Gary Cohen: Does Ethics = Profits in the Biotech Industry?

Two days ago I had the pleasure of hosting Gary Cohen (from the Keck Graduate Institute) for a talk at Saint Mary’s University where I teach. Gary presented to a very distinguished group that included representatives from a number of industry groups and granting agencies. The title of Gary’s presentation was “The Business Case for Ethics in the Biosciences: A Lawyer’s Perspective.” But in fact, Gary rightly problematized the idea of focusing on the business case (i.e., on the idea that biotech companies — or any other company — should think of ethics as a means to profit.) Roughly, Gary argued that the idea of “doing well by doing good” is wrong-headed for two reasons. First, decent people ought to want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. And second, if a company focuses on the bottom-line rationale for ethics, it can undermine the kind of customer-oriented behaviours that actually do result in profits. Gary quoted George Merck (who founded Merck & co. in 1891) as putting it this way: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear.”

For me, the crucial difference is in the level at which you think about the instrumental value of ethics. It’s one thing to acknowledge that ethics might be good for business. And it might make sense for industry associations or boards of directors to promote ethical behaviour because they recognize that connection. But the day-to-day operationalization of that idea almost certainly shouldn’t include the ethics-brings-profits thesis. On the front lines, that thesis is almost certainly self-defeating, and more likely to breed cynicism than it is to foster appropriate behaviour.

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