Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An Ethical Conundrum...

As you folks may or may not know I recently started in the MBA program at the University of St. Thomas where they say that business ethics is a big deal. In the College of Business mission it states that “we are committed to encouraging serious consideration and application of ethical values in business decision making.”

A movie I watched recently has made me take a second look at what exactly ethics in the bussiness community and society in general really means. In the movie, The Corporation, they look at a study done by Russell Mokhiber entitled Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the Decade (the nineties).

And after watching the movie and looking over the study I had a number of questions about our society and its ethics. I think it is reasonable to say that not to many people would be excited about going to work for a small business that is owned by an individual that has been convicted of child abuse or has been convicted of dumping dangerous chemicals in his neighbor’s backyard. So then why is it morally and ethically acceptable to go to work for criminal corporations who do virtually the exact same thing only on a larger scale?

What is it exactly about the giant faceless corporation that makes us willing to accept and shrug off their endangerment of the public, but when an individual does so we write them off as a terrible person? Is it the corporate PR machine that allows them to maintain their wholesome image? Maybe it is the fact that corporations are so intertwined in our lives that we consider them almost like family members who always have the best of intentions and deserve a second chance?


Anonymous said...

How is it possible to just screw over (as in cause major trouble to)your children right there in front of them, their innocent little eyes absorbing every second, internalizing your unspoken message, ensuring that they will do the same to their children?

Think about it next time you fill up your car. Oil? Finite and polluting. Our world? Finite and polluted.


Anonymous said...

The above message relates to our apathy over corporate criminal actions. Somehow we suspend our moral judgment (or rather, substitute in some weird modern version of morals) when it comes to this life in 2005. Whether continuing to shop at Wal-Mart after we learn of unethical and downright cruel business practices, or buying a better car because we've earned it (never mind the terrible mileage), or agreeing that America's free market capitalism may be unfairly and essentially permanently stratifying our society but still going after our own slice of the's just modern life.

Ilya said...

You ask: "What is it exactly about the giant faceless corporation that makes us willing to accept and shrug off their endangerment of the public, but when an individual does so we write them off as a terrible person?"

The conventional answer goes something like this: The realms of politics, business, law, even art, have their own ethical precepts by which they are governed. These differ from personal morality for many reasons. In politics, for example, behavior that would be unethical in private life is justified in public life because the politician has different responsibilites than a private individual. Moral innocence in politics can lead to national disaster, thus politicians, as they say, must get their hands dirty to govern responsibly. This is not to say that there are not political crimes (on the contrary, the great crimes are public crimes), only that different standards apply.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Car's do pollute. They also get you to work, your doctor, the emergency room, etc. Is oil finite, probably. Will it run out: No. The point at which it becomes scarcer, like now, prices will adjust to suppress demand shifting resources towards alternative energy sources. Do you think that people are buying Hummers with the same zeal today when gas is three bucks a gallon as when it was half as much, I doubt it.

Anonymous said...


I agree, it is said different standards do apply, but I'm fascinated by their definition. It would seem the only ones qualified to define these standards would be those held to them, a situation ripe for exploitation.

Has anyone set these standards? The SEC? Are they in the constitution? Are they imbedded in the laws used to restrain Microsoft from swallowing too many aspects of the software market?

Perhaps there are some laws/guidelines that attempt to set and enforce corporate standarads, but maybe it is a case of ability outpacing understanding?

In wildlife management I have been told that "sustainability must be a precondition for management rather than an afterthought." I would venture that just as too many land management practices are put into place without a good idea of what will follow, our economy has spurred business evolution that has outstripped our ability to effectively manage for what will follow. Or is that just what our capitalism is supposed to be, and let the consequences shape our responsibilities?

And a PS to xtrachromosomeconservative:

Totally right, the internal combustion engine is incredibly useful. And right, I don't think the oil will truthfully "run out" either but rather just get really hard to get to.

However, the fact that we have had global warming and oil-soaked sea otters shoved down our throats for nearing two decades and still we don't curb our oil obsession until it hits our pocketbooks: is that reflective of "modern morality?" I think it may be. And sorry my initial statement came off in such an arrogant-hippie tone.


xtrachromosomeconservative said...

No apology necessary. On a broader level we see with white collar crime but also now with high-tech crime (piracy, hacking, identity theft, etc.) is that the action and consequence are effectively segregated. In other words, the actor, is not immediately exposed to the consequence. Also, observers are not immediately exposed to a direct relationship between the action and the consequence and thus have to establish that there is a relationship. This is not to say that actor's is without knowledge of the consequence, or that the consequence is not intentional. It is, but on one level, this physical and abstract separation allows the actor to rationalize his actions and also insulates him in many ways from a more caustic public scrutiny. I recall in college, there was a classmate who started a virus on campus. It embedded itself into people's email systems and then made into other people's computers off campus by tapping into existing addresses. My computer was pretty much torched because I was not running any anti-virus software as was that of a couple of family friends back home. He was rather proud of the accomplishment and when I relayed this story to others there was always some ambivalence. Though, in reality, his actions were the exact same as if he had broken into my room, taken a hammer and smashed my computer into pieces causing a thousand dollars worth of damage. But in fact it was worse because this was the end result for several people. Eliot Spitzer has on many occasions stated that White Collar Criminals are not the real bad guys, the real bad guys are "hard" criminals. And in this vein he rationalizes that reaching massive settlements with corporate crooks is a just legal strategy. While he does not make the victims of these corporate criminals whole again, he does do a good deal to return the victims a share of their losses and arguably bolsters the integrity of the market. But is it really true that white collar criminals are "better" or more innocous than "hard" or shall we say blue collar criminals. I think that is eminently debatable. What serial murderer has undermined more lives than Allen Fastow, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, or Jeff Skilling? That is a difficult question. Should they be able to avoid the prison showers because they have ample sums of money which can be put in a pool or fund to help make their victims whole? I really don't think so. Here is my modest proposal, enact a law on corporate ethics training, and that law will require every board member to watch a specific video. That video being, "Prison Gang Bang 69: Starring Kenneth Lay".