Ethics, Ethics Everywhere: A Day in the Life of a Business Magazine

As a professor, I always make a point of emphasizing to my students that ethics, far from being a niche topic, is actually pervasive in business. Ethics is what differentiates commerce from crime, but commerce also raises lots of interesting and complex ethical controversies. Really, most of the interesting stuff about business has an ethical element.

One way to illustrate that point is to look at the contents of business magazines. More specifically, let’s look at a recent issue of Canadian Business. As I’ve noted before, Canadian Business does more than most biz magazines to feature ethical issues on its website. But what I’m interested in today is the stories covered in the print version of the magazine. So here’s a quick look at the ethical issues — not necessarily labelled as such — in a single issue (the September 26, 2011 issue) of Canadian Business.

In the magazine’s 78 pages, you’ll find the following ethics-related stories:

On p.4, interim Editor-in-Chief, James Cowan, has an editorial responding to criticism of the cover of the magazine’s Sept. 12 issue, which featured an attractive woman in a tight red dress. Was this particular way of portraying a successful business woman exploitative, as one letter-writer suggested?

On pp. 12-13, there’s a piece by my colleague Richard Leblanc on governance standards and the recent scandal at Canadian company Sino-Forest. (And as I’ve argued before, corporate governance just is about ethics.)

On p. 14, there’s a short piece by Marina Adshade on adultery among executives. (For why that’s a business-ethics issue, see what I wrote about Eliot Spitzer three years ago.)

Then on pp. 14-15, there’s a piece by yours truly on a South African winery’s attempt to come to grips with its slave-holding past. The key question I contemplate is whether owning up to that past is a matter of basic ethics, or a more complex issue of social responsibility.

On pp. 19-21, Michael McCullough has an article on Warren Buffett’s argument for why wealthy Americans like him should pay more taxes — which raises fundamental questions about not distributive justice, freedom, and property rights.

On pp. 22-26, there’s a lengthy article by Robert Thompson on a Canadian drug company’s attempt to develop a sexual-dysfunction drug for women. The obvious comparison is with Viagra, a drug nominally intended to treat real dysfunction, but widely recognized, and criticized, as being more commonly used as a so-called “lifestyle drug.”

On pp. 28-31, you’ll find an article, by Jasmine Budak, on how companies deal with — and why some of the resent having to deal with — maternity leave. That topic raises all sorts of questions about fair treatment of employees, and about what sorts of employee benefits are just too burdensome to be fair to businesses and co-workers.

Finally, Angelina Chapin’s article (pp.50-52) about lingerie sales in conservative Islamic countries isn’t exactly about ethics, but it certainly raises questions about conflicts, and perceived conflicts, between various value sets.

All in all, I have to conclude, with some modesty, that if you’re a magazine reader interested in ethical issues in business, you certainly don’t have to head straight to the article by the ethics professor to scratch that itch.

And there really is a deep point about business, here. Ethical standards are inherent to the very idea of doing business. Those standards apply, contextually, to a thousand tiny details about how business gets done, to a thousand questions that need to be answered in the course of doing business. Different people will have different ideas about what those standards should be, not least because different people will have different stakes in the outcome. One result is that “ethics stories” are actually all over the place, in the business press, and they’re relatively seldom labeled that way.

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