Richard Turnbull: “The Moral Case for Profit Maximization,” by Robert White

Robert White is dean of faculty and assistant professor of philosophy at the American University in Bulgaria. He was previously Chair and dean of the Faculty of Business. He teaches courses on business ethics and the philosophy of capitalism and has previously written on Adam Smith and also on aspects of the idea of profit. He is thus well-qualified to write on the moral case for profit maximization.

The book consists of 7 chapters, but in reality is a book of two halves around the pivotal chapter 4 which provides brief portraits of businessmen as examples of virtue and character necessary for the moral basis for profit maximization. The first three chapters deal with the more theoretical basis, identifying the questions (chapter 1), the moral basis (chapter 2) and the notion of objective value (chapter 3). The last three chapters turn to clarifications around the concept (chapter 5), incomplete defences (chapter 6) and finally a critique of Corporate Social Responsibility (chapter 7).

In a context of frequent confusion over the proper role of business, together with the emergence of differing approaches to purpose from B-Corps to mutuality, this book makes a welcome case for the morality of profit maximization. The author brings out some important points that are frequently lost in the discussion, not least the emphasis on the moral rather than simply the economic case. In doing so he brings the topic back to a philosophical debate about both value and values.

The writing, however, is somewhat repetitive, circular, occasionally “preachy” and rather laborious which consequently loses some of the impact. The second half is increasingly polemic and hence likely to alienate some readers, apart from an excellent discussion in chapter 6 on Milton Friedman, to which I will return. It concludes with a rather wasted last chapter attacking corporate social responsibility.

The real strength of Robert White’s approach is brought out in the first half of the book. The moral case for profit maximization is based on the value of what business produces and the virtue of how it is produced. This is a useful couplet in discussions around profit, shareholder value and so on and I would have liked a more reflective discussion on the relationship between the two. In summary, White argues that “Profit maximization is moral because profit is a businessman’s reward for creating goods or services that are of objective value” (page 62). He goes on to cite the wheel, the refrigerator and the shipping container as examples of goods produced of objective value that significantly contributed to human life and well-being.

White makes the important point that profit maximization does not mean either that it is prioritized above all other values or that unethical or suspect business practices are an inevitable consequence of a quest for it – such behaviours would fail the virtue test. He makes a crucial distinction between profit maximization and profit prioritization, the latter would require a businessman to act against his values which would be contrary to White’s concept of profit maximization. However, the sorts of examples that White quotes are often, though not exclusively, those of personal morality (for example, pornography, page 122); a more comprehensive discussion of how this distinction operates in the area of competing business or economic values would have been helpful.

The book takes a slightly different turn in chapter 4 with profiles of several historically prominent business figures, J.P. Morgan (1837-1913), John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) and Thomas Edison (1847-1931) together with the research scientist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895). He offers these as examples of virtuous businessmen and “models for a well-lived life” (page 96). To use just one example, that of Rockefeller, Robert White argues that through his Standard Oil company he both raised the quality of oil and reduced the price and, therefore, through this provision of fuel enhanced the quality of lives of millions of people. The point that we often overlook is the basic improvement in human life brought about through the efficient operation of the profit-maximizing corporation.

It is certainly true that Rockefeller identified goods of objective value that he was able to produce efficiently and effectively and that they contributed to the public good. In that sense a moral case is made.  It would nonetheless have been helpful for White to set out explicitly why, in this example, there is an inextricably link to profit maximization.

We do, however, see traces in this chapter of the beginnings of some of the polemic that emerges in the second half of the book. White turns in the second half of chapter 4 to deal with what he calls unjust accusations against his selected examples. Clearly he chose some contested figures, which he acknowledges. There are a number of “straw targets” set up to be shot down. For example, Rockefeller obtaining preferential rates from the railroads is seen not as an example of oligopolistic power but a consequence of a mixed rather than market economy (page 113). White accepts his examples were mixed characters but the comparison is always with their personal lives rather than business practices.

Chapters 5 and 6 approach the debate about the morality of profit maximization from a negative perspective, concentrating on what profit maximization is not more than its positive presentation. This makes for a more defensive reading and reasoning. The highlight of these chapters is an excellent discussion in chapter 6 around Milton Friedman’s famous maxim, in his 1970 New York Times article, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits”. White notes that Friedman argued that the business corporation and its executives had an absolute responsibility to the owners of the business on whose behalf they acted and points out that this is not profit maximization as such and, if the owners had different, or mixed objectives, then the corporation and its executives must serve those aims – Friedman’s real argument is for the rights of shareholders to determine a corporation’s direction (page 154).

I agree with a good deal of the critique of Corporate Social Responsibility (“CSR”) set out in chapter 7. However, this chapter sits somewhat ill-at-ease with the rest of the book and, in particular, falls into polemic. Why choose CSR for such treatment? The questions of business purpose and responsibility have rather moved on from the CSR approach. This chapter made the book feel somewhat dated and the chapter reads like an add-on, and, occasionally a rant. Why not an overview of alternative approaches to the morality of profit maximization?

This is an important book with a distinctive and creative approach to the question of the morality of profit maximization. It establishes a sound basic framework and asks some central questions. The book is, however, unnecessarily unbalanced, allowing polemic to emerge in defence of a rationale and well-founded set of ideas. It would have been improved by a more rigorous engagement with alternatives. The conclusion could, of course, remain, that there is a strong moral case for profit maximization rightly understood.


“The Moral Case for Profit Maximization,” by Robert White was published in 2020 by Lexington Books (ISBN: 978-1-4985-4265-4). 231pp.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.