The movement of commercial business enterprises to the venue of the Internet and the development of virtual communities to transact business pose interesting and challenging ethical questions. This paper will investigate, from the perspective of a business practitioner, the characteristics in elements that are necessary and I virtual business community to permit its participants to judge whether the activities conducted within the community are, in fact, ethical.
The first section of this paper will investigate the different types and styles of emerging virtual business communities and identify the characteristics that validate a virtual business community and distinguish it from other, ad hoc business relationships. The investigation will focus both on those characteristics that serve to define a valid organization [in opposition to and association of individuals that has little permanence] and those that are associated with organizations from an ethical perspective. The role of corporate coats of ethics in a virtual business community environment will be discussed as well as the difficulties that arise when conducting business in an international or global context.
The second part of the paper will look at the human participants in these virtual business communities. Though they may represent commercial entities, existing virtual business communities relying on the specific actions of human participants. The focus here will be on the participants as actors and the characteristics that define them as responsible and ethical members of the virtual community. One part of the discussion will be about the tension that can arise among the personal ethical principles of the participants, the code of ethics of the business enterprise, and the ethical perspectives of the other corporate participants in a community.
The core of this paper will be an exposition and discussion of specific ethical issues that arise during the interactions of the human participants in virtual business communities. The examination of cases drawn from existing virtual business communities will focus on the turning points that frequently arise in business transactions. It is the thesis of this paper that those turning points provide the path to discern the ethical nature of the specific virtual business community.
From the case examples, the paper then will discuss the ethical principles that can be derived from an examination of the ethical turning points and their relationship to traditional ethical approaches of the deontological, utilitarian, and virtue ethics. A specific analysis will be focused on the role of character or virtue and whether, in a virtual business community environment, the ethical character of the human participants can be discerned and validated.
The final section of the paper will move to a discussion of the manner in which ethical judgments can be employed within the context of a virtual business community. It will offer both a theoretical framework for the establishment of a mutually recognized ethical environment and practical approaches to validate, on a continual basis, the ethical nature of the virtual business community. The focus here will be on the ability of the human participants, and ultimately their business enterprises, to judge that the virtual community in which they are participating as a solid ethical foundation and continues to operate in an ethical manner.
The argument of this paper will move from examples of the real transactions occurring in virtual business communities to the characteristics necessary for the human participants to be able both to recognize the ethical character of a community’s actions and to judge whether the individuals’ business organization should maintain its place within that community.