Business Ethics and the “New York Times” Rule
On Monday, the front page of the New York Times featured at story about financial firms adjusting the timing of bonuses in response to anticipated changes in tax laws. I mention this story not because of the particular ethical issues involved, but because it was featured on the front page of The Times. How would you like your decision-making subject to that kind of scrutiny?
From some perspectives, ethics is simple: “do the right thing.” For others (especially for philosophers like myself) it is incredibly complex, involving an ongoing centuries-old debate between arcane theories like deontology, utilitarianism, social contract theory, virtue theory, and others. In-between, we see lots of bits of ethical wisdom bundled into rules of thumb for ethical decision-making. Some of them are useful, some are misleading.
The one I’d like to discuss briefly today is the so-called “Front Page of the Newspaper” test, or sometimes “The New York Times Rule.” In one of its standard versions, it gets stated this way: “never do anything you wouldn’t want to see reported on the front page of the New York Times.” Some versions have additional qualifiers. Some, for example, say that you shouldn’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see fairly reported on the front page. That qualifier rules out slanted or malicious reporting — there are presumably plenty of fully-justifiable behaviours that we wouldn’t want to see reported in a malicious way, on the front page of the NYT or anywhere else.
The first thing to say about the Newspaper Test is that it probably is a useful heuristic. Asking the question it poses at very least serves as an opportunity to pause and ask yourself whether the action you’re about to take is one that could withstand publicity and scrutiny.
But there are two clear problems with the Newspaper Test.
One problem is that it can seem to serve as an argument against actions that are actually perfectly ethical. John Hooker, in his book Business Ethics as Rational Choice, gives this example: Imagine you’re CEO of a large corporation, and due to tough economic times you’re forced to lay off several thousand employees. Imagine that some of those employees slide into clinical depression. Others become alcoholics and end up beating their children. Lives are ruined. You probably wouldn’t want all of that reported on the front page of the NY Times, but that doesn’t mean your choice was unethical. In fact, Hooker points out, it might have been the least-bad option available. The point here is that sometimes even ethically good decisions are ones that we wouldn’t want publicized, either because their negative consequences are more visible than their positive ones, or because the reasons behind those decisions are reasons that, despite being good reasons, would be difficult or even impossible to explain.
The other problem is that it can seem to condone behaviour that is actually unethical. Most obviously, it can let you go ahead with an unethical plan if you happen either to be either generally insensitive to bad publicity or blind to subtle ethical dimensions of the question at hand. The former possibility is pretty self-explanatory: some people (and some companies) just don’t seem to care what the public thinks of them, or believe themselves to be above all need for accountability. As an example of the latter possibility (ethical blindness), picture a company sending its CEO to Washington on a private jet, with the aim of asking for money, and being utterly oblivious to the idea that the public might find this unseemly. If you don’t recognize, or care, that someone might object to your decision, then conducting the Newspaper Test isn’t going to stop you from doing something you shouldn’t.
The thing to remember about the Newspaper Test is that, like so many other catchy rules of thumb, it is at best a heuristic, and not an algorithm. It doesn’t automatically crank out an answer that is both determinate and correct. What it really is is an ‘intuition pump.’ It is a way to force yourself to ask, as part of a well-rounded ethical decision-making process, whether your decision is one that, in principle, you could defend in public. The hidden strength of the Newspaper Test lies in the notion of accountability, i.e., of having to give reasons for your actions in order to make them understandable to society at large.