From Oxycontin to Fast Food: The Ethics of Selling Not-Too-Much

Business is about sales. From a business point of view, your mission is to make a product that people want, and to sell a lot of it. The drive to sell a lot is what motivates cleverness in product design, efficiency in production, and consumer-friendly low prices.

Sure, the idea of selling more-more-more has its critics. There’s a strain of anti-consumerism that sees the drive to sell (and hence buy) more as the root of all evil. And certainly in some product categories, maximizing the selling-and-buying cycle can have pretty bad environmental effects.

But in general, it’s hard to tell a businessperson, with a straight face, that they’re ethically obligated not to sell so much stuff. After all, that’s their function.

There are, however, exceptions, cases in which selling more is so obviously socially destructive that it becomes morally mandatory to try to maybe sell a little less.

See, for example, this must-read piece by Mike Mariani in the Pacific Standard, called “Poison Pill: How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company.” It’s the story of how Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid analgesic Oxycontin, used innovative marketing strategies to turn the painkiller into a $100-million commercial success, and how the drug not coincidentally became the darling of millions of addicts. Part of that story is about unethical (and illegal) marketing methods. But the question of methods can’t be separated entirely from the question of goals. And the goal, here, is sales — in particular, maximizing sales. But when you maximize sales of a drug like Oxy, you inevitably encourage a greater amount of “leakage” of the drug from the stream of legitimate uses into the realm of addiction and criminality.

This is clearly an extreme case. Oxycontin is a potent narcotic, subject to strict legal controls for good reasons. Taken incorrectly, it can ruin your life or even kill you, and for that reason distribution channels are limited.But it’s worth noting that this is not a bad product. Used properly, it’s a godsend.

But oxy is far from the only product that is good when used properly, but dangerous when used incorrectly. Consider the Big Mac. Or 7-Eleven’s Big Gulp. Or Coca Cola. Each of those is harmless when consumed the way any reasonable person would consume them, i.e., relatively seldom. A single Coke — or even a Big Gulp-sized Coke, just isn’t going to hurt you. So, it would seem no one is doing anything wrong by selling you one. Or even two. Or even several.

Now, when consumed in excess, both Coke and Big Macs can have, shall we say, a negative impact on your health. But it’s hard to imagine telling the cashier at minimum-wage earning clerk at McDonald’s or 7-Eleven that they’re obligated to cut customers off after they’ve had “one too many.” And besides, with regards to grownups, at least, consumers are allowed to make their own mistakes, even at the risk of significant personal injury. Hey, that’s the price of freedom.

But there’s also the question of social impact. Coke and Big Macs aren’t just having an impact on individuals; they (along with lots of other high-sugar fast foods and snack foods) are implicated in the obesity epidemics currently plaguing so many industrialized countries. From a social point of view, selling more isn’t better. And from the perspective of net sales, it’s slightly more plausible to think that a company might contemplate exercising some restraint.

Of course, it’s all too easy to think that such companies should sell less. But it’s much harder to specify how much less, and how they should do it. Indeed, it’s hard even to enunciate what the relevant moral principle would look like. Go ahead and sell, sell, sell, but only up to…what point?

I don’t have a solution to suggest here. My point is just that the tragic story of oxycontin is merely a grotesquely extreme example of a larger problem, namely how to do business responsibly when selling a product that is at once both good and evil.

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