilovich 2003) resulting in trade-offs between social relationships and material pursuits (Kasser 2002). When organisations foster a climate for managerial self-serving and narcissistic behaviour (Child and Rodrigues 2003, p. p.239; Roberts 2001, p. p.109), or introduce rules and codes that “substitute moral feelings with economic calculations” (Bouckaert 2006) which “dilute responsibility” (Boda and Zsolnai 2016, p. p.93), they in effect neutralize “the disruptive and deregulating impact of moral impulse” (Bauman 1993, p. p.125) that emanates from genuine love. They impair the moral content of morality.

Another implication of theonomous ethics for business is the component of moral motivation. Motivation to act is often neglected on the assumption that once a normative ethical theory is adopted, or a set of codes of ethics formulated and emphasised as binding, employees’ adherence to ethical instructions will follow. The fear of sanctions or punishment by organisations is often used as the mechanism through which compliance is enforced. For Tillich however, the knowledge of moral imperative does not generate the motivation to act morally, nor manufactured motivation by any means is considered effective or proper. Development of codes of ethics in business is nothing but an attempt to legislate moral law which simply destroys the morality of moral law. They do not create genuine moral motivation because they lack the unconditionality and ultimacy required to become one’s “ultimate concern”. Codes of ethics imposed on employees, as outside commands from management, rob the employees of their dignity, and the consequence of such a loss is an increase in employee distress and anxiety that any form of management needs to be aware of (Noel-Lemaitre and Le Loarne-Lemaire 2012). The hold on one’s ultimate concern as a way of ethical decision making in business could be considered to be on par with the call for restoration of “divine dimension” that emphasises “Man-God relationship [without] being concerned with conceptualising God himself” (Ismaeel 2019, p. 347). This, Ismaeel claims translates into an expansion of ethical responsibility in management. We could also point to Muers and Burton (2019, p. 370)‘s proposed business decision making model based on Quakers’ beliefs, where “Truth [is] the way of life of the person who knows and responds to God”. The difference is that in Theonomous ethics, the absoluteness of “ultimate concern” is only for the individual with the concern and need not have any religious connotation in the sense of being dependent on God. The criteria for ‘ethical decision’ making by management does not rest on the necessity of a shared “ultimate concern” by all individuals involved, rather the key is that individual’s vision or grasp of her “ultimate concern” is not obscured by the trappings of modern business practice. An ethical organisation would be one in which individual’s hold on her/his own ultimate concern is given the opportunity to foster. Such an organisation would neither impede individual’s hold on her ultimate concern, nor coerce the individual into idolatry, in the sense of pushing her towards adopting a finite concern as her ultimate concern. Devotion to an organisation, consumer fetishism, share price maximisation, investors’ satisfaction, customers’ satisfaction, or meeting various other organisational financial goals, KPIs and planned bottom lines, are all examples of finite concerns or false gods, that cannot provide genuine moral motivation. Promotion and adoption of such concerns as one’s ultimate concern current in business today, leaves the door for unethical behaviour wide open.

What should be important for an organisation and management is the depth and strength of hold each employee has towards his/her ultimate concern irrespective of the content of concern which may very well differ from one person to another. This is like urging and encouraging all employees to do their best, without being concerned with fixing and imposing a notion of “best” on them. Here management in effect comes to accept the inherent goodness of each individual which should shine forth when individual’s ultimate concern is involved.

A philosophy of management that adopts or orients itself towards a theonomous ethics, and acknowledges the human experiences of meaning making and motivating that stem from our connection and hold on our “ultimate concern”, could pave the way for ethical conduct and ethical decision making which are grounded in genuine love. This also allows for a consistency in the expression of managers morality at work as well as other spheres of their lives.


Paul Tillich’s theonomous ethics is founded on the belief that an existential problem of our own doing, cannot have an existential solution of our own making. The crisis of ethics is not the consequence of the death of God as Nietzsche claimed, but our estrangement from God. Theonomous ethics is an attempt to heal this estrangement by embracing both ethical autonomy and heteronomy, underpinned by one’s hold on “ultimate concern”. Everyone has an ultimate concern, and this gives morality its’ transcendental or religious character, and motivational force. Morality is not about determination of right from wrong, and moral imperative is not doing what “right” is, rather it is self-actualisation of individual through her intersubjective relationships, which require justice and genuine love.

The implication of theonomous ethics for business and organisations is the awareness that employees’ or a managers’ hold on their ultimate concerns, should neither be impeded through organisational bureaucracy nor weakened or supplanted through emphasis on finite business concerns, since such concerns can never truly become one’s ultimate concern and as such fail to provide the required conviction and motivation to fulfil self-actualisation as the moral imperative.


  1. 1.

    Marcel writes: “nothing could be more fallacious than the idea of a sort of nakedness of being which exists before qualities and properties and which is later to be clothed by them” (Marcel 1965, p. 23).

  2. 2.

    Tillich describes correlation as the “interdependence of two independent factors, for example the correlation between existential questions and theological answers” (Tillich 1964d, p. 13)..

  3. 3.

    Nietzsche attributed ethical nihilism to the death of God, as absolute foundation for values.

  4. 4.

    Tillich holds the view that “every constructive philosophy and theology unites essentialist and existentialist elements”, so it is crucial to understand our essential nature, indeed as a critique of many existential philosophers; he notes that “one has misunderstood existentialism if one uses it without reference to its opposite”, essentialism (Tillich 1962, p. 42).

  5. 5.

    “The liberation given to man by technical possibilities turns into enslavement to technical actuality” (Tillich 1964c, p. 74), as a result, “man, for whom all this was invented as a means, becomes a means himself” (Tillich 1952, p. 138).

  6. 6.

    Tillich writes: “The man-created world of objects has drawn into itself him who created it and who now loses his subjectivity in it. He has sacrificed himself to his own productions” (Tillich 1952, p. 138).

  7. 7.

    Tillich points out that, by absolute, he does not refer to “an absolute thing” such as how God is thought of by many; rather to “something that resists the stream of relativities” (Tillich 1967, p. chap.2 para.8).

  8. 8.

    Even in the activity of the most secular of our enterprises, that of scientific enquiry, Gilkey (1970, p. 40) argues, we can observe a dimension of ultimacy or of unconditioned, and this is despite the tendency and the character of our modern society to reject a “meaningful dimension of ultimacy”. Gilkey writes: “… ironically, science as a human endeavour depends for its very achievement of objectivity and rationality on a deep, and in relation to other passions, an ultimate passion among the scientists to find and adhere to the truth” (Gilkey 1970, p. 49).

  9. 9.

    Tillich points out that, from a theological point of view, a preliminary concern is a medium or vehicle pointing to what is beyond itself, to the ultimate concern. For example, a religious relic is a preliminary concern pointing to the transcendence, but becomes an object of idolatry if taken as the ultimate itself.

  10. 10.

    Understanding this distinction provides a criterion for determining the true ultimacy from false ones, since “the term ‘ultimate concern’ unites the subjective and the objective” act of concern (Tillich 1957, p. 10). The subjective side is the act of ultimate concern, which directed towards the objective, namely the ‘ultimate’ itself.

  11. 11.

    Tillich writes: “We can only point to [Ultimate Concern]. People have made it known; and we can find it in ourselves. There is no external evidence for it…” (Tillich 1965, p. 2nd. dialogue).

  12. 12.

    Max Weber’s combination of “ethics of responsibility” and “ethics of conviction” is probably a reasonable fit under this category.

  13. 13.

    (From ‘What is Religion?’ by Paul Tillich, as quoted in O'Keeffe 1982, p. 139).

  14. 14.

    Love is the key factor here, as ethics is nothing but “the expression of the ways in which love embodies itself, and life is maintained and saved” (Tillich 1995, p. 95).

  15. 15.

    The moral law “is the expression of what man essentially is and therefore ought to be, but what he actually is not, as the law shows to him” (Tillich 1995, p. 53).

  16. 16.

    Tillich writes: “… sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation” (Tillich 1955b, p. chap.19 para.15) and “… sin does not mean an immoral act….?” (Tillich 1955b, p. chap.19 para.14).

  17. 17.

    Tillich writes: “In our tendency to abuse and destroy others, there is an open or hidden tendency to abuse and to destroy ourselves. Cruelty towards others is always also cruelty towards ourselves” (Tillich 1955b, p. chap.19 para.10).

  18. 18.

    This is in contrast to ethical philosophies that see the moral aim as providing the maximum amount of pleasure or utility, taking the moral act itself to be the moral imperative; but on Tillich’s account, achieving maximum amount of good or pleasure through an act does not provide the imperativeness to commit the act in the first place.

  19. 19.

    “[M]eaningful existential relationship is always supported by social relationships”. Tillich (1981, p. 188)

  20. 20.

    Taylor arrives at this conclusion in reading the third volume of Tillich’s Systematic Theology.

  21. 21.

    Tillich writes: “Justice is always violated if men are dealt with as if they were things.... it contradicts the justice of being, the intrinsic claim of every person to be considered a person” (Tillich 1954, p. 60).

  22. 22.

    (‘The Socialist Decision (1933), p.140’ as quoted by Taylor 2009, p. 203).

  23. 23.

    We should bear in mind that Tillich talks about reunion of the parties, not union, because there has to be a prior unity and belongingness between the parties without which unity cannot come about. Tillich maintains that “love cannot be described as the union of the strange but as the reunion of the estranged. Estrangement presupposes original oneness” (Tillich 1954, p. 25).

  24. 24.

    Love here is not the sentimental or emotional type because “if love is emotional, how can it be demanded? Emotions cannot be demanded”, (Tillich 1954, p. 4) however, “acts of love must have an emotional background” so that feeling and desire lead into action (Novak 1986, p. 450).

  25. 25.

    Agape refers to the transcendental aspect of love, it “is the quality within love which prevents the other forms of love from becoming distorted into selfishness” (Tillich 1994, p. 249).

  26. 26.

    In a similar connection Tillich writes: “But a spiritual center cannot be produced intentionally, and the attempt to produce it only produces deeper anxiety” (Tillich 1952, p. 48).

  27. 27.

    The root of ambiguity of life is the existence and separation of the elements of essential and existential (Tillich 1964c, pp. 114–115).


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Tajalli, P. Theonomous Business Ethics. Philosophy of Management 20, 57–73 (2021).

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  • Business ethics
  • Existentialism
  • Paul Tillich
  • Theonomy
  • Ultimate concern
  • Moral motivation