Archive for the ‘disaster’ Category

Who Else is Too Big to Fail?

The notion that some companies are “too big to fail” — too large and too interconnected with the rest of the economy for their failure to be permitted by government — is lamentably familiar to most of us in the wake of the 2007-2010 financial crisis. The term has most famously been applied to the biggest American banks (e.g., Bank of America) and insurance companies (e.g., AIG), and it motivated the multi-multi-billion-dollar government bailouts of 2008/2009. In some ways, it’s a radical notion: for most of modern economic history, the assumption has been that the economy could operate according to something like survival of the fittest. If a company is so mismanaged that it fails, so be it. That’s life in a competitive market. Of course, governments have from time to time propped up companies seen as particularly important employers, but such moves are always divisive. There has seldom been such widespread agreement that certain companies really are so big, and so important, that they cannot be allowed to fail.

But outside of the financial industry, what companies might reasonably be thought of as “too big to fail?” Are there companies the failure of which would be truly catastrophic? What companies are there such that, if they suddenly ceased operations, the result would be disastrous not just for individual customers, employees, and shareholders, but for society as a whole?

I’ll mention a few possibilities, and then open the floor for discussion:

BP, Chevron, and the other very large oil companies. As unpopular as they are, it’s hard to deny that their product is utterly essential, at least for the time being. Any one of the biggest companies going out of business would, I suspect, have a terrible impact on the reliability of supplies of gasoline and heating fuel, and would most certainly result in increased prices. On the other hand, most of the world’s oil supply flows through the big state-owned oil companies of the middle east, rather than through private companies like Exxon and Shell the others, the ones that come most readily to mind for North American and European consumers.

Big pharma. Again, not a popular industry. And much of what they produce — treatments for baldness, erectile dysfunction, etc. — is far from essential. But some of their more important products, including things like antibiotics and vaccines, truly are essential and an interruption in their supply could have catastrophic consequences, from a public health point of view. But then, that industry has enough players in it, with overlapping product lines, that it’s unlikely the collapse of any one company would have a huge impact. But really, I’m guessing here. Perhaps the collapse of the maker of whatever the single most antibiotic is would be catastrophic. (Does anyone know?)

What about UPS? That one may surprise you, but the company handles something over 5 million packages per day, which I’ve heard adds up to a non-trivial percentage of American GDP. If UPS disappeared tomorrow, of course, Fedex and the USPS would take up some of the slack, but the short-term effect on American business (and hence consumers) would be significant.

Locally, surely, there are lots of companies that might be considered essential. Companies involved in ensuring the quality of municipal water supplies might count (including the ones that provide the chemicals needed for water purification). And in places where fire departments are privately-run, those would obviously count. But really, I’m looking for examples of companies the failure or disappearance of which would have widespread effects from a social point of view.

Of course, the phrase “too big to fail” isn’t just descriptive. In the world of finance, it is seem as having immediate policy implications. In 2009, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve (and no fan of government intervention in the economy), said “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.” Are there companies outside of finance where such an argument could be made?

Business Ethics and the Crisis in Japan

A couple of people have asked me recently about what business ethics issues arise in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. As far as I’ve seen, the media hasn’t paid much attention to business ethics issues, or even on businesses at all, in their coverage of the disaster(s). But certainly there are a number of relevant issues within which appropriate business behaviour is going to be a significant question. Here are a few suggestion of areas in which the study of business ethics might be relevant:

1) The nuclear crisis. Although their role has not been front-and-centre (unlike, for example, the BP oil spill), at least a couple of companies have played a significant role in the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The reactors there were designed by General Electric, who surely face questions about the adequacy of that design and the relevant safeguards. And the plant is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO has been criticized for its handling of the disaster, including its notable lack of transparency. TEPCO also faces a difficult set of questions with regard to the ongoing risks to employees, including those who have vowed “to die if necessary” in order to protect the public from further risk. (For more information, see the wikipedia page about the Fukushima I nuclear accidents.)

2) Disaster relief. There is clearly an opportunity for many companies, both Japanese and foreign, to participate in the disaster relief effort. Whether they have an obligation to do so (i.e., a true corporate social responsibility) is an interesting question, as is the question of the terms on which they should participate. I’ve blogged before about the essential role that credit card companies play in disaster relief by facilitating donations; do credit card companies (and other companies) have an obligation to help out on a not-for-profit basis, or is it OK to make a profit in such situations?

3) Pricing. The topic of price-gouging often arises during and after a natural disaster, though I haven’t heard any reports of this in the wake of the earthquake in Japan. It’s a difficult ethical question. On one hand, companies that engage in true price gouging — preying on the vulnerable in a truly cynical and opportunistic way — are rightly singled out for moral criticism. On the other hand, prices naturally go up in the wake of disaster: picture the additional costs and risks that any company is going to face in trying to get their product into an area affected by an earthquake, a tsunami, and/or a nuclear meltdown.

4) Investment and trade. A major part of Japan’s recovery will depend on investment, both investment by foreign companies in Japan and investment by Japanese companies in the stricken areas of that country. This is clearly less of a concern than it would be in a less-economically developed country (like Haiti, for instance), but it’s still relevant. So the question arises: do companies have an obligation to help Japan rebuild by investing? If a company is, for example, deciding whether to build a new factory in either Japan or another country, should that decision be influenced by the desire to help Japan rebuild?

5) Consumer behaviour. Just as companies have to decide whether to invest in disaster-stricken nations or regions, so do consumers. Do you, as an individual, have any obligation to “buy Japanese,” in order to help rebuild the Japanese economy? Does it matter that Japan is a modern industrialized nation, as opposed to a developing one?

Ethical Issues for the Chilean Miners

On August 5, 33 miners went down into the San José copper-gold mine; over two months later, 33 entrepreneurs emerged from the mine. They were labourers once. Now they’re businessmen, and celebrities.

Their fame is already being used by major corporations for public relations purposes. The New York Times reported, for instance, that Apple has sent each of the miners a brand new iPod.

But the miners themselves will have decisions to make, about how (and indeed whether) to make use of their new fame. Hollywood will surely come knocking, for instance. Book deals have already been announced. How will they (and how should they) handle fame and fortune? And the miners have already made a good start on their entrepreneurial careers. While still down in the mine, they drew up a contract “ensuring they will equally profit from the lucrative media deals they expect to secure for sharing the story of their two month survival in the hope that they never have to work again.”

But a question arises about such a contract. Is it, in fact, legally binding? To get an indication of why that’s a real question, see this piece by Andrew Potter: Chilean miners: That far down, who decides what’s law?

What is striking about the situation in Chile is how much it resembles one of the most famous thought experiments in the philosophy of law, known as “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers.” Written by the Harvard law professor Lon Fuller and published in 1949, the paper explores the fictional case of five men who embarked on the exploration of a system of caves in a country known as the Commonwealth of Newgarth. When a landslide covers the entrance and traps the men, they sit down to await rescue….

In Fuller’s thought experiment, the miners are eventually driven to cannibalism, in order to survive. Fuller’s article is about whether such cannibalism would rightly be considered illegal, under those circumstances. Fuller makes the case that it is (at very least) possible to argue that it would not be. Laws are social artefacts, and miners trapped underground for an extended period are effectively cut off from, and hence no longer part of, any particular society. Andrew notes:

…trapped miners are living in what amounts to a mini society of their own. All sorts of problems could arise in such a cramped space, from disputes over the allocation of food and medical supplies to rules over respect for privacy to procedures for dealing with crimes like theft or assault. If sovereignty is defined by the ability to exercise a monopoly over the use of force, then whatever legal authority currently exists in the San Jose mine, it is not the Chilean government.

Now, Andrew’s hypothetical is about the reach of Chilean criminal law. As it turns out (as far as we know) no significant violence erupted among the 33, so that question remains hypothetical. But, as I noted above, other kinds of legal questions arise, including the bindingness of the contract the men made while down there.

I won’t speculate further on the question of legality, but even if the legality of the contract were to be successfully challenged, the question of whether the contract is morally binding would remain a live one. After all, 33 men gave their word, and honourable men should want to keep their promise. On the other hand, if we consider the circumstances under which the contract was arrived at, we quickly see that those circumstances were very far from the ideal circumstances for giving free and informed consent. Many things can render a contract both legally and morally suspect, including such things as undue influence and duress. It’s easy to imagine that men trapped, in close quarters, half a mile underground being subject to both of those.

At any rate, my aim here is not to cast a pall over what seems, so far, to be a happy ending to the miners’ ordeal. My aim is simply to point out that, as newly-minted celebrity-entrepreneurs, “los 33” will face a range of ethical issues. What they have to learn, and what we have to learn from them, did not end when the last man finally saw the light of day.

Chilean Miners: What is Rescue Worth?

Happily, rescue crews seem to have made better progress than anticipated toward rescuing 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground since August.

Here’s a recent story giving details, by Alexei Barrionuevo and Christine Hauser writing for the NYT: Drill Reaches Miners in Chile, but Risks Remain

As the rescue proceeds, most of us will (rightly) be focused on the human side of this story, the ordeal those 33 men have gone through. But this story also has an important business- and economic component. Last month, I blogged about whether the trapped miners ought to be paid, and by whom. But another issue is that the rescue effort itself is likely to be exceptionally expensive. What should the companies doing the drilling be paid? Back in April, after a mine collapse in West Virginia, I blogged about the Ethical Obligation to Save Trapped Miners, and pondered the extent of the financial obligations of the mining company and the government in the face of such a disaster. Today, I’d like to look at the question from a different angle. How much should drilling companies involved in such a rescue be charging for their work?

Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about the actual companies involved.
Brandon Fisher, founder & president of US-based Center Rock Inc., the company that made the drill used, is reported to have nobler motives:

He says the Chilean government is paying for his time and equipment — “that’s the plan anyway.” But he is not at the Mina San Jose for the money. He is there for the miners.

“I don’t know that there’s 10 minutes that you’re out here that you don’t look down there and think, ‘There’s 33 guys 600 feet below our feet,’ ” he said. “Whenever you’re tired, it’s real easy to think, ‘Hey, I’m out here seeing sunlight and breathing fresh air. It’s time to suck it up and get these guys out of here.’ ”

It’s also worth noting that, in fact, this is a competitive arena — there are apparently quite a few companies with relevant capacities, and they’re likely competing with each other to bid for the work. Perhaps they’re even charging less for this high-profile job than they normally would, because it’s good advertising. But let’s set that complication aside for the moment.

So, a thought experiment: what if there were only one company qualified to do the rescue work, or only one company available locally? What should that company charge?

A few quick options:

1. They should charge whatever the market will bear, which would essentially amount to charging the most the Chilean government and/or the mining company involved are willing to pay.

2. They should charge nothing. They should be happy to be involved, and to charge anything would be to put a price on human lives, which is unacceptably exploitative.

3. They should charge just enough to cover their own costs — machinery, fuel, and maybe their own workers’ wages.

4. They should charge exactly the same to drill this hole as they would to drill any other hole of similar size, depth, and complexity. No more (that would be exploitative), and no less (that would be foolish).

Do you favour one of those four? On what grounds? Or can you suggest another principled answer?

Addendum: I found a story that offers the following relevant detail: “Local newspaper La Tercera reported that the rescue efforts, expected to last three to four months, will cost anywhere from $10 million to $20 million.”

Should Trapped Miners Be Paid?

Most people don’t expect to be paid when they’re not doing work. Sure, most people get paid during coffee breaks, and lucky folks get paid vacations. And some people get paid sick days. But what about when you’re not working for months on end? Does any employer have an obligation to pay you under those conditions? What about when you’re not working, but physically at work, for months on end?

That’s the issue faced by 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below ground, in a collapsed Chilean mine.

Here’s the story, written by Nick Allen for the Daily Telegraph, but featured in the Ottawa Citizen: Trapped miners may not be paid

The 33 Chilean miners trapped underground may not be paid for months while rescuers try to reach them, leaving their families with no income.

The San Esteban company, which operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay wages and is not even taking part in the rescue.

It has suggested that it may go bankrupt and its licence has been suspended.

Evelyn Olmos, the leader of the miners’ union, called on Chile’s government to pay the workers’ wages from next month….

My initial impulse: yes, of course the miners deserve to get paid. Granted, they’re not exactly doing productive work, but that’s not their fault. Even though they’re not working, they are in fact still on the job. The problem, of course, is that the company seems financially incapable of paying them, not just unwilling. Legal means can be attempted, but if it’s really true that the company is bankrupt — well, you can’t get blood from a stone. (Note also that, for what it’s worth, the mine’s owners have asked the miners for forgiveness.)

So that leaves the government (i.e., the citizens) of Chile. Should they pay? Now, to be clear — and this is a crucial distinction — I’m not just asking whether it would be a good thing if the miners end up getting paid. I’m asking whether Chilean taxpayers have an obligation to pay them. I think the answer to that is less clear than the question of whether a financially-capable company would have an obligation to pay them. Now, this isn’t a public policy blog, it’s a business ethics blog, so I don’t often delve into what constitutes the morally-best decision for government. But it’s worth thinking about what principles might apply to this case not just from the point of view of government’s obligations to citizens in need, but from the point of view of government’s obligations to take up the slack when industry undertakes dangerous operations that can end up requiring considerable financial resources when things go wrong. Is government’s willingness to clean up the mess part of what lets mining companies put miners at unreasonable risk in the first place? Or should we think instead that the government’s willingness to help out is just part of the insurer-of-last-resort role that we want government to take on, and that allows all sorts of companies (responsible or otherwise) to be in business in the first place?

As a post-script, I should point out that the moral parallels between the Chilean mine rescue and the BP oil spill cleanup, in this regard, are striking.

Also of interest, on the Research Ethics Blog:
Could Research be Done on the Trapped Miners?

Ethics, BP, & Decision-Making Under Pressure

Over the last couple of months, criticism of BP has become an international pastime. It’s hard not to get the impression that most members of the public believe that senior managers at BP (and quite possibly everyone employed at BP) are bungling fools. And probably lazy too.

But of course, that’s patently absurd. And maybe nobody actually believes it. We all know that the relevant people at BP are smart and highly-trained. They wouldn’t have the jobs they have if they weren’t. True, no one was very happy with the amount of time it took to get the oil well capped. And almost certainly mistakes were made. But the capping of the well was a feat of enormous technical difficulty and complexity, carried out under intense scrutiny. Few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can imagine performing well under those circumstances.

Here’s a story that speaks to the difficulty of those circumstances, by Clifford Krauss, Henry Fountain and John M. Broder, writing for the NYT: Behind Scenes of Gulf Oil Spill, Acrimony and Stress. Here’s just a sample, though the whole article is well worth reading:

Whether the four-month effort to kill it was a remarkable feat of engineering performed under near-impossible circumstances or a stumbling exercise in trial and error that took longer than it should have will be debated for some time.

But interviews with BP engineers and technicians, contractors and Obama administration officials who, with the eyes of the world upon them, worked to stop the flow of oil, suggest that the process was also far more stressful, hair-raising and acrimonious than the public was aware of….

So, after reading the NYT piece, ask yourself these questions:

1) If, in the middle of the well-capping operation, you (yes you) had been invited to stop playing armchair quarterback and become part of the team working on a solution, would you have? Assume you had some relevant expertise. Would you have agreed to help? I’m not sure I would have. I would have been seriously reluctant to subject myself (and my family!) to that kind of experience.

2) Assuming you accepted the above invitation, how confident are you that you would have performed well?

3) Finally, setting aside your own willingness and ability to help, do you know of any organization that you are confident could have performed well in a) a task of that technical difficulty and complexity, while b) under similar conditions of intense scrutiny?

None of this is intended to be fully exculpatory. It’s quite likely that there were ethical lapses that contributed to the blowout and the oil spill that resulted. But when we’re thinking about BP’s response to the disaster, our assessment of the company’s performance — and specifically the performance of the thousands of individuals who actually did the work — ought to be informed by an appreciation of the nature of the task performed. Ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. And in some cases, they’re made in the middle of a hurricane.

BP’s Faked Photos

Often when a person or company does something bad, it’s most reasonable to assume that stupidity is the cause, rather than malicious intent. Some behaviour of course is both stupid and unethical. At BP, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.

Everyone’s least-favourite oil company has now been found to have been posting faked photos on its website. (A small excerpt of one photo is above. Lots of others can be found online, including in various news reports on the story. Even at low resolution, you can see tell-tale signs of photo-alteration. The bits of brightness around both men’s heads is evidence of a sloppy cut-and-paste job. Also, the image on the screen shown at bottom-centre of the photo is slightly crooked.)

MSNBC tech blogger Wilson Rothman provides this good, brief summary:

A site called Americablog spotted a press photo of BP’s Houston command center, ostensibly taken on July 16. The image had quite visibly been Photoshopped — badly — to include more on-screen camera action.

Once word got out — the story was picked up by the Washington Post, where it was then spotted by the tech blog Gizmodo and others — BP ‘fessed up. A spokesman admitted that the image was altered, said that a photographer had inserted shots where the TV screens were blank, and provided the original image….

(Here’s the Washington Post version, by Steven Mufson: More doctored BP photos come to light)

Now, it’s worth noting that the changes to the photos are not actually misleading in any material way. Nothing important is hidden, and the faked photos don’t really tell any lies. The changes are basically cosmetic. (In a sense, the photos were merely enhanced to make them more authentic.) But as MSNBC’s Rothman points out, “Though the command center alteration doesn’t seem to be an attempt to hide facts or confuse the public, it heightens skepticism for the company at a time when it should be trying to build trust.” And as WP’s Mufson points out, “While the changes were minor, the embarrassment was major, coming at a time when the oil giant is trying to convince the American public that it is being open and transparent about the oil spill.”

Both Rothman and Mufson are correct as far as P.R. goes. Being caught in even a trivial fib is pretty bad for BP at this point. But what about ethics? Are the faked photos a sign that we generally can’t trust BP? Or rather, since there’s pretty little trust for BP in the first place at this point, does the revelation that they faked these pics give us new, ethically-relevant information about the company? Probably not.

Perhaps most disturbing about this whole fiasco is BP’s attempt to blame the (unnamed) photographer involved. As some have already pointed out, the photoshopping is so clumsy that it’s hard even to believe that it was done by a professional photographer. But at any rate, passing the buck and blaming the photographer is the wrong way to go. If there’s anything the public wants from BP now even more than honesty, it is evidence of willingness to take responsibility.

Flexible Ethics in the Wake of Disaster

What do businesses in the tourism industry in areas affected by the BP oil spill owe to customers and potential customers? Or, to put it another way, just how closely do businesses in the stricken region need to adhere to the “usual” ethical rules of commerce?

Many businesses along the Gulf Coast have of course been very hard-hit. At this point, large stretches of the Gulf Coast are essentially unthinkable as vacation destinations, unless you happen to be into eco-disaster tourism. As a result, businesses there are fighting for their lives — all due to circumstances beyond their control, but very much within the control of a certain oil company whose name, by now, is all too familiar.

In such circumstances, businesses are likely to do just about anything to draw what tourists they can. Though I don’t know of particular cases, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see some companies cutting corners, ethically speaking. For example, imagine a potential vacationer calls up a resort on the fringe of the affected area, wanting to know whether that particular stretch of beach is still vacation-worthy. And imagine that the usability of the beach is borderline. What answer should the owner of the resort give, over the phone? How scrupulously honest does she have to be, when the survival of her business (and the livelihood of her employees) is on the line?

The problem posed by the expectations of tourists and the way those are handled by resort owners is illustrated in this article by Mike Esterl, for the Wall Street Journal: In Alabama, a Fight for Tourists

“This is not what we expected,” said Clint Pope, 27, who drove his family to Gulf Shores from Thomasville, Ala., Friday for a weekend at the beach.

Mr. Pope’s 10-year-old son, Drew, and nine-year-old nephew, Nathan, still swam in this stretch of the Gulf on Friday afternoon, along with other tourists. But nobody was going into the water Saturday.

Now it’s tempting to say that the obligation of businesses to deal honestly with customers (and potential customers) is unchanged by current circumstances. But compare: many people thought that the looting that took place in the aftermaths of both Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti was morally excusable. Some said it doesn’t even count as “looting” at all, when you’re fighting for survival. Does that principle hold true when the party in question is a small business owner, rather than an individual consumer? If stealing (within reason) is ethically permissible in the aftermath of a disaster, is bending the truth (or even lying) ethically permissible, too?

Now there are of course differences in the two cases. In the Katrina and Haiti cases, people were literally fighting for survival — it was literally life-or-death. Presumably no one in the Gulf Coast tourism industry is literally going to starve to death. But still, the general question remains interesting: to what extent can ethical rules legitimately be bent, when someone’s interests are seriously threatened?

The BP Disaster: Regulating (and Managing) Complexity

In my previous blog posting on the BP oil-rig disaster, I pointed to the disaster’s ethical complexity, measured in the sheer number of relevant ethically-interesting questions that we might be interested in.

But the issue of complexity arises in a much more straightforward way in the BP disaster, namely in the fact that the oil rig on which the disaster took place was itself a terrifically complex piece of technology.

See this nice piece by Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, The BP Oil Spill’s Lessons for Regulation.

The accelerating speed of innovation seems to be outstripping government regulators’ capacity to deal with risks, much less anticipate them.

The parallels between the oil spill and the recent financial crisis are all too painful: the promise of innovation, unfathomable complexity, and lack of transparency (scientists estimate that we know only a very small fraction of what goes on at the oceans’ depths.) Wealthy and politically powerful lobbies put enormous pressure on even the most robust governance structures….

Rogoff’s point is about regulation, but it could just as easily be about management, and/or the relationship between the two. And to Rogoff’s examples of complexity-driven disasters, you can add Enron and a couple of NASA shuttle explosions. Now, none of these cases can be explained entirely in terms of the difficulty of managing complex systems; each of those cases include at least some element of bad judgment and probably unethical behaviour. But in each of them one of the core problems was indeed complexity — either for those inside the relevant organizations or for those outside trying to understand what was going on inside. When systems (financial or mechanical) are mind-numbingly complex, it becomes all the easier for poor judgment to produce catastrophic results. It also makes for good places to hide unethical behaviour.

So, if we’re going to build fantastically complex systems, we also need to learn how to manage those systems in highly-reliable ways. In other words, we need management systems — effectively, social technologies — that are as sophisticated as the physical and economic technologies they are intended to govern. We already know a fair bit about error-reduction and the design of high reliability organizations. Aircraft carriers are a standard example of one type of seriously complex organization that, through careful design of management systems, has managed to achieve incredibly high levels of reliability — i.e., incredibly low levels of error, despite their complexity. Similar thinking, and similar design principles, could presumably be applied pretty directly to the design and management of oil rigs. Presumably, that’s already the case to at least some extent, though as BP has proven, more needs to be done. The bigger question is whether business firms are ready and able to apply those principles to the design of all of their complex systems — whether mechanical or financial — such that we can continue to reap their benefits, without suffering catastrophic losses.

(Thanks to Kimberly Krawiec for showing me Rogoff’s article.)

Questions About the BP Oil Disaster

There’s been an enormous amount of reporting and commentary about the disaster at BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the ensuing oil spill. One of the challenges of blogging about this story, from an ethics point of view, is figuring out where to begin. The story of the Deepwater Horizon is such a rich and complex one that Business Ethics profs will be teaching this case for decades.

Of course, what questions we need to ask depends in large part on what our purposes are. But the meta-question (“Which question is the right question?”) is still worth asking, not least because at least some of the questions currently being asked may not be a) fruitful or b) answerable.

So, what’s the right question to be asking about the worst oil spill in U.S. history?

Here’s a very incomplete list of possible questions:

  • Who is to blame? BP’s CEO? BP as a whole? The rig’s foreman? The crewmembers directly involved? Transocean (the owner of the rig)? Halliburton (subcontractor for a crucial element of the drilling operation)? The U.S. Government’s Minerals Management Service? Or, more appropriately, we could ask: what’s the right way to apportion blame among those individuals and organizations?
  • What role did the pursuit of profit play? Are there other, more important, ideas likely to have influenced the mind-set of the persons most directly responsible?
  • Who is (ethically) responsible for cleaning up the mess — BP? The U.S. government? Coastal state governments? (Note that that question is in principle different from the one above.)
  • What penalties should companies pay in the aftermath of an oil spill? (See the discussion at the excellent Marginal Revolution blog, here.)
  • Is there anything ethically unique about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or is it “just” another disaster like others we’ve seen before?
  • Assuming that oil spills, big or small, are more-or-less inevitable, are such spills an acceptable cost of our unfortunate addiction to oil? As the old saying goes, “you can’t bake a cake without breaking a few eggs.” Does that apply here?
  • What cultural factors within BP are likely to have played a positive or negative role? Or, since most of us don’t know much about the corporate culture at BP, what might be the crucial variables here? What should we want to know about BP’s (or Halliburton’s) corporate culture?
  • If you were a senior executive at another oil company, how would or how should your day tomorrow look different than a randomly-selected day before the blowout on the Deepwater Horizon? That is, is there anything for other companies to learn, here?
  • Beyond the massive cleanup to be carried out over the coming years (and it will be years), what should be on BP’s agenda for the next few years? What should BP (and Transocean and Halliburton) learn from this?
  • Does this incident prove that regulations are too lax? After all, no system of regulation is perfect. Even tough laws against murder don’t bring the murder rate to zero. Did this disaster happen because of, or in spite of, the current regulatory regime?
  • Would your own moral reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill be different if you were an employee of BP (say, an employee not directly involved)? Or if you were a BP shareholder?
  • Should shareholders in BP feel bad about this? If you think they should feel bad, should they feel more, or less, responsible than, say, BP’s customers?

So, if there’s anything to be learned from this disaster, what questions should we be asking?

I should add the one thing I know for sure about the questions listed above: none of the presents an easy, obvious answer.

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