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”.

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  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