Archive for the ‘adversarial ethics’ Category

Wal-Mart Bribery and Bad Examples

This is the third in a series of postings on the bribery scandal at Wal-Mart de Mexico and its parent company, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

I’ve already dealt with why bribery is so seriously problematic in general. But let’s look here at why this particular instance of bribery (or pattern of bribery, really) by this particular company is especially problematic.

It goes without saying that the bribery that allegedly took place at Wal-Mart de Mexico is a wonderful example of lousy “tone at the top.” Eduardo Castro-Wright, who was CEO of Wal-Mart de Mexico during the bulk of the wrongdoing, is centrally implicated, as are senior people at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., including CEO Mike Duke. How on earth can they now hope to exercise any ethical leadership? Clearly, they can’t, and that’s why in my opinion they both need to resign or be fired.

But the bad example set by this set of behaviours goes well beyond the walls of Wal-Mart itself.

Wal-Mart is an industry leader, taken by many as an example of how business ought to be done. The signal sent here is particularly corrosive with regard to doing business in Mexico. Mexico clearly has its problems with corruption. But there’s a self-fulfilling prophesy in this regard. If companies see Mexico as a place where bribery is necessary, they’re sometimes going to offer bribes to public officials who, in turn, will come to expect bribes. And if Wal-Mart, of all companies, says it can’t compete effectively in the Mexican market without engaging in that sort of thing — well, the lesson for merely-mortal companies is clear. If Wal-Mart can’t thrive there by playing by the rules, who can?

Think also about Wal-Mart’s supply chain, and the example this behaviour sets for the thousands of companies that supply Wal-Mart, directly or at one or more steps removed, with the goods it sells. Wal-Mart is notoriously tough on its suppliers, insisting on lower and lower prices and higher and higher levels of efficiency. But naturally — naturally! — Wal-Mart wants its suppliers to do all that within the limits of the law, right? Or at least that has to be the company’s official policy. But now, what are suppliers to think? With the revelation of Wal-Mart’s own lawless behaviour, the message to suppliers — thousands and thousands of them — is that getting the job done matters more, and that the ends justify the means.

OK, but won’t the fact that the Wal-Mart executives involved got caught also serve as an example? Well, perhaps. But that depends in part on what action is taken by law enforcement agencies and by the company’s own Board. I strongly suspect that decision-makers at a lot of companies will continue to fall prey to the cognitive illusion that so often facilitates wrongdoing of all kinds: “I’m too smart to get caught.”

So Wal-Mart has provided a clear example in terms of the benefits of bribery, and only a weak one in terms of the costs. Wal-Mart’s shareholders lost $10 billion this past Monday, in the wake of these revelations. But I fear the real impact of the scandal will be much bigger, and broader.

Football and Commerce: The Importance of the Rules of the Game

It’s often pointed out that business is a tough, hard-hitting game. In fact, that’s often cited as a reason for skepticism about any role for ethics in business. After all, ethics is (so they say) about good behaviour, not about aggressive competition. And there’s just no role for nicey-nicey rules in the rough-and-tumble world of business.

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Rules are endemic to commerce, as they are to all other competitive games played by people in civilized societies. The rules of the game, after all, and the fact that most people play by them most of the time, are what differentiate commerce from crime.

This point is nicely illustrated by the serious scandal in which Football’s New Orleans Saints are currently embroiled.

The facts of this scandal are roughly as follows: players on the team, along with one assistant coach, maintained a ‘bounty pool’ amounting to tens of thousands of dollars, from which bounties were paid to players who inflicted serious injuries on players from opposing teams. This violates the NFL’s “bounty rule,” which specifically forbids teams from paying players for specific achievements within the game, including things like hurting other players. Why would the League have such a rule? Don’t they understand that football is a tough, hard-hitting game?

A game like football in fact has a couple of different kinds of rules. One kind of rule is there merely to define what the game is. The rule in football that says you can only throw the ball forward once per down is such a rule. The rule could easily be different, but the rule is what it is, and it’s part of what constitutes the game of (American) football. Other rules — including those that put limits on violence, and those that prescribe the limits on the field of play — have a more crucial role, namely that of ensuring that the game continues to be worth playing. Football (and hockey and a few other sports) involve controlled aggression and controlled violence, of a kind that would be considered seriously problematic, even illegal, if it took place outside of a sporting event.

The reason we consider such ritualized violence acceptable is that it is conducted according to a set of rules to which all involved consent. Players recognize that they might get injured, but they presumably feel it worth the chance of being injured in return for some combination of fame, glory, and a sizeable income. In addition, there are significant social benefits, including especially the enjoyment of fans who are willing, in the aggregate, to spend millions of dollars to patronize such sports. So the deal is basically that we, as a society, allow aggressive, violent behaviour, as long as it is played by a set of rules that ensures that a) participation in the game is mutually-beneficial and b) no one on the sidelines gets hurt.

The New Orleans Saints’ bounty system violated that social contract. It undermined the very moral foundation of the game.

And that is precisely how we ought to think of the rules of business. Yes, it’s a tough, adversarial domain. Apple should try to crush Dell by offering better products and better customer service. Ford must try its best to outdo GM, not least because consumers benefit from that competitive zeal. Indeed, failure to compete must be regarded as a grave offence. But competition has limits. And the limits on competitive behaviour are not arbitrary; nor are they the same limits as we place on aggressive behaviour at home or in the street.

The limits on competitive behaviour in business, however poorly-defined, must be precisely those limits that keep the ‘game’ socially beneficial. And it’s far too easy to forget that reasonably-free capitalist markets are subject to that basic moral justification. When done properly, such markets offer remarkable freedom and unparalleled improvements in human well-being. Behaviour that threatens the tendency of markets to produce mutual benefit effectively pulls the rug out from under the entire enterprise. Such behaviour is an offence not just to those who are hurt directly, but to all who enjoy — or who ought to enjoy — the benefits that flow from such a beautiful game.

The Social Responsibilities of Lawyers

If there’s serious academic topic and social issue that might generate more stupid jokes than Business Ethics, it’s Legal Ethics. Which is too bad, since it’s an important topic. And that’s the topic raised by a recent story in the Boston Globe about lawyers who specialize in defending drivers accused of drunk driving.

Anyone with a broad interest in business ethics is almost inevitably going to run into questions of legal ethics, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that many corporations employ lawyers, and so businesses have to know about the ethical constraints on these very special employees. The other reason is that lawyers who don’t work for big companies are, themselves, either partners in law firms or owners of their own small businesses. And whether you work for a business or run one, questions arise regarding the intersection of, and perhaps conflict between, legal ethics on one hand and business ethics on the other.

One of the crucial ethical question that must inevitably arise for lawyers is this: what are a lawyer’s social responsibilities? In other words, what are a lawyer’s obligations to the society she lives in, while she goes about trying to ply her trade and make a living?

There’s a very strong argument to be made to the effect that the key way in which lawyers serve society — their key social responsibility — is by serving their clients well. Ours is an adversarial legal system, under which all parties to a dispute are entitled to legal representation. A key presumption of the system is that we are most likely to arrive at a just outcome if all parties to the dispute are represented by lawyers who vigourously pursue their clients’ interest. So the morality of whole system effectively stands or falls with the practice of zealous advocacy. We can never be 100% confident in the outcome of a trial, perhaps, but at least we know each side had its bulldog.

Now, it’s widely recognized among legal scholars that there are limits to zealous advocacy. Lawyers are forbidden from directly breaking the law in attempting to help their clients, and from derailing the court’s processes by, for example, suborning perjury or destroying evidence. But beyond that, lawyers are entitled — indeed, required — to do their damnedest.

Yale legal scholar Robert W Gordon wrote a nice piece a few years back called “Why Lawyers Can’t Just Be Hired Guns.” Gordon’s basic argument is essentially that lawyers play too important a role in modern society for them to think of themselves as solely beholden to their clients. In particular, Gordon argues that a lawyer’s right to engage in zealous advocacy only makes sense to the extent that lawyers also help support the system within which such advocacy ends up being constructive:

…lawyers’ work on behalf of clients positively requires—both for its justification and its successful functioning for the benefit of those same clients in the long run—that lawyers also help maintain and refresh the public sphere, the infrastructure of law and cultural convention that constitutes the cement of society.

(You’ll find Goron’s piece in a very good book called Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation, edited by Deborah L. Rhode.)

It’s worth noting that Gordon’s argument about social responsibility is essentially an argument about the limits that apply to the fundamental moral obligation that lawyers have to faithfully play their role in the larger legal system. And it’s equally worth noting that that obligation cannot be described without reference to that system, and to the role we want lawyers to play within it.

There’s a general lesson, here. We shouldn’t think of ethics strictly in terms of the human micro-implications of a particular situation. We need also to look carefully at the roles individuals play in important social structures, and the roles those structures play in society as a whole.

Jack Layton and Adversarial Ethics

Today Canada mourns the loss of Jack Layton, a politician beloved by his allies on the left and grudgingly respected, I sense, by a great many opponents on the right. Layton was, for most of the last decade, the tireless leader of the New Democratic Party (traditionally Canada’s “third” party), and eventually led the party during its historical first turn as the Official Opposition in the House of Commons.

Layton has left behind a considerable legacy of public service, but his career also holds lessons for how we think about business ethics.

One of the things that the market and the realm of electoral politics have in common is that they are both deliberately adversarial. In both politics and business, we want participants (political parties, in one case, and business firms in the other) to compete vigorously with each other, rather than cooperating. The idea is that when participants compete, third parties (voters in one case, and consumers in the other) reap the benefits. Such systems are interesting, and ethically complex. Competitive behaviour is often considered anti-social, and so it requires careful thought to figure out just what the boundaries of competitive behaviour are, when we actually encourage people to act that way.

Here are two facts about Layton that serve as perfect illustrations.

First is that he spearheaded an effort to bring greater civility to debates in the House of Commons. This is not surprising, coming from the Federal politician voted to be the one that Canadians were most likely to want to have a beer with. But that sort of effort is also absolutely essential to any adversarial system. Just as norms of good sportsmanship keep violent games like football and hockey within reasonable boundaries, norms of civility in politics keep that game from devolving into something intolerable.

But some may also recall that Layton was declared (by impartial academic researchers) the “least civil” participant in recent Canadian parliamentary debates. Critics were quick to use that story as ammunition against the affable politician. But the authors of that study rightly pointed out a structural reason for Layton’s place in the ranking: Layton was leader of one of the opposition parties, and zealous debate in Parliament is one of the opposition’s few tools in Canada’s parliamentary system. Canadians would have been worse-off if Layton, in his role as leader of an opposition party (and later as Leader of the Official Opposition), had been more polite.

Clearly the challenge Layton faced — by all accounts met admirably — is the same one faced by business leaders everywhere. And that is how to compete zealously in order indirectly to promote the common good, while at the same time resisting the entirely-natural temptation to behave in such a way as to bring the entire endeavour into disrepute. Competing in a zealous but civil way is a crucial part of Jack Layton’s legacy, and a crucial challenge for all leaders in the worlds of both politics and commerce.

Correction: the original version of this blog entry claimed that Layton was Leader of the Official Opposition during the time-frame of the academic study mentioned. That was incorrect, and has been fixed above.

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