Archive for the ‘definitions’ Category

Are they Competing, or Just Trying to Sell You Something?

Peaceful coexistence isn’t always a good thing. In the marketplace, competition is what drives different producers of a good to improve their wares, and having one producer explain the superiority of his or her product is — embellishment and puffery aside — how consumers learn to differentiate among products. When different suppliers fail to engage in competition, the consumer is left in the dark. Let me give you two examples.

Here’s the first example. One of the problems — or rather, one of the warning signs — about so-called “alternative” medicine is that there are dozens of different kinds of alt-med, all making different and presumably conflicting assumptions about how the human body works, and yet they all get along cozily together. Nowhere do you find homeopaths, for example, explaining why their methods are superior to those of acupuncturists. Nor do you find Reiki therapists dissing Ayurveda. Crystal therapy gurus are unlikely to tell you about the problems with Traditional Chinese Medicine. And so on. As Robert Park wrote with reference to alt-med, in his book, Voodoo Science (p. 65), “there is no internal dissent in a community that feels itself besieged from the outside.” Of course, the existence of different alt-med treatments isn’t in itself surprising or problematic. Mainstream medicine too uses different treatments for different illnesses. But the different treatments offered by mainstream medicine are all, without exception, underpinned by a single coherent body of theory: the heart circulates blood, germs cause infection, physiological effect varies according to drug dosage, and so on.

So the fact that various systems of alternative therapy, underpinned by very different understandings of the human body (and indeed of metaphysics), can get along so chummily is a huge red flag. It suggests that purveyors of alt-med either a) aren’t thinking critically, or b) are more interested in sales than in healing.

Roughly the same concern arises with regard to different perspectives on how businesses should behave. Some will tell you that the obligations of business are all rooted in the notion of sustainability, with its indelible environmental overtones. Others will say no, it’s a matter of CSR — Corporate Social Responsibility. Still others say it’s all about values. Or leadership. Or citizenship. Or the (ug!) Triple Bottom Line. And each of those seems, at least, to be underpinned by a different understanding of the nature of the firm, its role in society, and what it is that makes an action right or wrong. And yet all kinds of folks seem to want to cleave to all of the above, or to glom onto one of them seemingly at random, as if it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Again, this should be a big red flag.

I’m sure I’m going to be told that these different schools of thought don’t need to compete with each other — what’s really important, they’ll say, is that, you know, we focus on fixing the way business is done. But again, as with the case of alternative medicines, if someone tries to sell you some and isn’t willing to even try to explain why theirs is better than the other stuff, you should at least wonder whether they aren’t thinking critically, or are merely trying to sell you something.

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.

‘Doing the Right Thing:’ A Brief Guide to the Jargon

Everyone agrees that business should “do what’s right,” even if they disagree over what the right thing is. One significant barrier to even talking about doing the right thing is vocabulary. The vocabulary applied to “doing the right thing” is messy and varied. Here’s a brief critical guide to the most common terminology:

  • Business Ethics. This is the most general term, and the one that can be defined more or less uncontroversially. As a field of study, business ethics can be defined as the critical, structured examination of how people & institutions should behave in the world of commerce. There are two problems with the term. One is that the word is too often associated with scandal. I once had a business group ask me to come speak to its members, but could I please not use the word “ethics.” The second problem is that people sometimes (wrongly) associate the word “ethics” with a narrow range of questions about personal integrity, or about professional standards.
  • Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). This is an incredibly popular term, but generally poorly defined. Most definitions you’ll find don’t actually look like definitions. If you look around online, you’ll find that CSR is generally thought to have something to do with giving back to the community, and making a social contribution. But it’s too narrow a term to cover the full range of issues involved in doing the right thing in business. Not all businesses are corporations. Not all business obligations are social ones. And we’re interested not just in the responsibilities of business, but also permissions, duties, rights, entitlements, and so on.
  • Sustainability. The word “sustainability” has roots in environmentalism, where it nicely picks out the issue of how we as a society can continue to make use of resources in a way that makes sure there continues to be enough, especially for enjoyment by future generations. But the term is badly abused in the world of business. Sometimes it just refers to the ability to sustain profits, which is pretty far from its original meaning. Other people try to pack too much into the word. I recently had a sustainability consultant tell me that the word “sustainability” no longer means, you know, sustainability…it just means “all the good stuff.” But lots of “good stuff” in business has nothing to do with sustaining anything. It takes tortured logic and wishful thinking to say that all matters of doing the right thing in business can simply be boiled down to sustainability.
  • Corporate Citizenship. Citizenship is essentially a political notion, having to do with the relationship between the individual and the state. The term “corporate citizenship” is evocative. It reminds us that businesses aren’t free-floating; they exist in a social and political context, and that context brings obligations. But just as all of your obligations are not citizenship obligations, not all of a corporation’s obligations are obligations of corporate citizenship.
  • Triple Bottom Line. Luckily, this one seems to be dying out. The Triple Bottom Line (3BL) is rooted in the very sane idea that business managers should manage not just the financial performance of their companies, but also their social and environmental performance. Unfortunately, the term implies something much bolder, namely that each of those areas of performance can be boiled down to a “bottom line.” And that’s simply not true. (Just try asking a company what their social “bottom line” was last year.) The result is that the term sounds tough-minded, but usually ends up being just the opposite. For more about the problems with 3BL, see here.

So choose your words wisely. We shouldn’t be scared off by the varied terminology. But we ought to recognize that each of these terms has its problems. Different constituencies will find different vocabularies attractive, and perhaps congenial to their interests. And also keep in mind that each of these terminologies is promoted by a different set of consultants and gurus, all eager to tell you that thinking in terms of their favourite vocabulary is the key.

Should We Teach Students About the “Social Impact” of Business?

As regular readers know, I’ve blogged a lot about the vocabulary we use to talk about ‘doing the right thing’ in business. Here’s another example of a term that some people seem to want to use to capture that entire topic: “Social Impact.”

See for example this piece, by NYU’s Paul Light, in the Washington Post: It’s time to require students to do good.

I’ll start by pointing out that the headline is inaccurate, though that’s likely not Light’s fault. (It’s more likely the fault of the newspaper’s headline writer. Hard to say.) At any rate, Light’s article isn’t about making students “do good;” it’s about teaching them courses about doing good. And that’s a very different thing.

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.)

Anyway, Light says business schools are increasingly realizing that they need to teach students something about the social impact of business (and presumably, more specifically, about how to maximize positive social impact and minimize negative social impact.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that many business ethics classes — presumably among the courses that Light sees as part of the trend — absolutely would not focus primarily on social impact. And that’s a good thing, because social impact is just one of the many ethical issues that arise in business. Courses on business ethics can cover a large range of issues, many of them not directly related to social impact:

  • product safety (which is mostly a concern to customers, who very often make up only a tiny segment of “society”)
  • employee health and safety
  • truth in advertising
  • the environment (which, depending on your philosophical views, may have ethical importance independent of society’s reliance on it).

Each of those topics has relatively little to do with social impact, and indeed there can be important tensions between, for example, what is good for employees and what is good for society.

But maybe Light doesn’t want courses in business ethics more generally; maybe he really does think it most important to focus on social impact, thereby ignoring the issues (like those noted above) that got the field of business ethics off the ground in the first place. Such a focus by business schools would be incredibly unfortunate, because it would leave business students radically unprepared to face the ethical challenges that they really will have to face on a daily basis in their professional lives. And even if courses on “social impact” do tackle a broader range of issues (including the ones listed above) the title of the course is going to mislead students into thinking that social impact really is the key issue after all.

Finally, I’m confused by the fact that Light views “social impact” as a skill:

Making social impact part of every student’s curriculum would send the signal that social impact is an essential skill….

What are we to make of this? Is social impact really a “skill”? Personally, I’m not sure how to make sense of that turn of phrase. I suppose we can read Light somewhat more charitably as meaning that an appreciation of the social impact of business, and an understanding of the key issues and how to respond to them, are essential parts of a sound business education. And surely he’s right. But we ought at least be clear on the fact that what we’re struggling with — and what we need students to struggle with — is the complexity of the role and impact of business in society. Calling it a skill misleadingly implies that we know what to do about it all, and now we just need to do it. If only life were so simple.

Financial Speculation & Ethics

Friday I gave a talk as part of a terrific workshop on the ethics and law of financial speculation, held at the University of Montreal. (The event was co-sponsored by U of M’s Centre for Business Law and the Centre for Research in Ethics.)

As I mentioned in a posting last week, financial speculation is the subject of some controversy. Indeed, there has been plenty of discussion of regulating various forms of speculation, though whether that is possible and how best to do so is also subject to controversy.

Very roughly, “speculation” can be thought of as involving any of a range of forms of relatively high-risk investment. In a way, it is the exact opposite of a slow, safe investment such as buying government savings bonds. But it’s also different from pure gambling: in most forms of gambling, you have no reasonable expectation of making money. You might well win big, and it’s nice if you do, but really all you can expect is to have fun playing the game. Speculation on the other hand involves taking what are hopefully well-informed risks, in the hopes of exceptional returns.

Here are 3 stereotypical examples of speculation:

  • Imagine that a wheat farmer is considering whether to plant wheat an additional, previously-unplanted, field. Imagine that the farmer’s total cost for doing so would be $5/bushel of wheat. If the current price of wheat is hovering right around the $5 mark, that turns planting into a risky proposition. The risk of a loss might make planting just too unattractive. Now imagine a speculator comes along and is willing to take that risk, so she offers the farmer $5.25/bushel for the wheat that has not even been planted yet. With the promise of a modest-but-guaranteed profit in hand, the farmer plants the crop. If, at harvest time, the price of wheat has gone up to $6/bushel, the speculator stands to make a tidy profit. If the price has gone down to $4/bushel, the speculator suffers a loss — but she’s in the business of speculating precisely because she has the resources to absorb such losses, and will just hope that her next investment pays off better.
  • Imagine someone whose job is to invest in futures contracts on commodities such as oil or gold. A futures contract is basically a commitment to buy a specified quantity of something, at a specified price, at some date in the future. The example above involved a kind of futures contract, except in that example the investor actually did intend to buy and take possession of the farmer’s wheat once harvested. But in the vast majority of futures trading, nothing but paper ever changes hands. If a trader finds that other traders have been paying above-market prices for oil futures, she might decide that it’s worth buying some herself, in the hope that the price of oil will continue to go up because of this demand. Other traders are likely to notice, and imitate, her behaviour, with a net effect of pushing oil prices up. None of this needs to reflect any underlying change in consumer demand for oil, or any change in oil’s supply. It can all happen as the result of a combination of hunches about the future of oil and a dose of herd behaviour.
  • Imagine I have a dim view of the future prospects of a company, say BP, so I decide to “short” (sell short) shares in BP. What I do is I borrow some shares in BP, say an amount that would be worth $1,000 at today’s prices. I then sell those borrowed shares. If all goes as I expect it will, the price of BP shares may drop — let’s imagine it drops 25%. I can then buy enough shares in BP, at the reduced price ($750 total), to “return” the shares to the person I originally borrowed them from. And I get to pocket the $250 difference (minus any expenses). Basically, this form of speculation — short selling — is unlike standard investments in that it involves betting that a company’s shares will go down, rather than up, in value.

There is disagreement among experts regarding just what the net effect of speculation (or indeed of particular kinds of speculation) is likely to be. Some think that speculation, as a kind of artificial demand, has the tendency to increase prices and perhaps even to result in “bubbles” that eventually burst, with tragic results. But the evidence is unclear. In particular cases, it can be very difficult to tell whether a) speculation caused the inflationary bubble, or whether b) some underlying inflationary trend spurred speculation, or whether c) it was a bit of both. And even if it’s clear that some forms of speculation sometimes have such effects, it’s not clear a) that speculation has negative effects often enough to warrant intrusive regulations, or b) that regulators will be able to single out and regulate the most worrisome forms of speculation without stomping out the useful forms.

And defenders of speculation do point out that at least some forms of speculation have beneficial effects. Speculators of the sort described in my first example above take on risk that others are unable to bear, and hence allow productive activity to take place that otherwise might not. They also add “liquidity” to markets by increasing the number of willing buyers and sellers. Speculators, through their investments, can also bring information into the market and thus render it more efficient. When one or more speculators takes a special interest in a given commodity, it is likely to be on account of some special insight or analysis that suggests that there will be an increased need for that commodity in the future. In other words, in the best cases at least, expert financial speculation isn’t idle speculation — it is well-informed, and informative.

Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that pretty much any technology or technique can be used for good or for evil. The techniques of financial speculation can be used to attempt to manipulate markets or to defraud consumers. Whether the dangers of such uses outweigh other considerations is up for debate.

But from the point of view of ethics, it’s worth at least considering exercising caution in some areas. Perhaps speculators with a conscience, for example, should be particularly risk-averse when it comes to commodities that have a very direct impact on people’s wellbeing, such as food. Recently Andrew Oxlade, writing for the financial website “ThisIsMoney”, asked Is it ethical to invest in food prices? As Oxlade notes, at least some critics believe that recent surges in food commodity prices have at least something to do with the activities of traders engaging in speculative trades.

Oxlade offers this advice to investors:

To sleep easier at night and still get exposure to this area, you may want to consider investing in farming rather than in food prices via derivatives. In fact, your money may even do some good.

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p.s. thanks once again to the organizers of the workshop mentioned above, namely professors Peter Dietsch and Stéphane Rousseau.
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Note also: If you’re interested in this topic from a professional or academic point of view, then this book should be on your bookshelf: Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice, edited by John Boatright.

Ethics of Profit, Part 1: Excessive Profits

This is the first of a 3-part series on the ethics of profit.

Is making a profit ethically good, or bad, or neutral? Or, better still, are there situations in which making a profit is either good, or bad, or neutral?

Profit is often the subject of criticism. The film, “The Corporation”, has as its main target not corporations per se, but the profit motive in particular. Michael Moore appears in the film, saying that while some corporations do good things, “The problem comes in, in the profit motivation here, because these people, there’s no such thing as enough.”

Now, the idea of profit is often tied up with money, with ‘filthy lucre.’ After all, everyone knows that saying about money being the root of all evil. But in the abstract, profit needn’t be defined in terms of cash. In the abstract, profit is just the “cooperative surplus” that results from a mutually-beneficial exchange. When I buy an apple (for, let’s say, $1) at my local market, both the owner of the market and I end up better off. We both “profit.” My own “profit” is the amount by which I value the apple over the $1 that I paid for it. And the market owner’s profit is the amount by which the sale price of $1 exceeds her own costs (apple + labour + overhead, etc.). And the fact that we both profit from the exchange is precisely what makes the exchange good for both of us.

Now, I think we need to distinguish between our ethical evaluation of profit, and our ethical evaluation of the profit motive. Because even if we agree that profit is generally OK, we can still worry about the things that people (or companies) will do in the pursuit of profit.

I’ll focus another day on the profit motive. Today I want to focus on profit itself. It seems to me that there are 2 kinds of circumstances in which profit itself is subjected (rightly or wrongly) to ethical criticism. One is when profits are excessively large; the other is when profit is gained unjustly. Today I’ll focus solely on the idea of excessive profit.

Several industries are commonly singled out as having unjustly large profits. One is the banking industry. Another is the pharmaceutical industry. Likewise, if we expand the category of “profit” to include individual profit in the form of salaries, then Wall Street is regularly singled out as a place where excessive profits are to be had. The fundamental ethical question with regard to large profits is what philosophers would call a question of “distributive justice.” Basically, is it fair that some people have so much money, while others in the world have so little?

A few points are worth making about big profits:

1) It’s worth remembering that very large corporate profits don’t necessarily translate into large amounts of personal wealth for anybody. Consider the fact that a company that has several billion dollars in profits — a lot of money, by anyone’s accounting — might have hundreds of millions of shares outstanding, spread across thousands (or even millions) of shareholders, and might pay out only a tiny dividend (say, a dollar per share). So a massive profit doesn’t necessarily translate into massive personal wealth for anyone.

2) Although many of us have intuitions that say that large disparities in wealth are unjust, it has proven incredibly difficult to translate those intuitions into anything like a coherent ethical theory. Despite our best efforts, we simply have no sound explanation of a) why it is that differences in wealth (fairly acquired) ought to be considered unfair, or b) just how large a difference has to be in order to be considered unfair. The lack of such a theory doesn’t negate our intuitions, but it should give us pause before we assert that particular disparities are “obviously” or “grossly” unethical.

3) It’s worth noting that what I referred to above as our “intuition” about injustice might also be referred to as a form of envy. And envy is far from admirable. As philosopher Anthony Flew once pointed out*, “this envy which resents that others too should gain, and maybe gain more than us, must be accounted much nastier than any supposed ‘intrinsic selfishness’ of straight self-interest.”

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*Anthony Flew, “The Profit Motive,” Ethics, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jul., 1976), pp. 312-322
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Update: Part 2 of this series is here and Part 3 is here.

Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 3: Fallacies

This is the 3rd in a series of occasional postings on the role of critical thinking in business ethics.Critical thinking is about a) how to construct good arguments, and b) how to spot and avoid bad ones. The focus of this posting will be on the latter. Bad arguments come in many forms, in many shapes and sizes. But some faulty arguments follow patterns of reasoning that are so common that they’ve acquired names. The general term for such named patterns of faulty argumentation is “fallacy”. There are many known fallacies, and textbooks on critical thinking typically devote a chapter to discussing a dozen or more of the most common ones.

Here are just a few examples of fallacies that could hinder good reasoning about Business Ethics.

One common fallacy is known as “the fallacy of composition.” We commit the fallacy of composition any time we assume, without justification, that the characteristics of the parts of a thing are automatically shared by the thing as a whole. A silly example: the fact that each piece of a motorcycle is light enough to lift doesn’t mean that the motorcycle as a whole is light enough to lift. Likewise, the fact that each member of a committee is talented and effective does not mean that the committee as a whole will be talented and effective — group dynamics matter. A business-ethics example follows pretty quickly from that one: from the fact that each member of your organization is ethical and well-intentioned, it does not follow that your organization, as a whole, will always act ethically. Team dynamics and institutional structure matter. That’s not to say that having ethical employees isn’t important. It obviously is. The point is just that you can’t automatically assume that, because you’ve got good employees, the net result of their behaviour will always be ethical. Another important example: from the fact that individual ethical acts don’t always pay, it doesn’t follow that an ethical pattern of behaviour won’t pay off in the long run.

Here are some other standard fallacies with clear relevance to business ethics. I’ll leave it to the reader to think up examples.

  • “Appeal to the Person” (a.k.a. ad hominem attack), which generally involves attacking the person putting forward a point of view, rather than examining the strengths and weaknesses of that person’s argument. It’s important to keep in mind that a well-reasoned argument from someone you don’t like is still a well-reasoned argument.
  • Appeal to Tradition“, which typically means using the fact that “we’ve always done things this way” as a reason for continuing to do things that way. Clearly a recipe for disaster.
  • Appeal to Popularity“, which involves appealing to the fact that a particular point of view or practice is popular as a reason in favour of that view or practice. But being widely-believed is of course a very poor indicator of whether or not a claim is actually true.
  • Straw man” argument, which involves setting up, and then knocking down, a weak or foolish-looking “dummy” version of your opponent’s argument. This is a common rhetorical device. Whenever someone criticizes a particular bit of regulation, for example, it’s easy (but wrong) to paint them as a “rabid free-market neoliberal,” and then to attack that ideology, rather than looking at the substance of their argument.

One of the reasons such fallacies are so dangerous is that they tend to be psychologically appealing. Sometimes they’re appealing because they play to our biases. And sometimes they’re appealing just because they act as short-cuts, letting us take the easy (i.e., lazy) route straight to a simple conclusion, without doing the hard work of actually looking critically at the case at hand. But in business ethics, what we really need are the best answers, not the easiest ones.
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See also Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.

“Attacking a brand is like attacking a person”

Last week on my Food Ethics Blog, I posed the following question: Fast Food Beef: What Matters? At the heart of that blog posting is a lawsuit that has been filed against Taco Bell, alleging that…

…Taco Bell’s “meat mixture”, which it dubs “seasoned beef” contained less than 35 % beef. If these figures are correct, the product would fail to meet minimum requirements, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to be labeled as “beef”. The other 65% of the “meat” is made up of water, soy lecithin, maltodextrin, silicon dioxide, anti-dusting agent and modified corn starch

Today comes news that Taco Bell is fighting back. See this story from ABC News: Taco Bell Fights ‘Where’s the Beef’ Lawsuit

According to the ABC story, Taco Bell President Greg Creed says the allegations are simply false.

Well, sorting that out shouldn’t be too hard, for some unbiased food scientists.

More interesting is Creed’s moralized counter-attack:

“Attacking a brand is like attacking a person. It’s just unacceptable when there aren’t any facts to support it….”

Attacking a brand is like attacking a person? How so? Creed doesn’t expand on the question, but he make just mean that attacking a brand is “like” attacking a person in that both are wrong when they involve falsehoods — perhaps simply because lying is generally wrong.

But setting aside that line of argument, is it possible that a stronger thesis is justified, namely that a brand is something that deserves protection the way that a person deserves protection? Now, I’ve argued before that corporations need to be considered persons. And I’ve also blogged about whether corporations should have the right to sue for libel to protect their interests. But a brand isn’t the same as a corporation, so the arguments I’ve given about those don’t quite hold, here.

The most obvious way to think of the ethical justification (or requirement?) for defending a brand against attack is to think of the brand as a piece of property. If you damage the brand, you damage the interests of those who own it. Sometimes that will be justified (perhaps because the good done by damaging the brand outweighs the interests and/or rights of the brand’s owners), and sometimes it won’t. But I wonder if a still-stronger thesis is possible: is there any reasonable sense in which the brand could be thought of as an entity in its own right, with interests separable from those of its owners? Consider the world’s most valuable brand, Coca Cola. If all of the owners of stock in Coca Cola repudiated their ownership rights, and if all the employees of the company all quit en masse (eliminating another key stakeholder), what would we say about the Coca Cola brand? It would no longer, per hypothesis, have any “owners.” Would it cease to have any ethical significance at all? Would there be nothing either right or wrong that you could do “to” it? What about other brands, like the Red Cross or Greenpeace?

I don’t have good answers, but I think it’s an intriguing question, given the significance of brands in the early 21st century.

Sustainability is Unsustainable

I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.

Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:

1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.

2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.

3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.

4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.

5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)

6) We have very, very little idea what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.

7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.

8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”

Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.

Four Myths About Business Ethics

Here are four important myths about business ethics. There are surely many myths about business ethics, but these 4 in particular cause trouble, and pose significant challenges for anyone trying to have a productive discussion about right and wrong in the world of business.

Myth #1. “Business ethics” is an oxymoron.
The idea that “business ethics” is somehow a contradiction in terms is based on a serious misunderstanding of what ethics is and what the world of commerce is like. Indeed, it’s much closer to the truth to say that the term “business ethics” expresses a redundancy, since commerce is quite literally impossible without ethics. Every single commercial transaction requires some level of trust, and without a shared commitment to some level ethical behaviour, you simply do not get trust. Indeed, economists are more than ready to point out the huge range of ethical norms that underpin the modern economy and make it run more efficiently.

Myth #2. Ethics is just a matter of opinion.
Again, false. While ethics does of course have something to do with having an opinion, it’s also about having opinions that you can defend to other people. While there certainly are a few really tough moral questions about which we might agree to disagree, we should also recognize that on many ethical issues there are better and worse answers. Poor answers to ethical dilemmas are typically rooted in factual mistakes and logical inconsistencies. We shouldn’t settle for those. We should talk them through. (And, as a I blogged recently, having an opinion doesn’t come to much if you can’t sell that opinion to others.)

Myth #3. There’s no such thing as “business ethics,” because ethics should be the same everywhere.
There are two main reasons why ethics, while essential to business, isn’t just exactly the same in business as it is in other domains of life.

First, business poses special challenges. The enormous productive capacity of corporations and other large organizations also brings the potential to do substantial harm, both to the lives of stakeholders and to the natural environment. So we face questions in the world of commerce that we just don’t face in other parts of our lives. Second, the special social role of business implies a tailor-made set of ethical principles. One of the defining characteristics of business is that it is competitive: companies are naturally driven to do better than others in their field. This kind of behaviour is socially beneficial — consumers benefit when companies compete vigorously to produce a better product, at a better price, than the other guy. In practice, we can really look at business ethics as having two importantly different components. One component consists of the rules needed to civilize a tough, competitive game. This part of business ethics essentially has to do with the norms-and-principles that ought to govern business’s behaviour with regard to outsiders. The other component of business ethics is about the ethical rules that ought to be embodied in relationships within the organization. Here, we do value cooperative behaviour; so managers work hard to shape corporate culture to enable employees to trust each other and to work together toward shared goals. Business is morally complex that way.

Myth #4. Business ethics is just a matter of laws and regulation.
This is not just false, but dangerous. The tendency to confuse ethics and law is tempting, especially in an age in which the business section of the newspaper increasingly refers to “ethics laws” and “ethics regulations.” But we shouldn’t be misled by that short-hand way of speaking. If you think about it for just a minute or two, there are in fact lots of ways in which law and ethics come apart. There are plenty of things that are legal but unethical; and there are also behaviours that are illegal, but arguably ethically OK. The short explanation for the fact that law & ethics don’t overlap perfectly is this: laws are made & enforced by government. But governments can’t be everywhere, and if they could, we wouldn’t want them to be!

These surely aren’t all the myths there are about business ethics. But these strike me as four that are particularly common, particularly troublesome, and particularly clearly wrong.

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