Most Neglected Business Ethics Issue

Here are the results of the 2nd contest of my blogaversary, which ran on Nov. 21.

The question I posed was this: “what is the most neglected business ethics issue you can name?”

The result was a tie between two very thoughtful entrants.

The first winning entry was from Murat Sen, of Istanbul, Turkey. (FYI, Murat runs his own ethics blog, http://www.ethics-matters.blogspot.com. Check it out.)

Murat argues that the most neglected business ethics issue today is the the cluster of issues related to the “baby business” or “fertility business,” i.e., the business of helping people to conceive babies. Murat says he’s worried that such services are rushing ahead, and certain institutions are making a lot of money off of this business, without sufficient attention being paid to issues such as exploitation, the commodification of life itself, or the validity of the purported “right” to reproduce. Murat also rightly points out that sexy issues like cloning have garnered much more media attention than more mundane (but arguably more significant) issues related to the business side of biotech.

(If you don’t immediately see the business ethics issues here, consider the following. In places where it’s available, fertility treatments can cost something on the order of $10,000 per treatment…and often several rounds of treatment are required before a successful pregnancy results. But is the service worth it? From what I’ve read (and I’ll admit it’s been a while since I looked at the data) the evidence suggests it’s not. Very few couples are truly infertile. For most couple’s who’ve tried for a year and failed to conceive, the very best evidence-based prescription is a bottle of wine, a fireplace, and another year of trying. OK, so this is an expensive product that might not be all it’s cracked up to be. You could say the same about certain luxury automobiles. The difference lies in the fact that in the case of fertility treatment, the person selling the product is a physician, someone with a trust-based obligation not just to give ‘customers’ what they want, but to help them figure out what’s really best for them. None of this is meant to trivialize the anguish of couples who have trouble conceiving…it’s just that that very anguish implies good reason to give careful thought to the kind and quality of product they’re paying so handsomely for.)

So, congratulations to Murat. Your copy of John Roberts’ The Modern Firm will be on its way to you soon!

The other winning entry was from Sandra Woods, of Montreal. Sandra says that the notion of corporate personhood is the great under-examined business ethics issue of the day. Sandra notes that while corporations are considered by the law to be artificial persons, there are many ways in which they cannot really be treated like persons by the law. (e.g., they cannot be incarcerated). And from an ethical point of view, Sandra argues that corporations lack many of the characteristics that we commonly associate with personhood (conscience, etc.)

I’m not sure I agree with Sandra’s conclusion (that the notion of personhood is totally inappropriate when applied to corporations). I don’t see any problem with the notion that corporations can be artificial persons, persons admittedly different from human persons, but possessing many of the characteristics of personhood. And I’m not sure what the negative consequence of using that vocabulary is. None the less, she’s absolutely right that this issue is totally, utterly ignored by the media, and absent from public discourse. So, it’s a good answer to the question I posed.

So congratulations to Sandra. I tossed a coin, and the result was that The Modern Firm goes to Murat, and Sandra’s prize will be a copy of Rising Above Sweatshops.

Thanks again to Oxford University Press and Greenwood Publishing press for generously donating the prizes for this contest.

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