Archive for the ‘entertainment’ Category

The Ethics of Changing the Rules of the Game

Daniel WeinstockWe all agree on the need to play by the rules of the game. But what do we do when the rules need changing? Under what circumstances should the rules be changed? What should the process be? What are the rules of the game with regard to changing the rules of the game?

These kinds of questions arise in any competitive, rule-governed domain, whether organized sport or politics or the world of business. In sport, the rules in question are the ones established by various leagues. In politics, the rules are legislative and sometimes constitutional. In business, the rules in question are the ones established by government regulators.

Last week, McGill philosopher Daniel Weinstock gave a talk on this topic, in a Business Ethics Speakers’ series that I host at the Ted Rogers School of Management. His talk was called, “Should business dictate the business of rule change in sport?” He was taking aim at the suspicion on the part of many sports fans that rule changes are sometimes effected by for-profit professional leagues for mere financial reasons that have nothing to do with the spirit of the game.

Along the way, Weinstock suggested that if you look at the patterns of rule changes in professional sport, you see that there are basically four kinds of reasons given to justify such changes. They are:

1) Increasing safety;
2) Closing loopholes in existing rules;
3) Increasing entertainment value of the game;
4) Improving the precision of adjudication by referees.

Sports fans will find it easy to think of examples of rules being changed by various professional leagues for just the reasons cited. But Weinstock’s framework can also be applied usefully to the broader question of how and when rules are changed in rule-governed domains more generally.

Weinstock’s first category is easy to apply to business: there are plenty of occupational health and safety regulations and consumer protection legislation that fall under this heading. Rule changes that fit the second category — loopholes — are also plentiful. The third category, entertainment, seems out of place at first glance. But think of it this way: Weinstock is basically referring to rule changes that are aimed at keeping the game productive, making sure it continues to produce the ‘good’ it is intended to produce. Seen this way, any regulatory change intended to promote efficiency or competition fits something akin to Weinstock’s third category.

Finally, there’s the fourth category, which has to do with improving the accuracy of referees. In regulatory terms, this includes rule changes that make it easier for regulators to do their jobs, including record-keeping and disclosure requirements of all kinds.

Are these the only valid reasons for effecting regulatory changes in the world of business? Probably not. But using something like Weinstock’s framework as a lens gives us a good start at making sense of the overall pattern of regulatory requirements to which business is subject. Not all rules are good ones, but neither are they arbitrary. Seeing the patterns is the first step towards sorting the good from the bad.

Facebook, It’s Not OK to Suck

Facebook users should keep complaining, complaining bitterly, complaining in every possible forum.

Oddly, for all the controversy over Facebook implementing yet another round of changes to its layout and user experience, that controversy has almost been drowned out by arguments over whether it’s appropriate for users to complain about Facebook. Yes, the burning debate among users is over whether there should be a burning debate among users.

Much of the force of the “stop complaining!” camp is rooted in the claim that, hey, after all, it’s a free service and no one’s forcing you to use it anyway. But contrary to what you might have heard, Facebook isn’t optional, and it isn’t free. Let me explain.

First, let’s talk price. Lots of people have already pointed out that while Facebook doesn’t charge users for an account, that doesn’t mean it’s free. The service is supported by advertising, just like TV shows have been since the days of early soap operas. So you are “paying” to use Facebook — you’re paying with your eyeballs. You’re paying with attention, however fleeting, to those ads along the side of the page. And — the more worrying fact — you’re paying with your privacy, as Facebook uses what seems to be increasingly-ornate ways to gather information about you, your preferences, and your web-surfing habits. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Facebook isn’t an exception.

Think of it this way: Facebook is like a gas-station bathroom. It might be “free”, but that doesn’t mean that quality doesn’t matter. In both cases, the “free” service being offered is there as an inducement. In the gas station’s case, it’s an inducement to stop there for gas (and increasingly for snacks, magazines, etc.). In Facebook’s case, being able to post stuff for “free” for your friends to see is an inducement to look at those ads, and to share your web-surfing habits with that advertising agency. So they have reason to want you to be satisfied, and you have every right to demand excellence in return for your attention.

Second, is Facebook optional? Whether a product is optional or not matters, ethically, because when a product is truly optional, customers can simply exit the relationship, either buying the product from someone else or not buying it at all. Given the option to exit, the dispute between producer and consumer evaporates as the two simply agree to disagree and go their separate ways. (The classic source on this is Albert O. Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.) But Facebook isn’t optional. Ok, I know. Strictly speaking yes it’s optional. But then, so is email, or having a telephone, or having a car. Optional but, for many of us, functionally essential. In this regard, Facebook is a victim of its own success. It has no real competition, and the service is one that many of us cannot simply walk away from. In essence, Facebook has gained a virtual monopoly on what has become part of our social infrastructure. Complaining about Facebook is no sillier than complaining about the state of your local roads or the consistency of your supply of electricity.

So if you don’t like Facebook’s new layout, or if you don’t like Facebook’s approach to privacy, do not hesitate to complain. You’re well within your rights. And if Facebook listens, you might just help make the on-line world a better place.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name peta.xxx and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

Beer, Burgers, and Pretty Girls

As business models go, it’s all pretty straightforward: beer, fried food, and pretty girls who smile a lot and show some skin. And it’s successful, too. The ‘Hooters’ chain has made a lot of money that way, but so have a number of other chains. For evidence, see this story by Jason Daley, for Entrepreneur: ‘Breastaurants’ Ring Up Big Profits.

Franchises inspired by the Hooters model–such as Celtic-themed sports bar chain Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery and faux mountain sports lodge chain Twin Peaks–have expanded rapidly over the last half decade, while corporate-owned chains like Brick House Tavern + Tap and Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke are picking up steam regionally. In fact, for the next couple of years, this segment (often referred to as “breastaurants”) is poised to be one of the fastest-growing restaurant categories….

OK, so it works. But it is also a business model that draws its share of criticism. A man doesn’t have to be a total prude to find himself thinking, “hmm…would I want my daughter / girlfriend / sister working there?” And if not, “why am I so comfortable with other people’s daughters / girlfriends / sisters working there?”

And being vaguely “uncomfortable” with such restaurants (if that’s your reaction) is a perfectly reasonable moral position. This is just the kind of case to use to illustrate the point that ethics doesn’t have to be done in terms of binary, go-or-no-go, ethical-or-unethical evaluation. The ethics of a business model that uses sex (or at least the idea of sex) to sell food is pretty grey. It’s easy to sketch a very rough kind of ethical justification of that business model, cast in terms of a commercial transaction between consenting adults, etc. It’s also easy to prejudge the situations, intentions, and attitudes of the women who work at a place like Hooters, and to cry out “exploitation” without truly understanding, say, the point of view of an actual Hooters Girl. But both of those options are too quick, and neither does much to increase our understanding. But it’s also worth seeing that refusal to opt for either extreme is not the same as shrugging your shoulders — it can be a principled point of view.

Besides, restaurants like Hooters or Tilted Kilt are part of a much larger spectrum, along which various restaurants and chains locate themselves. You certainly don’t have to go to a “mancave” restaurant of that sort in order to see either short shorts or low-cut tops on the waitresses and bartenders. That’s not justification for any particular business practice, but it is reason to question singling out particular chains for especially harsh criticism. And it’s also worth noting that in many cases, outside of these chains, it’s individual waitresses who make their own wardrobe decisions. Again, that fact doesn’t obviate the option of (or indeed the need for) social critique; it just means that we can’t reasonably roll our eyes at the very notion of a place like Hooters, and then merrily skip down to the neighbourhood bar where the waitresses wear short skirts and tube tops all summer.

Finally, it’s tempting to think there’s a sort of arms race going on here: that restaurants in this category (and some individual waitresses) will compete by having skimpier and skimpier outfits. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, the picture painted in the Entrepreneur piece is much more complicated than the ‘beer-and-boobs’ stereotype. Cleavage and short skirts may get men (in particular) through the door, but any restaurant that wants return business is going to have to do more than that. After all, if it were just about the boobs, then the “businessman’s lunch” offered by many strip clubs would be a lot more popular.

Should Celebrities Regret Singing for Gadhafi’s Family?

I blogged nearly two weeks ago about the Ethics of Doing Business in Libya. The concern there was about the ethics of involvement in Libya by, well, “businesses” in the traditional, i.e., corporate, sense of that word. But the controversy that emerged short after that, and that continues still, concerns high-profile members of the entertainment business — celebrities like Usher, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey. Basically, it has come to light that a whole fistful of such stars have, at various times, done private concerts for members of the Gadhafi family. And now, in light of the continuing violence in Libya, most of those stars are expressing regret and doing things like donating the money to charity. (For details, see Public consequences of pop stars’ private gigs, by By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas for the Los Angeles Times.)

A few people have pointed out that the timing of the celebs’ crisis of conscience is just a little bit off. Libya has been a dictatorship for decades, and its leader has been a vicious madman just as long. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote on his blog at Reason, “Even assuming Qaddafi is so toxic you can’t with sound conscience take his dinars, that didn’t just become the case a few weeks ago.” If it’s right to give the money back now, it was likely wrong to take it in the first place.

But we can also question whether anyone does, or should, give much of a hoot over where these celebs sing, or for whom. The LA Times quotes Sting — a star with a reputation for charity work and activism — as defending having sung for the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov:

Sting addressed criticism saying he was “well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.” He added, “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.”

The man has a point. Though it may sound like a self-interested argument, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

(Cavanaugh’s blog entry has a wonderful quote from, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who shrugged off artists behaving in ways that might have taken by him to be treasonous: “I don’t take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms.”)

But this leads me wonder: just what is the objection to singers singing for dictators? Is the money the problem, or is it having sung for (or more generally having done business with, or having provided a service for) an evil man’s family? Consider: if the money really is the problem — i.e., if this really is a case of filthy lucre — then donating the money to charity really does utterly absolve the stars in question of any blame. Or at least it would if the timing weren’t so questionable. Singing for free would also be OK. Indeed, if the money is all that matters, then stars might have a positive obligation to sing for wealthy tyrants and give the money to charity. After all, what could be better than squeezing a few million out of a mad dictator’s family in order to do something good with it? And if singing for free (or singing for money and donating it to charity) isn’t OK, then that seems to imply that the money isn’t the problem either.

Charlie Sheen as Toxic Asset

While actor Charlie Sheen may not be a ‘toxic asset’ in the technical sense, he’s clearly become too much of a liability for the companies who have thus far been profiting richly from his services.

In case you don’t already know all the gory details, here’s one version of the story, by Bill Carter, writing in the Business section the NY Times: Sheen Tantrum Likely to Cost in the Millions

Charlie Sheen’s latest antics may leave CBS and Warner Brothers with a quarter-billion-dollar headache.

The two companies decided on Thursday to halt production of the hit CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men” after Mr. Sheen, the star of the show, unleashed a barrage of vituperative comments about the sitcom’s creator, Chuck Lorre.

The loss of next season’s episodes would mean forgoing about $250 million in revenue between Warner Brothers, which produces the show, and CBS….

Sheen, of course, was already a famously problematic ‘talent’ long before his decision to publicly and viciously bite the hand that feeds him. Sheen has a long history of handing the tabloids easy headlines through his penchant for drugs and booze and prostitutes and property damage and domestic violence.

Several writers have already suggested that all of that should have been enough to make Sheen persona non grata, but it wasn’t. As the LA Times’ Mary McNamara put it,

If you are the star of a hit comedy on CBS, you can keep your job in spite of accusations of: threatening your pregnant second wife; holding a knife to your third wife’s throat on Christmas Day; and indulging in cocaine-fueled weekends during which your bizarre behavior causes your female companion to fear for her life.

I think from a Business Ethics point of view, we can look at this in two ways.

1) Employment. From an employment point of view, this is a question of CBS and Warner Brothers having an employee with serious behavioural problems, most of which have been after-hours problems rather than on-the-job problems. As McNamara reports, Sheen’s bosses referred to his domestic abuse troubles as “very personal and very private.” Of course, any employer needs to recognize that it will always be the case that at least some of their employees will have personal troubles, and it’s not entirely clear that such problems are grounds for dismissal. But what employers cannot ignore is insubordination, and that’s basically what Sheen’s recent outburst amounts to.

2) Production methods. In an age of conscious consumerism, people are paying a lot more attention to the way in which the products they enjoy are produced. The average consumer is more likely than ever to want to know whether their clothes were made in third-world sweatshops or whether coffee was made with beans that were traded fairly. For the bizarrely popular product that is “Two and a Half Men”, Charlie Sheen is a major part of the means of production. And all available evidence suggests that consumers of that product just don’t care that, in order to produce it, CBS and Warner Brothers had to turn a blind eye to behaviour that was by turns childish, unethical, and criminal.

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