CEOs Navigate Ethical Minefield in the Age of President Trump

What’s a responsible business to do in the face of a Trump presidency? This has been a live question for months now, and growing more challenging with each day that passes. For some time now we’ve known that Trump is unpredictable. He’s a businessman but not a free market capitalist. He’s financially on the left except when he’s on the right, and socially on the right except when he’s on the left. He’s a member of the business elite who panders to populist sentiments. And most recently, he’s increasingly acting like a tyrant.

And this past weekend, the challenge became more acute for many businesses.

The latest problem is Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning the admission of refugees to the US entirely and likewise banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Besides being patently immoral, implausible in its likelihood of achieving in its stated aims, and legally problematic, the ban was also apparently poorly thought out, with little clear consideration of the challenges that implementation would bring. Further, there was little clear consideration having been given to —or perhaps just little concern about— the problems the ban would pose for businesses that rely on talent from the seven banned countries. But of course the problem with the ban goes beyond, well, the problems with the ban. The ban, and whether it might be broadened, and whether it might be followed by other rash decisions, also represents to the business community a troubling signal of uncertain times ahead. Most businesses thrive on stability and predictability. Trump has signalled his unwillingness to provide that.

So what is the business community to do? A number of prominent business people have already spoken out, opposing Trump’s ban. Leading the way has been the tech community. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings called Trump’s ban “so un-American it pains us all.” Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, noted that Trump’s ban has a human impact, as well as a business one: “We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.”

Are businesses leaders obligated to speak up like this? Clearly speaking up comes with risks. The US now has a president who takes everything personally, who treats every criticism of policy as a personal affront. But in business as in politics, with power comes responsibility, and if ever there were a question of public policy that represented both a humanitarian and a business issue, this is it. So a good case can be made for an obligation on the part of business leaders to speak up. If nothing else, leaders have a clear obligation to express solidarity with their own beleaguered employees, even if they find themselves unable or unwilling to denounce the ban outright. Something is better than nothing.

What else can a business leader do? Some have already gone beyond criticism. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years. Few companies can make plausible promises on that scale, but it does raise intriguing questions about what could be done. Lyft co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, pledged to donate $1,000,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization working to fight the worst consequences of Trump’s policy on a number of fronts. Again, not something everyone can do. But the range of options deserves to be explored.

I’ll end with a quick list of 6 factors that any business leaders should consider in deciding whether and how to take action during a political and humanitarian crisis.

1) How bad is the situation? Not every situation is dire, and you’re not obligated to jump on absolutely every grenade.
2) Do you have special role-related responsibilities that suggest a particular obligation to either speak or stay silent? The CEO of a publicly-traded company has a wide range of obligations, including to shareholders and employees. When taking action jeopardizes those interests, it should be approached with caution.
3) With great power comes great responsibility. Senior business leaders do have power, and hence have little right to shrug and ask, skeptically, “Meh, would could I possibly do?”
4) What’s the likelihood that you can have an impact? We’re not all Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. If your words won’t help, then you’re less obligated to use them. On the other hand, don’t dismiss the power that your words could have, not least among your own employees.
5) What is the symbolic value of your action? You may not be able to donate a million dollars, but sometimes donating anything can be a show of commitment, of solidarity.
6) Ask whether the issue is divisive only because of petty ideological disputes. With regard to the controversy over Trump’s immigration policies, for example, it’s worth noting that there are prominent American liberals, libertarians, and conservatives who have taken strong stances against them. This one, in other words, is not a narrow ideological matter.

Difficult times call for difficult choices. Sometimes those choices are defining choices. The choices you make can help shape the world, in addition to telling the world what kind of leader you are.

Trump, and Why Corruption Matters

The New York Times recently carried a blog post by columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman about US president-elect Donald Trump and the worries that Trump would be unable, or simply unwilling, to disentangle his business dealings from his activities as president.

Krugman argued that the real danger was not that Trump’s entanglements would foster corruption and that said corruption would bring trump profits. The problem, Krugman argued, is the way such entanglements would warp the incentives of the world’s most important decision maker.

This is just right, as far as it goes. The problem isn’t that Trump might make money. If he ends up richer after a term as president than he was before, that in itself is not necessarily a problem. (Barack Obama, for example, is wealthier today than he was 8 years ago. Book royalties — hardly blameworthy — are the main source of that wealth.) No, the problem is that the desire to make money, or even a subconscious awareness of the opportunity to make money, will affect the way Trump, and the senior policy makers he appoints and for whom he sets an example, make decisions. When Foreign Policy A is, let’s say, “revenue neutral,” whereas Foreign Policy B stands to benefit Trump, or his blind trust (if he establishes one) or his kids, what are the odds that Policy B will win the day? And will it matter to Trump that Policy B isn’t as good for America as Policy A would have been?

This, at a first approximation, is the real problem with conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is a situation in which a decision-maker is entrusted with making important decisions on behalf of someone else, and in which that decision-maker has some further, “outside” interest (often, but not always, financial) which may stand to influence their decision making. The problem here is not the opportunity for enrichment; the problem is that the responsibility to put someone else’s interests first, to do what’s right for them is in jeopardy. The professional literature on conflict of interest is pretty much consistent on this point.

But I would argue that the real worry is one step more subtle than this. As my colleague Wayne Norman (Duke University) and I have argued in print, the real problem with conflict of interest is not just that this decision maker will make bad decisions this time, or even that this decision maker will make bad decisions all the time. The real risk is loss of faith — loss of faith in the entire institution in which the decision-maker is embedded. So, were a judge to adjudicate a case involving a loved one, the risk is not (merely) that she might render a bad decision. The risk is that onlookers would begin to doubt the objectivity of the judicial system as a whole. When a physician prescribes expensive medications made by a company in which she just happens to own stock, the real risk is not that this won’t be the right medicine, but that patients will come to doubt, quite generally, the motives underlying their physicians’ decision-making.

Do people already mistrust politicians? Sure. Survey results bear that out. But the mistrust of politicians is, in North America at least, not universal and hasn’t resulted in, for example, widespread abandonment of political participation. Most of us are still capable of being shocked.

So the real risk inherent in the nearly inevitable entanglement of Donald Trump’s financial and political lives is not that he’ll make money, and not (just) that he’ll make bad policy decisions. It’s that the Trump era will make corruption, or even just the routine mishandling of conflict of interest, normal, the kinds of things we all take for granted.

Business Needs to Let Government Lead on Education

“What can corporations do to help remedy the skills shortage that many see as limiting economic growth?”

This was one of the more provocative questions asked at a panel discussion I recently attended, put on by the Economic Club of Canada, and called “Canada’s Skills Challenge: The Economic Case for Improving Workplace Essential Skills.”

Various answers to the question above were suggested, including encouraging corporations to invest more in training their own employees.

But the most succinct answer came from panelist and former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. Martin suggested, roughly, that the most important thing corporations can do is this: when governments try to invest in education, at all levels, stay out of the way.

Mr Martin didn’t elaborate regarding what forms of interference he had in mind, what kinds of getting-in-the-way he wanted corporations to forego. But it’s not hard to imagine. Lobbying, both public and private, is not unlikely to occur when companies think that governments are spending too much money on one thing, and (as a natural result) too little on others.

In calling for corporations to stay out of the way of government investment in education, Mr Martin was essentially calling for corporate social responsibility in its purest form. Many activities that get labelled “CSR” don’t in fact have much of a social element to them. But here, Mr Martin was asking corporations to hold back, to forego activities that they see as being in their (or their shareholders’) interests. And he was asking them to hold back, in this case, specifically because it’s in the public interest for them to do so.

It’s tempting to see tacit support for education as a win-win, a move that’s both in the public interest and in the interests of corporations. Corporations, after all, benefit quite directly from having access to highly-educated, highly-skilled employees. But of course, the situation is more complex than that. Any given corporation is likely to get the full benefits of its lobbying activities, but only a tiny, probabilistic share of the benefits of public investment in education. So what we have here is a classic ‘social dilemma’—a situation in which everyone could do better if everybody held back, but any given individual (or in this case, corporation) has reason to act in a more straightforwardly self-interested way.

So the kind of tacit support for investment in education that Mr Martin was calling for is certainly a matter of social responsibility. But it would be pollyannaish to think it’s also profit-maximizing, for companies. Supporting government investment in education isn’t necessarily a win-win for corporations, at least not in the short run. But it’s still the right thing to do.


Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Interim Director of the Ted Rogers MBA at Ryerson University, and founding co-editor of Business Ethics Highlights.

When Should Apology Be Followed by a Change in Policy?

At a crucial October 4th home game, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays (my home town team) threw a can of beer that just missed hitting Baltimore Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim. Outrage rightly ensued, as did a fervent and ongoing attempt to identify the perpetrator—relying solely on grainy video evidence.

The next day, the Blue Jays organization posted the following apology on its Facebook page:


Needless to say, the organization was apologizing for something that wasn’t its fault. But it was a necessary public relations move, and probably the right thing to do.

The only mis-step comes in the 4th paragraph, where the apology turns to the question of changes in policy: “We will…enact heightened security measures and alcohol policies that will ensure the fan experience and safety of everybody involved.”

What’s wrong with that? First, it’s a false promise. Not false in that they won’t enact new measures, but false in thinking that it will “ensure…safety of everybody involved.” No policy (short of shutting down the stadium) can do that.

But the main problem is that it doesn’t make sense to change policies in light of a single, relatively minor incident. Organizations generally need policies in one of two kinds of situations:

1) When a problem is common and persistent. In these cases, numerous small offences add up to a significant problem. (This is why we have anti-littering laws—no single gum-wrapper does much harm, but if everybody littered constantly, our cities would be unliveable.)

2) When even occasional (or single) instances of a particular behaviour are going to result in tragic consequences.

And oh yes, one further condition that applies in either case above: the policy needs to be likely to actually prevent the behaviour in question.

None those applies to the present situation. Beer cans being tossed onto the field is not a common or persistent problem. And while being hit in the head by a can could indeed cause substantial harm, and while the statement posted is vague about the policy changes being considered, no plausible alcohol policy is going to be 100% effective in preventing yahoos from occasionally throwing things onto the field in malicious ways. It could happen at a dry stadium (a can of something else could be tossed instead.) It could happen at stadium where beverages are sold only in plastic cups (shoes could be tossed, or umbrellas, or…). And so on.

But my point here isn’t really about baseball. It’s about the nature of policy-making in general. Lawyers are fond of saying that hard cases make bad law. It’s likewise the case the rare, idiotic behaviour makes bad policy.

And oh yeah…LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!

The 2016 Rio Olympics were a great sporting event, and an ethical mess

So, the 2016 Olympics are over. And while the Olympics always seem to serve up their share of controversy, this year’s event in Rio seems to have had more than the usual quantum of troubles. In fact, the Rio Olympics featured enough scandals and ethical dilemmas to keep a university Moral Issues course going for two full semesters.

The ethical issues at Rio began, of course, long before the Olympics did. To start, there was the controversy over holding a multi-billion dollar event in an underdeveloped country in the midst of political turmoil. And as the games approached, serious concerns were raised about the lack of essential infrastructure, not to mention lack of plausible assurances about safety and security.

Other concerns focused on the the dangers posed by the Zika virus. Experts pleaded with the International Olympic Committee to delay or move the 2016 Olympics, fearing that letting the Rio games go on as planned could accelerate a burgeoning pandemic.

Ethical issues also tainted the competitive aspects of Rio, before the games even started: Russia’s entire track and field team was banned from participating, over concerns regarding widespread, systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Once the Olympics began, well, things didn’t improve quickly. From day one there were concerns for example about security, and about the badly polluted water at the games’ sailing venue.

Ethical questions extended to media coverage as well. There was widespread criticism on social media of seemingly rampant sexism in how reporters covered the games. When American sharpshooter Corey Cogdell won a bronze medal in trapshooting, the Chicago Tribune referred to her not by name, but merely as “Wife of a [Chicago] Bears’ lineman.”

But back to safety. Predictions that safety would be a problem were not entirely unfounded. Take for instance the day that stray bullets zinged into the Olympic equestrian centre, narrowly missing causing injury or death. In retrospect, the fact that Ryan Lochte’s falsely reported being robbed overshadowed the fact that many people really were worried about hosting the Olympics in a city that really can’t claim to have crime under control.

And then there was the corruption. The IOC has, of course, a checkered past in this regard. The organization has been widely criticized for its history of corruption. Rio continued the trend, with IOC member Patrick Hickey being arrested along with three other men in a ticket re-selling scam.

But, but, but…what about the good stuff? What about the spirit of friendly competition? Well, yes, competition was friendly, except when it wasn’t. International politics overflowed into sport when Egyptian Islam al-Shehaby refused to shake hands with his Israeli adversary.

So there you have it. Congrats to all the medalists. Congrats to those who fought hard and lost. And congrats to those athletes, officials, and sponsors who managed not to end up as fodder for the ethics professor’s classroom.

Why corporate diversity programs fail, and what to do about it

Diversity and equality of opportunity are good things. And discrimination, on the other hand, is both morally repugnant and economically foolhardy. And yet it persists.

So how on earth could programs designed to encourage diversity and opportunity and to discourage discrimination be a bad thing? That’s exactly the question asked and answered by Harvard prof Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev of Tel Aviv University, in research summarized in their Harvard Business Review piece, Why Diversity Programs Fail.

The goal of diversity programs is a laudable one, namely to increase diversity as a way of fighting back against systemic discrimination. The corporate world is in many ways still a male world, and a white male world at that. In spite of advances, women and minority groups still make up disproportionately small proportion of managers at big companies. If change is coming, it is coming painfully slowly. As Dobbin and Kalev point out, “Black men have barely gained ground in corporate management since 1985. White women haven’t progressed since 2000.” And it’s not for lack of qualified management candidates. “[B]oth groups,” the authors point out, “have made huge educational gains over the past two generations.”

So it’s easy to see why some might think that good intentions aren’t enough, and that proactive diversity programs would be a useful thing. Except they aren’t. For evidence, Dobbin and Kalev looked at a range of programs designed to encourage diversity—including diversity training, formal grievance procedures, as well as hiring tests and performance rating systems—and their conclusion about them is resoundingly negative. The authors reach this conclusion based on literally thousands of academic studies that have found, time after time, that diversity programs not only don’t work, they tend to be counterproductive. At companies that have instituted them, diversity has typically actually been reduced.

Why don’t such programs work? Dobbin and Kalev suggest three problems. One is that such programs tend to be negative, focusing for example on legal implications. If we’re caught discriminating, we could be sued! People tend to react badly such reasoning. Second, some companies make diversity training courses compulsory, and employees tend to result compulsory training, and then (so the hypothesis goes) blame the very disadvantaged groups the programs were aiming to help. Finally, Dobbin and Kalev hypothesize that when managers see such programs instituted, they feel blamed, and react badly to that. The result in all three cases is the potential for backlash and for managers to find end-runs around programs they don’t like.

So why do big companies persist in using such programs? Dobbin and Kalev point to fear of legal liability. That is, managers need to look like they’re doing something, even if there’s no evidence that that “something” really works. It’s very much like a physician ordering extra, unnecessary diagnostic tests. The only thing that seems worse than doing it would be not doing it and then having trouble surface later.

The fact that such programs don’t work is further evidence for the truism that management, pretty generally, is a difficult task. Coordinating and motivating people to work together to achieve a goal—whether the goal is increased sales or increased diversity—is not easy. More specifically, it’s an example of the principle that the best way to institute change isn’t always the most straightforward-seeming way, which is to exert direct control by telling people what to do. As lawyer and legal scholar Scott Killingsworth argues, “command-and-control” approaches to compliance come with a number of inherent limitations and adverse side effects. When command-and-control doesn’t work, the better route is through the long, slow road of cultural change.

With regard to diversity, what does work? Dobbin and Kalev recommend three broad strategies, none of which focuses on control. First, they suggest that companies “engage managers in solving the problem.” For example, get them to act as mentors to people in disadvantaged groups, and get them personally involved in for example recruiting a wider range of diverse job candidates. The second strategy is to make use of what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect,” a psychological mechanism according to which merely being exposed to a person, idea, or group tends to result in positive feelings about them. So, expose employees to people from different groups (for example by having them work together on diverse, self-managing teams). Finally, Dobbin and Kalev suggest making managers feel personally accountable for change. Not accountable in a legalistic way; accountable in a social way that comes with the feeling that people around you area aware of your behaviour. To this end, the authors recommend department-level transparency about stats regarding who gets hired and who gets promoted, and the institution of diversity task-forces with members drawn from various departments.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Dobbin and Kalev recommend that it be made clear, within the organizations, that top managers are paying attention to the issue of diversity. That is, what matters is not that the boss is telling you what to do; what matters is that the boss cares, and cares enough to pay personal attention.

Zika Virus: Should the Rio Olympics Sponsors Back Out?

What should Olympic sponsors and ‘partners’ like Coke and General Electric and Visa do in light of expert recommendations that the Summer Olympics in Rio be postponed or moved?

Nearly 200 prominent scientists, physicians, and ethicists from around the globe have signed a letter arguing that the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled to be held in Rio de Janeiro this August be postponed or moved due to the risks posed by the mosquito-borne Zika virus. The letter is technically addressed to the head of the World Health Organization, urging WHO to conduct a “a fresh, evidence-based assessment” of the risks that Zika poses, and asking WHO to use its powers of persuasion (and its close connection to the International Olympic Committee) to get the IOC to rethink things. In particular, the letter notes the risk implied by having 500,000 athletes and tourists visit Rio and then return home, potentially spreading Zika to every corner of the globe. To date, the WHO for its part seems unmoved.

But the letter omits any mention of the other powerful decision-makers in this situation, namely the corporations that will have their logos splashed all over every moment of the Summer Olympics, regardless of where and when it happens. The 2016 Olympics’ “Worldwide Olympic Partners” include Coca-Cola, Bridgestone, McDonald’s, General Electric, Visa, and others. Dozens of other companies are listed as “Official Sponsors,” “Official Supporters,” or “Suppliers.” Becoming a top-tier Worldwide Olympic Partners costs something on the order of $100 million. That kind of cash surely brings considerable influence. The question: should they use that influence with regard to the Zika issue, and what should their position be?

Ethically, these companies should be wary of contributing to an event that could globalize an ongoing epidemic. The trouble is that expert opinions on the degree of danger here differ. The letter-writers represent a very broad range of experts, but not all of the experts that there are. The head of the US Centres for Disease Control, Dr Tom Frieden, for example says “There is no public health reason to cancel or delay the Olympics.” But there’s reason to be risk averse, here. The worst-case scenario if the Olympics proceed as planned is very bad, and includes unnecessary birth defects as well as potential neurological damage in adults. And the worst-case scenario isn’t science fiction: it’s a plausible hypothesis set forward by a substantial group of respected experts.

In reasoning about this, Olympic partners and sponsors face two dangers that could warp their ethical reasoning.

The first danger is the fact that, in terms of potential outcomes for sponsors, the situation is seriously asymmetrical. If the games get moved or postponed, this presumably throws a monkey-wrench into each sponsor’s scheduled advertising. On the other hand, if the games go ahead and if there’s then an up-tick in cases of Zika around the world, sponsors have a two-pronged defence: first, “you can’t prove it’s because of the Olympics” (which is probably true) and second, “the CDC and WHO said it was OK” (which they did). So it will be easy for Olympic partners and sponsors say — and maybe actually believe — that there’s no downside to going ahead.

The second danger is a risk that the sponsors will fall prey to the IOC’s general “can-do,” and “the Olympics must go on!” attitude. It’s widely recognized that a “can-do” attitude is what led NASA to launching the Space Shuttle Challenger, despite warnings that doing so could be unsafe. The results of that can-do attitude are notorious.

In my view, Olympic partners and sponsors should resist the dangers noted above. In the end, this may well be a case where the corporations need to trust the experts, or the bulk of them, and at very least lend their weight to the argument in favour of giving the Summer Olympics a very serious second look.

What Baseball’s Rules — Written and Unwritten — Tell us About Business Ethics

The fist that landed on Jose Bautista’s jaw echoed around the baseball world almost as loudly as his famous “bat flip” last October. And whereas Bautista’s bat flip violated the unwritten rule against grandstanding, Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor’s punch violated the written rules, but also followed from a different, unwritten rule that permits retribution. In particular, Odor was getting back at Bautista for a very aggressive slide into second base just seconds before — which may in turn have been retribution for a fastball to the ribs that Bautista had previously suffered at the hands of a Rangers pitcher, and which was presumed to be intended as — you guessed it — retribution for last fall’s bat flip. That’s how retribution often works, namely that it results in a string of tit-for-tat acts of violence with no natural end point.

But what’s important, here, from a business point of view, is to see the way all of this plays out within what has been structured, intentionally, as an adversarial system. This kind of eye-for-an-eye pattern of retribution would be seriously problematic in private life; but on a baseball field, it’s merely the working out of a set of informal rules designed to civilize a rather aggressive set of activities.

The point here is that in baseball — as in business — people on opposing “teams” aren’t supposed to get along. They’re supposed to compete, each trying to get the better of the other. And such competitive domains typically have their own rules, rules that permit behaviours not considered OK in everyday life. In everyday life, after all, throwing a ball towards someone at 96mph would be considered recklessly dangerous, possibly criminal. But that’s something major league pitchers are encouraged to do, if they can. And in everyday life, causing a person to lose their job would be a terrible thing to do. But in business if you invent a better mousetrap and force makers of lesser mousetraps out of business, that’s considered entirely justified in the name of innovation.

As philosopher Joseph Heath has convincingly argued, this idea of constrained competition serves as a strong foundation for an ethics of business grounded in the goals of markets themselves. Business is tough and competitive, but even tough, competitive games need rules if they are to achieve their purpose. In a business context this puts limits on the aggressive strategies that managers can use in pursuit of profit. Managers of competing companies are free to act aggressively, trying to outmanoeuvre each other, zealously seeking out efficiencies, devising devilishly clever new products and so on, all in an effort to drive the “other guy’s” market share to zero. Managers at all competing firms employ the same tactics, and generally it is the consumer who wins by gaining access to better and better products at lower and lower prices. But the permission to act aggressively in the market — permission granted as an exemption from the rules of polite society — is limited by requirements that the competitors avoid taking things too far, by for example sabotaging each other’s factories or lying to customers to boost sales. Those would certainly be competitive strategies, but anti-social ones.

My Ryerson colleague Hasko von Kriegstein argues, in a forthcoming paper, that this obligation to compete in a constrained way in principle really applies to corporate shareholders, not to managers. After all, shareholders are the ones seeking to profit in the market, so it’s their profit-seeking behaviour that must be constrained. But it still implies limits on the behaviour of managers because managers act as shareholders’ agents in the marketplace. When you’re the one “on the field,” you’re the one subject to the rules.

And in both business and in baseball, the rules — both written and unwritten — serve to protect a range of stakeholders. Some rules protect participants. Others protect innocent bystanders. In some cases, the written rules are controversial or unclear. And in others, the unwritten rules are uncertain. And so sometimes the former get changed or clarified, and the latter evolve. But we can’t begin to understand the point and the proper scope of particular rules — rules against aggressive slides, rules against insider trading, etc. — and the way those rules differ from the rules of everyday life, without understanding that they are rules whose logic is internal to the game, a way to civilize a justifiably aggressive activity.

Mainstream medicine’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative

Defenders of David and Collet Stephan are right about the Canadian healthcare system, and about the “mainstream” approach to healthcare. Sometimes the system kills. Sometimes errors are made. Some pharmaceuticals, in some circumstances, do more harm than good. Preventable “adverse events” may kill as many as 23,000 adults Canadians each year. Sometimes a trip to the hospital makes things worse, rather than better.

Mr and Mrs Stephan were recently convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their toddler, Ezekiel. Their story has many elements, but a central one of them seems clearly to be a mistrust of the mainstream healthcare system. Rejecting that system, David and Collet Stephan opted instead to treat (or rather, “treat”) their child’s very serious illness with herbs and with vegetable smoothies. They didn’t seek the help of mainstream, evidence-based medicine until it was far too late.

There are plenty of people who mistrust mainstream medicine. That’s why “alternative” and “complementary” medicines sell so well. People object to a system that they see as being dominated by big pharma, a system that intrusively asserts control over our lives, telling us what’s wrong with us, and telling us what we must do in order to get better (as they choose to define “better”). It’s a system that is notorious for “medicalizing” everything. Menopause? That’s a disease, and we’ve got the cure! Baldness? There’s a chemical solution to that! Pregnancy? Let’s treat it like an illness!

The thing is, for all its flaws, mainstream medicine works. That is, it mostly works, and doctors and scientists search pretty relentlessly for the bits that don’t work, and they tend to toss those out. Is there an error rate? Yes. Do pharmaceutical companies have too much influence? Certainly. Do physicians sometimes prescribe medicines that pose risks but do little to help? Yes. But overall, mainstream healthcare works. Antibiotics work. Chemotherapy works. Vaccines work. The same simply cannot be said for almost any of the wide array of complementary and alternative “medicines.”

So failing to take your dying child to the hospital because you don’t trust “modern medicine” is literally like failing to get your kid out of a burning building, simply because you don’t like the look of the weather outside.

Those who mistrust mainstream medicine ought to think, before opting out, not just about what they’re jumping away from, but what they’re jumping into. Imagine you don’t like the way your physician is imposing his view of the world for you, and worry that his view is unduly influenced by the the marketing dollars of big pharma. So you opt to visit a naturopath instead. What you get is your naturopath imposing his view of the world on you, a view that is likely to be unduly influenced by the marketing dollars of the big alternative medicine companies. The move — from a system that “medicalizes” your health to one that “alternativizes” — is not clearly a positive one, even from an ideological point of view. And from the perspective of what we know about what actually works, the move is a disastrous one. And when the stakes are as high as the lives of our children, it’s a move that warrants considerable scrutiny.

What should you do if you lose faith in what you’re selling?

What happens — what should happen — when you lose faith in your product, when you come to see that the product you’ve been selling all this time isn’t really what it’s been cracked up to be? Is it wrong to keep selling it? How bad does the product have to be for it to be wrong to keep selling it? How strong should the evidence be?

The question came to mind when I read recent reports accusing Dyson Airblades hand dryers of spreading germs at an apparently horrifying rate. Now to be clear, there are reasons not to overreact to the hyperbolic headlines. The stories you’ve read about Airblades are based on one study, conducted under lab conditions that might not reflect reality. But what if — what if — the reports turn out to be fair and accurate? What if the highly artificial scenarios used for the lab tests turn out to be validated by field trials? What if Dyson Airblades really are spreading filth? Should Dyson simply say “Oh well, so much for that!” and stop selling them?

The question of losing faith in your product also comes to mind with regard to various ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ healthcare products. Most people who sell such products, and most health practitioners (homeopaths, naturopaths, therapeutic touch practitioners, and so on) surely do what they do out of a genuine belief that they’re helping their patients. They believe they see positive effects. But the evidence generally doesn’t support that belief. Now, most practitioners and sellers simply never come to accept that fact, and so they go on selling and prescribing products that are physically incapable of doing what they claim they do. And though I’m a strong critic of such practices, I do have a degree of sympathy for the person who has spent, say, 20 years believing that homeopathy really works, and “seeing” it help thousands of people (a fact that can readily be explained by the operation of a whole range of well-documented cognitive biases). When such a person starts to realize the 20-year error they’ve made, they must find themselves in a rather awkward situation.

Some might ask whether the seller’s faith in the product really matters all that much. Isn’t the customer always right? Isn’t the customer’s opinion the one that matters? Yes, mostly. And so there are times when it’s absolutely OK to keep selling your product even after you’ve personally lost faith in it. Imagine you’re in sales for Coke, and you find yourself developing a taste for Pepsi. The fact that you prefer Pepsi doesn’t make it wrong to sell Coke. Your customers are buying based on their tastes, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

But that’s about questions of taste. What about questions of objective reality? Some products after all just don’t work. Selling only products that work is required by the basic ethical and legal requirement of “merchantability.” If you sell me a chair, it needs in fact to be capable of functioning as a chair. If you sell me a gizmo to attach to my car’s engine that you swear will provide better performance, then it had better actually provide better performance: me having the “feeling” that the car is now performing better isn’t enough.

And so some cases are pretty clear. Once you understand — really understand — the weight of evidence against most complementary and alternative medicines, it immediately becomes ethically imperative to stop selling them. And if Dyson finds its product really is spreading germs at an unconscionable rate, then it will be duty-bound to stop selling the product, though surely the restaurants and public buildings that are the company’s main customers will make that choice for them.

In the end, what’s required are vigilance and good faith. Anyone who sells a product is obliged to go to reasonable lengths to ensure their product works, and to grapple with credible evidence to the contrary. A sincere belief in your product is nice — it helps you get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror — but it’s not enough.

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