Business Ethics Doesn’t Have to Be a Contradiction

The Good, The Bad, and Your Business by Jeffrey L. Seglin

“Business ethics” is an oxymoron, goes the quip. But ethics and profits “do not need to be mutually exclusive,” writes Jeffrey L. Seglin in his new book The Good, The Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart. According to Seglin, a business ethics columnist for Inc. magazine and The New York Times, the problem is our “lack of language” with which to discuss right and wrong in a business context. Traditional ethics language is full of preachy, judgmental terms – “moral imperatives,” “honor,” “true” and “duty” – that turn businessmen off. Instead, ethics should be thought of as a search for a “comfort level.”

Using “real-life business dilemmas” that “help you see how ethical decisions are made,” Seglin’s book is premised on the notion that ethics are a conceptual quagmire that we can’t even begin to navigate without lots of case studies, mentoring and 12-part questionnaires. Nonetheless, some examples seem clear-cut to him. Take the case of the woman who donated a kidney to her ailing boss. This seemingly saintly act raises a profound moral issue for Seglin: Will the woman receive special treatment on the job? Seglin is reassured when the boss insists that he will not hesitate to fire the woman who saved his life should her performance slip.

This is pure Kant. The woman should expect no reward for her selfless act; the boss has, to use Kantian terminology, a perfect moral duty to fire an underperforming employee that supersedes the imperfect moral duty of gratitude. Of course, you could also analyze this case from the perspective of David Hume, who argued that humans have certain innate moral instincts and that people who lack these instincts are not human at all. But Seglin never considers this approach.

Kant goes out the window in the case of the 1982 Tylenol poisoning tragedy, when Johnson & Johnson ordered a costly recall after eight people died from cyanide-laced Tylenol. Seglin describes this as a “gut-wrenching” act of ethical integrity for which the company deserves “rave reviews,” and lauds J & J for making “more than 200 decisions within the first 24 hours” (as if ethics were some kind of Iron-Man competition). But what exactly is so ethical here? After all, the FDA would have ordered a recall anyway, and with the poisonings making headlines across the country, consumers were already shunning Tylenol and drugstores were pulling it from their shelves. J & J pulled off an adroit bit of damage control, but why throw them a ticker-tape parade?

Seglin’s ethics of comfort lead to a muddle of hair-splitting and euphemism: Lying is definitely wrong, but “posturing” is a necessity

For the most part, Seglin’s ethics of comfort lead to a muddle of hair-splitting and euphemism. Lying is definitely wrong, but “posturing” (which means misleading people without making a provably false statement of fact) is a necessity for start-ups. Espionage in the form of bribery and digging through a competitor’s garbage is definitely wrong, but “research” (eavesdropping at a trade show) is okay. Then there’s the question of whether business owners who declare bankruptcy still have a moral obligation to pay back creditors. Seglin quotes creditors who say yes and debtors who say no. In the end he shrugs and declares it a case of “situational ethics.”

Which leaves it up to Chapter 7. For all of Seglin’s soul-searching, the line that separates gray-area quandaries from wrongdoing usually follows the relevant legal statute. Nonetheless, Seglin takes a narrow view of government regulation, denouncing the law as a “powerful tyrant” that actually corrodes business ethics. Blind adherence to the law, he reasons, causes our internal moral principles to atrophy: “When you make choices solely on what the law will and won’t allow, you free yourself from taking any moral responsibility for your actions. And what fun is that?”

Seglin has a point, one that helps explain the continued popularity of business ethics books, turgid and self-contradictory though they are. To businessmen, high-minded primers that merely extol ethical behavior are more fun than laws that actually compel ethical behavior. On the other hand, many people feel that workplace racial discrimination, sexual harassment, child labor, pollution and exploding gas tanks aren’t much fun either. The reason we have government regulation in the first place is that people got tired of waiting for Business to develop a conscience.

The Good, The Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart by Jeffrey L. Seglin

(John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 224 pp., ISBN: 0471347795)

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