Archive for the ‘critical thinking’ Category

The Business Significance of the ‘Trolley Problem’

streetcarThere’s a famous philosophical thought experiment known as “the Trolley Problem.” It goes roughly like this. Imagine one day you see a trolley — the famous San Francisco variety, or something more like a Toronto streetcar — hurtling along its track. The driver is incapacitated, and the trolley is bearing down on 5 people, mysteriously unconscious on the track. You happen to be standing next to a switch, which can divert the trolley onto a different track. But lying on this other track is another unconscious person.

So assuming (as the philosophy professor insists you must) that you don’t have time to haul any of the various unconscious persons off the tracks, your choice is effectively this: should you divert the trolley, thereby killing one person, or do nothing, and allow 5 people to die?

The puzzle is intended to get you to think about what’s more important: promoting good outcomes (fewer deaths instead of more) or sticking to cherished principles (like the principle that you should not cause the death of an innocent person). It makes for a fun and often fruitful classroom discussion.

But as a model of real-life ethical decision-making, the trolley problem is pretty bad. Seldom does life present you with two cut-and-dried options, neatly packaged by your philosophy professor. As Caroline Whitbeck points out, real life isn’t a multiple-choice test. In real life — in business, for example — ethical problem solving is more like a design problem: you need to design the options, before you get to choose among them.

But the trolley problem can still serve as a useful starting point for talking about business ethics. The key is to ask the right questions. Here are a handful of questions designed to make the trolley problem relevant to business ethics. Each, of course, requires a bit of mental translation. We are not, after all, primarily interested in actual trolleys.

1) Does your business need a policy for situations like this? Is your business one in which trolley-problem-like dilemmas come up often? Are employees often faced with situations that require them to trade off outcomes against principles? If so, do existing policies tell them how to deal with such dilemmas appropriately?

2) Is there anything you can do to prevent situations like this from happening in the first place? One of the key characteristics of the trolley problem is that it’s a lose-lose situation: either you kill an innocent person, or you allow several people to die. It’s worth asking (especially if such problems are common; see #1 above) whether there’s something you can do to avoid such situations so that you don’t have to deal with them at all.

3) What kind of corporate culture have you fostered, and how will that culture push people one way or the other in such situations? The trolley problem is a true dilemma, and reasonable people can disagree about it. But what about situations in which you can throw a switch and kill 5 people (metaphorically, at least) in order to save one? And what if that one isn’t a person, but is your company’s bottom line? Will your company’s culture encourage employees to put short-term profit ahead of all other considerations

4) Will people in your organization recognize situations akin to the trolley problem as being ethical problems in the first place? Or will they make the decision on purely technical grounds? Will they see past the fact that flipping switches is, you know, their job? Or past the fact that hey, the trolley has to run on time, and we always flip this switch that way at this time of day?

5) Finally, if the decision were being made by a team, or members of a hierarchy, rather than by an individual, would members feel empowered to speak their mind if they felt the team, or their boss, was making a bad decision?

Philosophical puzzles like the trolley problem become famous for a reason. They get at something deep. And they can provide fruitful fodder for discussion as part of corporate ethics training. The core of a great discussion is there: you’ve just got to know the right questions to ask.

Ethical Complexity and Simplification in Food Choices

As I pointed out a few days ago, shopping ethically is hard. Right on cue, a flurry of news items followed to drive that point home.

First, a story about how — say it ain’t so! — local food isn’t always ethical food. The story points out that some agricultural workers in southern Ontario (just a short drive from where I live) report suffering from a range of ailments that they attribute to the chemicals to which they are exposed. So, yes, there’s more than a single dimension to food ethics. If (or rather when) local is actually better, that’s got to be an “other things being equal” sort of judgment. Local might be better — so long as local farm workers aren’t being abused, and so long as growing food in your local climate doesn’t require massive water and fuel subsidies, etc.

Next, a Valentine’s-themed bit on how to buy ethical chocolate. The short version: apparently you’re supposed to look for local, organic chocolate that’s certified free of child-labour, sold in a shop that dutifully recycles and composts. Of course, such chocolate isn’t necessarily cheap. And if you’re spending that much on chocolate, then you might want to think what other things you’re scrimping on as a result, and who might be affected by that scrimping.

Finally, there was a story — really just a press release — noting that chocolate bar manufacturer Mars is set to ‘help’ consumers by narrowing their choices: the company is aiming to put a 250-calorie limit on all its bars by 2013. Interesting question: is this a matter of helping particular customers, by encouraging them not to over-indulge? Or is it rather a matter of specifically social responsibility, an attempt by a food giant to respond to (or at least to limit its contribution to) the social problem of obesity? And — speaking of value choices — should food companies aim first and foremost at pleasing their customers, or serving society as a whole?

Sustainability Isn’t Everything

The word “sustainability” doesn’t just refer to everything good. If it did, we wouldn’t need the word “sustainability” at all; we would just use the word “good.”

I’m just a small-town philosopher who likes words to mean what they mean. That’s why I got cranky when I saw the new Global 100 Ranking, which is ostensibly a sustainability ranking. (See my blog posting here.) Why cranky? Because over half of the criteria used to arrive at that ranking have nothing to do with what I — and, I suspect, most people — think of when they hear the word “sustainability.”

But let’s set aside the fact that this usage is potentially misleading; words evolve, and maybe the public will catch up with the Global 100 in its broad understanding of the term “sustainability.” Does this new, revised meaning of “sustainability” make sense?

Let’s start with the word “sustainable.” Well, standard dictionary definitions suggest that it means something like, “Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” OK, good. That’s a positive thing, right? But wait. No one cares about corporate sustainability in that sense, with the possible exception of certain narrow-minded shareholders. We want businesses that are more than merely capable of being maintained. We want businesses that are worthy of being maintained.

So sustainability needs some normative content. It needs some goodness baked in.

In this regard, the touchstone is the U.N.’s Brundtland Commission. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission asserted that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” And ever since then, at very least, the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” have had very significant environmental overtones. OK, good. Here, “sustainability” is being used to indicate some plainly good things: environmental sustainability isn’t the only good thing in the world, but it’s definitely a good thing from a social point of view, embodying not just the value of the natural environment but also a sense of intergenerational justice.

But some people (including the people behind the Global 100) want to expand the term “sustainability” to include other, non-environmental dimensions. From a certain point of view, this makes sense: other things required to allow a company to “sustain” operations. But then further problems arise.

Note that when we expand “sustainability” this way, a subtle bit of sleight-of-hand takes place. Previously, we were talking about business operations that were environmentally sustainable. Now, we’ve switched to sustainable organizations. What does it take to sustain an organization? Lots of things, and not all of them are good. And being sustainable isn’t, in itself, a good thing. The tobacco industry has lasted for centuries, leaving millions of dead bodies in its wake. Very, very sustainable. But bad.

As noted above, we don’t generally care whether companies can stay in business. We want them to merit staying in business. And if the companies on the Global 100 merit staying in business, why not just say so?

In the end, I guess my point really is that environmental sustainability is important all on its own, and doesn’t need to be fluffed up with issues like workplace safety or leadership diversity or CEO pay; and issues like workplace safety and leadership diversity and CEO pay are too important to stuff into the simple concept of sustainability.

Moneyball and Business Ethics

I’m finally getting around to reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s best-selling ode to the study of baseball statistics (and the source material for the new Brad Pitt movie of the same name). It’s one of the most engaging books I’ve read in a long time — something that won’t surprise those of you who happen to have read The Big Short, Lewis’s lively account of the 2008-2009 financial collapse.

What did surprise me as that Moneyball isn’t really a book about baseball. It’s fundamentally about epistemology. Epistemology is the critical study of knowledge itself — how we get it and how we use it. And though Lewis doesn’t (as far as I can recall) use that word, Moneyball is all about epistemology: the epistemology of baseball, yes, but much more than that. It’s fundamentally about how managers should use information to achieve better outcomes.

Moneyball holds important lessons for business managers generally, but in particular it holds lessons about business ethics. But the messages aren’t the obvious ones you’d expect from a book on baseball — they aren’t about the ethics of labour negotiations, for example, or the incomplete alignment of the twin goals of satisfying your fans and making money.

Three key lessons of the book, as far as I can see, are as follows:

1) The numbers matter. So, don’t guess — measure. In baseball, this means scouts need to look closely at a player’s stats, rather than relying on the fact that he’s got a “nice swing” or a “body made for baseball.” In business, it means measuring actual performance — not just bottom-line financial performance, but social and environmental performance, too, rather than just relying on the vague feeling that your company is “doing OK.”

2) The numbers don’t come out of thin air. The numbers you have available to you aren’t just a feature of the universe around you. The numbers represent what happens to have been measured. The “bottom line” (net income) is no more a natural feature of business than “Earned Run Average” is a natural feature of baseball. Both are artefacts of a particular system, one with a particular history and its own set of biases.

3) Numbers can lead you astray. Managing based on the numbers someone else more-or-less arbitrarily decided to keep track of can result in disaster. This is especially the case when those decisions are rooted in idiosyncratic interests or biases. Lewis points out, for instance, that early baseball stats didn’t bother to record the number of walks a batter earned — mostly because one of the early promoters of baseball stats, a journalist named Henry Chadwick, happened to be a fan of cricket, a sport where there’s just no such thing as a ‘walk.’ Chadwick decided not to keep track of how many walks a batter achieved. The result was that there was no way to track which batters had the good judgment to watch a high-and-inside fastball sail past instead of swinging at it. It matters to their performance, but for a time there was no way for coaches to include it in their management strategies. The exact same point can be made about various elements of social and environmental reporting.

The overarching lesson, here, is about the need for (pardon the pun) a measured approach to the use of numbers in business. Numbers matter, and they matter a lot. The old saw that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is surely a vast overgeneralization, but one that contains a kernel of truth. But what matters even more than the numbers is knowing what the numbers mean, and what they can and cannot tell you.

Should Americans Buy American?

One of the most amazing — and perhaps depressing — facts of current American politics is that the Occupy Wall Street folks and the American political right are apparently unified in their support for a “buy American” policy. The need to appease the political right is reportedly the entire reason for the “buy American” provision in Obama’s new jobs bill. The very same sentiment is embodied in the recent 99 Percent Declaration. (See Point #14: “End Outsourcing.”)

The “buy American” thing is just a special case of the more general plea we often hear to “support your local economy.” But maybe even less well-justified. And more cynical.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about the “buy American” slogan. For a start, it’s the slogan for the kind of protectionism that is generally understood to reduce economic efficiency (and hence to reduce human well-being). Bigger markets are generally better, and the right solution to the negative side-effects of globalization isn’t to build walls around your economy. Plus, protectionism tends to result in arms races, in which Country A erects trade barriers, to which Country B responds, and so on and so on. And in some cases, “buy American” (or “buy Canadian” or “buy UK” or whatever) is a thin disguise for xenophobia, and perhaps racism. As in, “Buy American rather than from…you know…foreigners.

But the flip-side of the consumer-oriented question posed in the title of this entry is the question faced by businesses (and this is, after all, a blog about business ethics.) Should businesses play into the protectionism implied by the “Buy American” slogan? As I’ve pointed out before, one of the most general obligations businesses have is not to reduce the efficiency of markets, for it is that very market efficiency that provides the moral underpinning for their general pattern of aggressively competitive behaviour. So businesses generally have a responsibility not to play upon consumers’ lack of economic sophistication, or their xenophobia. So, on the lips of a captain of industry, “buy American” betrays either a lack of understanding, or a cynical willingness to damage the public good in order to turn a profit. What it betokens on the lips of politicians or protestors, I leave for others to speculate.

Corporations as “People” vs Corporations as “Persons”

There are two ways to think about corporations. One is as a mechanism for letting a bunch of individual people interact. Seen this way, General Motors is just a mechanism for letting employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, and managers interact in mutually-beneficial ways. The other way is to think of the corporation as an entity in its own right. Seen this way, GM is an entity that owns property, hires employees, is a party to contracts, and has obligations (e.g., via warrantees) to millions of customers. The people involved come and go, but the 103-year-old institution remains. These two views aren’t incompatible. Each illuminates one important characteristic while obscuring another. We need to be able to see corporations both ways, depending on the circumstance.

But it is important not to confuse the two. One is about people. The other is about legal personhood.

Here’s an important case of that confusion. As was widely reported at the time, US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said, in a speaking engagement, that “corporations are people.” (You can see it for yourself on YouTube: Mitt Romney- Corporations Are People!) This happened over six weeks ago, but it is still causing confusion, and muddying the waters of the debate over the role of corporations in modern society.

What did Romney mean by what he said? I think the point Romney was clearly making is very different from the one he is often thought to have been making. In fact, he was making the exact opposite point. In clarifying what he meant, Romney said, in reference to corporate profits:

“Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?”

In other words, he’s pointing to the first of the two viewpoints mentioned above, the one according to which what really matters is the people, the individual stakeholders, behind the corporation. And yet I keep seeing Romney’s “Corporations are people” claim bandied about sarcastically as if it’s yet another example of the much-hated (and much-understood) notion that corporations are legal persons.

(Greg Sargent at the Washington Post did try to explain this, but the point has generally been missed.)

If you don’t like Romney, fine. And if you don’t agree with the point he was making — that corporate profits end up in the pockets of human beings — that’s fine too. But please don’t confuse his point with the exact opposite point, namely the fact that corporations are (and need to be) legally regarded as persons.

Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Stem Cell Fraud

Stem cell science is pretty sexy. And as the saying goes, “sex sells.” And if something sells, someone is liable to make a buck off it, whether it’s right to do so or not.

See this opinion piece (in The Scientist) by Zubin Master and David B. Resnik: Reforming Stem Cell Tourism.

As with many new areas of technological advancements, stem cell research has received its fair share of hype. Though much of the excitement is warranted, and the potential of stem cells promising, many have used that hype for their own monetary gain. … Young and elderly patients have died from receiving illegitimate stem cell treatments; others have developed tumors following stem cell transplantations….

Master and Resnik point to the need for patient education, and to the limits of international guidelines, but their main focus is on the ethical responsibilities of scientists — including the responsibility not to cooperate in various indirect ways with unscrupulous colleagues. (It is very, very hard to do clinical science in a vacuum, and so isolating unscrupulous scientists may be one way to put them out of business.)

But it’s important to point out that this is as much a story of business ethics as it is of scientific ethics. The unscrupulous individuals preying upon the sick aren’t doing it for free. What these clinics are doing is committing fraud, and endangering their customers in the process.

Now there’s nothing ethically subtle about that. You don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to know that fraud is bad. But there’s another, subtler, issue here, namely an underlying theme about the general lack of scientific literacy on the part of consumers and the ability of business to use it to their advantage. Companies of all kinds can do a lot of good in the world by promoting scientific literacy, and by being scrupulously careful about having the facts straight when they present their products to consumers and tell them, “this works.”

Now of course, we’re never going to prevent such behaviour entirely. As long as there are desperate people in the world, there will be snake-oil salesmen eager to make a buck from their misery. But as Master and Resnik suggest, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The Corporation is Not a Psychopath

Readers may already be familiar with documentary that came out a few years ago, called The Corporation. The film has many flaws; I can’t show it to my students without pausing frequently to correct misleading assertions and half-truths. But the key problem with the film lies in its attempt to arrive at a single, simple diagnosis for the many problems we see in the corporate world. The central conceit of the film is that the corporation fits the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy — that corporations, quite generally, act in destructive ways that demonstrate an utter lack of empathy or remorse. The problem is, the claim is utter bunk, and is utterly unsupported by what the film shows to viewers. But it’s also an idea that has struck a chord with a lot of people, seemingly summing up their darkest fears about corporations.

Part of the problem is that the film is sloppy with language. The film is called The Corporation, and the makers of the film clearly intend to refer to ‘the corporation’ in the abstract, corporations as a group, the very idea of them. It’s not referring to any particular corporation — like, that one over there. But in building its case, it cites diverse behaviours by various particular companies, and uses those to check off, one by one, the diagnostic criteria that psychologists associate with psychopathy in humans.

Here’s the list of diagnostic criteria that the film uses:

1) callous unconcern for the feelings of others;
2) incapacity to maintain enduring relationships;
3) recklessness with others’ health & safety;
4) deceitfulness;
5) inability to feel guilt;
6) failure to follow social norms.

The problem is that in order to use this list as a diagnostic tool, you need to apply it to a single ‘patient.’ But the film doesn’t do that, not ever; instead, it cherry-picks examples of heinous behaviour from across dozens of corporations over dozens of decades. It finds an example of Callous Unconcern on the part of one company, Recklessness on the part of another, and Deceitfulness on the part of others still. And so on.

The result is a kind of sleight of hand, and not very subtle sleight of hand at that. You can do the same trick with any ‘patient,’ of course, when your ‘patient’ is an entire category. If you cherry-pick examples from across many many particular cases, you can easily arrive at a diagnosis of psychopathy not just for The Corporation, but also fo The Government, The University, The Church, The Union, The Charity, The Newspaper, or even — *shudder!* — The Highschool Volleyball Team.

Now it is crucial to note that by pointing out this flaw in the argument put forward by the film, I’m not defending any of the companies that it mentions. Many of those companies have done terrible things, including things that are outright criminal. The point is that the film fails utterly in its attempt to prove that the corporation as a whole is a “psychopath,” or anything like it. And the result is much more than a documentary that fails to make its point. The result is a distraction, as viewers duped by the film are told to write off the very notion of profit-seeking corporations, a prescription that ignores the enormous amount of human wellbeing that has resulted directly from the activities of corporations, and also diverts attention from a more focused critique of the very real flaws that exist in the way particular corporations are governed and regulated.

Yes, there is such a thing as business ethics

Marketing guru (blogger, author, etc.) Seth Godin posted a provocative blog entry called, “No such thing as business ethics”, in which he worries that the focus on “business ethics and corporate social responsibility” is distracting us from questions of personal responsibility:

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially….

Now I could quibble with Godin’s definition of ethics, which is actually a particular controversial view about what ethics requires, rather than a definition. But instead I’m going to take issue with Godin’s claim that all that matters in business is personal ethics, rather than organizational ethics. Godin writes:

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing. Business is too powerful for us to leave our humanity at the door of the office. It’s not business, it’s personal.

Godin’s claim that “it’s not business, it’s personal” is problematic in two ways. First, it wrongly implies that business ethics somehow misses out on the whole personal integrity thing. That’s entirely false. Both the academic literature on business ethics and the “ethics and values” programs set up by individual companies put a lot of emphasis on individuals adopting the right values and making good decisions. Secondly, contrary to what Godin implies, individual ethics clearly is not enough. For one thing, people embedded in organizations have obligations that are role-specific. Just as lawyers and doctors have special duties that go along with their roles — they have to follow not just their own consciences, but also highly specific professional codes — so do people in the world of business. And for another thing, organizations can be set up badly such that all kinds of “good” individual decisions can still lead to problematic outcomes. The ethics of the organization, per se, matters a lot.

Interestingly, Godin tells us that he learned about all this from his dad. Unfortunately, while the homely lessons we learned at our parents’ knees tend to give us a good start in life, complex institutional settings tend to bring more complex duties, and hence require more complex principles.

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