Governor Flies on Corporate Jet, Drug Co faces good-old-fashioned business ethics issue

Here’s a neat example of a non-bioethics ethics issue faced by a drug co (and yet another example of why scholars in business ethics should be interested in pharma and biotech companies).

This story from Boston’s WBZ News Radio is about Massachussets Governor Mitt Romney having travelled on a corporate jet owned by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Stories like this — stories about politicians receiving gifts, benefits, questionable donations from corporations — are of course common. Interestingly, these stories are almost always spun as stories about “ethics in politics.” Less often is it spun as a question of corporate ethics. But surely if there’s a problem in a politician accepting a benefit, then there’s a problem in a corporation offering it.

The key concept here is “conflict of interest,” a concept that is relatively poorly understood even by people whose jobs make such conflicts likely. A conflict of interest is “a situation in which a person has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties as, say, a public official, an employee, or a professional.” (MacDonald C, McDonald M, Norman W. “Charitable Conflicts of Interest.” Journal of Business Ethics 39:1-2, 67-74, August 2002.) Most people recognize that, when one is in a position of trust, one ought to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest, lest one jeopardize the trust of those to whom one owes obligations. Thus, politicians ought to avoid receiving corporate gifts or benefits that could give reasonable voters cause to worry about the effect of such gifts or benefits on their decision-making.

But clearly, if public trust in politicians is important (and it surely is), then corporations could reasonably be seen as having an obligation not to offer politicians gifts that would put that trust at risk. Is there a literature on this? I hope so. If you know of any, let me know.

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