Unethical Innovation

Innovation is a hot topic these days, and has been an important buzzword in business for some time. As Simon Johnson and James Kwak point out in their book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown, innovation is almost by definition taken to be a good thing. But, they also point out, it’s far from obvious that innovation is in fact always good. They focus especially on financial innovation, which they say has in at least some instances led to financial instruments that are too complex for purchasers to really understand. Innovation in the area of finance — often lionized as crucial to rendering markets more efficient and hence as a key driver of social wealth — is actually subject to ethical criticism, or at least caution. And the worry is not just that particular innovations in this area have been problematic. The worry is that the pace of innovation has made it hard for regulators, investors, and ratings agencies to keep up.

In what other cases is “innovation” bad, or at least suspect? One other example of an area in which innovation might be worrisome is in advertising. Consider the changes in advertising over the last 100 years. Not only have new media emerged, but so have new methods, new ways of grabbing consumers’ attention. Not all of those innovations have been benign. When innovative methods have been manipulative — subliminal advertising is a key example — they’ve been subject to ethical critique.

Some people would also add the design and manufacture of weaponry to the list. But then, almost all innovations by arms manufacturers have some legitimate use. Landmines and cluster bombs are controversial, largely because of their tendency to do too much “collateral dammage” (i.e., to kill civilians). But they do both have legitimate military uses. So it’s debatable whether the innovation, itself, is bad, instead of just the particular use of the innovation.

Are there other realms in which innovation, generally taken to be a good thing, is actually worrisome? One caveat: the challenge, here, is to point out problematic fields of innovation without merely sounding like a luddite.

8 comments so far

  1. Romy on

    Interesting indeed..ethical or unethical innovation is about who use it and what purpose, that’s going to define whether it been using in ethical way or vice verse.but potential consumers also need to have knowledge before make any purchase. thus, if the consumers have the right knowledge, even the advertisement have the ability to attract consumers always to refer back to their knowledge and make decision based on need. creating awareness I personally think is a good way rather than controlling the development of innovation.”human never stop seeking new things”

    just my personal view.
    have a nice day!

  2. Wayne Norman on

    Here’s a guess at how we might be able focus in on “unfortunate innovation” cases. Think of the innovative ways that firms attempt to exploit market failures like information asymmetries, market power (monopoly, including patents and intellectual property rights), and negative externalities; among others. Think of the way they use lawyer for find clever ways to extend patents, argue for competition-reducing mergers, expose tax loopholes, and such. Think of how they exploit customers’ ignorance and non-rational decision-making. Think of the ways they find new ways externalize costs. Think of the way they work to “capture” regulators, or compromise the integrity of elected officials…

  3. jerry van rossum on

    Interesting thought. The speed of innovation is breath taking and you raise a key component of concern-do we know the implications of our actions? One scientific application that is impotant for an organization to consider with greater emphasis is a a version of Newton’s laws of motion. We simply cannot do a single thing. Every action we take has seen and unforseen implications and reactions. I would postulate that we need to slow down just a bit to consider our innovations and go beyond cost benefit. Great post Chris.

  4. jilly on

    Name a legitimate use of biological weapons?

    Leaving that aside, however, I would like to raise a question about “immortality” research.

  5. Gregory Sadler on

    I’ve got a field, which might be a bit surprising, but which has all sorts of ethical implications — not least because of all the ethical assumptions built in and ethical language used, often very sloppily and fuzzy-headedly: Higher Education.

    If you look through the literature that gets called “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”, or through the wider pedegogical theory literature — the sort of stuff that education “specialists” are writing for each other and using to supposedly teach each other, you’ll find a constant drumbeat of “innovation”.

    Now, I’m not saying that all late modern educational innovations are bad, or even that they’re ineffective. As a matter of fact, I’m a professor who has studied and incorporated a number of “innovative” pedagogical strategies into my classes. When I recognize the potential of a new approach, I experiment with it — or rather I impose the experiment upon my students, using my institutions resources, hopefully to better generate what it is my ethical duty to do: student learning.

    In fact, there are some innovations that I view as very positive. It is a good thing for my students to encounter CLA-style Performance Tasks in the classroom, because when used right by a competent instructor, they conduce to student learning and development (e.g. in Critical Thinking). I feel so strongly about the benefits of that particular educational tool (and just the tool, mind you, which rates an A-; the associated organizations like CLA in the Classroom rates a C-) that I’ve pushed adoption of that innovation myself through providing workshops, coordinating institutional assessment, helping write it into our quality enhancement plan, and writing about it as a model (e.g.http://tinyurl.com/3x7wwkw).

    I would say that for each extraordinary pedagogical innovation, there are at least several that do not improve student learning, but actually worsen the conditions for it, not least by taking away valuable time, producing discontinuity with the (actually relatively successful) past of education, learning, culture, and scholarship. Experiments get imposed on students whether they opt-in or not, in many cases — albeit in small ways, stymieing rather than fostering their development into autonomous, well-informed, good practical reasoners.

    Imposing questionable pedagogical techniques in place of those which have been fairly successful in the past strikes me as irresponsible, but that has actually become a feature of our system of university education — we are supposed to be carrying out continual assessment, improvement, “closing the loop”, and that means practically speaking all too often are institutions chasing a Dantesque ‘ever shifting banner” of new pedagogical theory from place to place, year to year.

    if you stick with traditional techniques — which by the way students do respond to and sometimes actually ask for — like lectures (disparaged as “chalk and talk”) — then many will tell you that you are doing something wrong — not just pragmatically, but ethically. Really, though, depriving students of effective means of education in favor of innovative theories is on some level itself wrong.

    Thanks for raising these questions, Chris. They’ve provoked some of my long-mulled-over thoughts on educational innovation to precipitate out. I’m going to write a piece later this week on my blog exploring the ethical implications of pedagogical innovation

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Great comment, and obviously one on a topic that’s near to my heart. Part of the trouble, I take it, is that so few of us in the biz have either a) any formal training in pedagogy, or b) any direct access to reliable research in the field. I tend to be skeptical about novel pedagogical approaches (or worse yet, fads). But then I also worry that there *must* be better ways to do things, and that I’m simply unaware of those.


      • Gregory Sadler on

        Thanks, Chris, for that reply.

        I tend to be very skeptical myself of the “education” profs and specialists myself — it helps to have done my Philosophy graduate work at Southern Illinois University, where John Dewey is highly venerated, and where correspondingly the flaws in his ideas can shine through to the unconverted (like myself) all the more prominently.

        Your last point raises another idea which perhaps ought to be explored — sure, there’s probably always better ways to do things. But, if we have something good in place — which in education, because of several generations of poorly coordinated and thought out experimentation, we unfortunately don’t in many places — before we move away from that to something new, which might result in less student learning, and thus shortchange our students, the case ought to be made why there’s a good likelihood that the innovation will actually benefit our students overall.

        This strikes me as one of those cases where the imaginary best (which never gets realized) becomes the enemy of the real, though limited good.

        To go back to the original topic of your blog post — I don’t want to turn this into a conversation just about innovation in education — that best/good problem might be able to be transferred to the other sorts of innovation you mention above as well, no?

  6. […] Light points out that many business schools now offer courses on what he refers to broadly as the “social impact” of business. “Social impact,” he says, can variously be defined in terms of “social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service.” (Note that Light is in trouble here, already, implicitly assuming all of those terms are good things. For counter-examples, see my recent blog entry on unethical innovation.) […]

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