The Limits of Generosity: Lessons on Ethics, Economy, and Reciprocity in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Carl Rhodes*, Robert Westwood

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


This paper interrogates the relation between reciprocity and ethics as it concerns participation in the world of work and organizations. Tracing discussions of business and organizational ethics that concern themselves, respectively, with the ethics of self-interest, the ethics of reciprocity, and the ethics of generosity, we explore the possibility of ethical relations with those who are seen as radically different, and who are divested of anything worth exchanging. To address this we provide a reading of Franz Kafka’s famous novella The Metamorphosis and relate to it as a means to extend our understanding of business and organizational ethics. This story, we demonstrate, yields insight into the unbearable demands of ethics as they relate to reciprocity and generosity. On this basis, we draw conclusions concerning the mutually constitutive ethical limitations of reciprocity and generosity as ethical touchstones for organizational life while simultaneously accepting the seemingly insurmountable difficulties of exceeding those limits. In such a condition, we argue, ethics is not best served by adopting idealistic or moralizing positions regarding generosity but rather by working in the indissoluble tensions between self and other.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)235-248
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


  • Ethical generosity
  • Kafka
  • Levinas
  • Literature and organization
  • Reciprocity


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