Monday, June 3, 2024

Business Ethics

I took a business ethics course in grad school. I didn't want to. I didn't care about business, and ethics was something informed by personal morality or whatever path you're on. I needed a cross-denominational course, being in a Buddhist studies program at Graduate Theological Union. The "Union" part of that meant I needed to take a handful of courses from the Judaism program or various Christian schools. After bailing on Dominican philosophy, feminist theology, and struggling through Christianity in film, I figured the Lutheran business ethics would be a breeze. I heard they had good coffee.

At one point in class, we were given a scenario. You are the CEO of a drug company. A drug your company has developed saves lives, but causes severe birth defects. The drug has been banned in the US. However, there has been an outbreak of a deadly disease in a developing country. You have the opportunity to save millions of lives by exporting your life saving drug to this country, but it will cause severe birth defects in thousands of children. Do you export it?

Everyone in the room agreed they would sell the flawed drug in this developing country... except me. As the CEO, I figured my job was to protect the company, and thousands of children with birth defects is what people would see, not the millions of saved lives. Of course, this is a moral dilemma, and the rest of the class time was spent discussing this very issue. 

By the end of the class, my mind was changed, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few and all that, and I agreed I would sell the drug. What's more surprising though is I weigh this decision in my mind about once a year, for the past 30 years. This decision changed me and forever after I have been open to scrutiny on my decisions, and more than willing to change my mind. How many classes could have accomplished that?

In religious literature, merchants are scum. Money changers in temples, greedy merchants selling bad food, you name it, the business community was predatory. Today I still see predatory merchants. My opinion on this is it's a form of confirmation bias. Business is brutal, margins are thin, and if you were an asshole to survive early in your business, you believe you need to continue being an asshole as a form of core competency. If you stop being an asshole, you will be trampled by all the customers and employees waiting to take advantage of you. 

If this sounds like you, believing you need to be an asshole to survive, let me attempt to change your mind. You need to be firm. However, you'll do much better with a flip side of compassion rather than venom. It's an illusion that you have to be underhanded and nasty to make it in business. It's true you will likely be taken advantage of, if you open yourself up to the world in this way. There is some pain embracing the world, but it will make you stronger, if you can avoid cynicism. In the long run, you will be far more successful, metaphorically touching millions of lives, even if there's some relatively minor suffering along the way. I try to get through it with a good cup of coffee, as the Lutherans taught me.