Mainstream medicine’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative

Defenders of David and Collet Stephan are right about the Canadian healthcare system, and about the “mainstream” approach to healthcare. Sometimes the system kills. Sometimes errors are made. Some pharmaceuticals, in some circumstances, do more harm than good. Preventable “adverse events” may kill as many as 23,000 adults Canadians each year. Sometimes a trip to the hospital makes things worse, rather than better.

Mr and Mrs Stephan were recently convicted of failing to provide the necessaries of life to their toddler, Ezekiel. Their story has many elements, but a central one of them seems clearly to be a mistrust of the mainstream healthcare system. Rejecting that system, David and Collet Stephan opted instead to treat (or rather, “treat”) their child’s very serious illness with herbs and with vegetable smoothies. They didn’t seek the help of mainstream, evidence-based medicine until it was far too late.

There are plenty of people who mistrust mainstream medicine. That’s why “alternative” and “complementary” medicines sell so well. People object to a system that they see as being dominated by big pharma, a system that intrusively asserts control over our lives, telling us what’s wrong with us, and telling us what we must do in order to get better (as they choose to define “better”). It’s a system that is notorious for “medicalizing” everything. Menopause? That’s a disease, and we’ve got the cure! Baldness? There’s a chemical solution to that! Pregnancy? Let’s treat it like an illness!

The thing is, for all its flaws, mainstream medicine works. That is, it mostly works, and doctors and scientists search pretty relentlessly for the bits that don’t work, and they tend to toss those out. Is there an error rate? Yes. Do pharmaceutical companies have too much influence? Certainly. Do physicians sometimes prescribe medicines that pose risks but do little to help? Yes. But overall, mainstream healthcare works. Antibiotics work. Chemotherapy works. Vaccines work. The same simply cannot be said for almost any of the wide array of complementary and alternative “medicines.”

So failing to take your dying child to the hospital because you don’t trust “modern medicine” is literally like failing to get your kid out of a burning building, simply because you don’t like the look of the weather outside.

Those who mistrust mainstream medicine ought to think, before opting out, not just about what they’re jumping away from, but what they’re jumping into. Imagine you don’t like the way your physician is imposing his view of the world for you, and worry that his view is unduly influenced by the the marketing dollars of big pharma. So you opt to visit a naturopath instead. What you get is your naturopath imposing his view of the world on you, a view that is likely to be unduly influenced by the marketing dollars of the big alternative medicine companies. The move — from a system that “medicalizes” your health to one that “alternativizes” — is not clearly a positive one, even from an ideological point of view. And from the perspective of what we know about what actually works, the move is a disastrous one. And when the stakes are as high as the lives of our children, it’s a move that warrants considerable scrutiny.

What should you do if you lose faith in what you’re selling?

What happens — what should happen — when you lose faith in your product, when you come to see that the product you’ve been selling all this time isn’t really what it’s been cracked up to be? Is it wrong to keep selling it? How bad does the product have to be for it to be wrong to keep selling it? How strong should the evidence be?

The question came to mind when I read recent reports accusing Dyson Airblades hand dryers of spreading germs at an apparently horrifying rate. Now to be clear, there are reasons not to overreact to the hyperbolic headlines. The stories you’ve read about Airblades are based on one study, conducted under lab conditions that might not reflect reality. But what if — what if — the reports turn out to be fair and accurate? What if the highly artificial scenarios used for the lab tests turn out to be validated by field trials? What if Dyson Airblades really are spreading filth? Should Dyson simply say “Oh well, so much for that!” and stop selling them?

The question of losing faith in your product also comes to mind with regard to various ‘complementary’ and ‘alternative’ healthcare products. Most people who sell such products, and most health practitioners (homeopaths, naturopaths, therapeutic touch practitioners, and so on) surely do what they do out of a genuine belief that they’re helping their patients. They believe they see positive effects. But the evidence generally doesn’t support that belief. Now, most practitioners and sellers simply never come to accept that fact, and so they go on selling and prescribing products that are physically incapable of doing what they claim they do. And though I’m a strong critic of such practices, I do have a degree of sympathy for the person who has spent, say, 20 years believing that homeopathy really works, and “seeing” it help thousands of people (a fact that can readily be explained by the operation of a whole range of well-documented cognitive biases). When such a person starts to realize the 20-year error they’ve made, they must find themselves in a rather awkward situation.

Some might ask whether the seller’s faith in the product really matters all that much. Isn’t the customer always right? Isn’t the customer’s opinion the one that matters? Yes, mostly. And so there are times when it’s absolutely OK to keep selling your product even after you’ve personally lost faith in it. Imagine you’re in sales for Coke, and you find yourself developing a taste for Pepsi. The fact that you prefer Pepsi doesn’t make it wrong to sell Coke. Your customers are buying based on their tastes, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

But that’s about questions of taste. What about questions of objective reality? Some products after all just don’t work. Selling only products that work is required by the basic ethical and legal requirement of “merchantability.” If you sell me a chair, it needs in fact to be capable of functioning as a chair. If you sell me a gizmo to attach to my car’s engine that you swear will provide better performance, then it had better actually provide better performance: me having the “feeling” that the car is now performing better isn’t enough.

And so some cases are pretty clear. Once you understand — really understand — the weight of evidence against most complementary and alternative medicines, it immediately becomes ethically imperative to stop selling them. And if Dyson finds its product really is spreading germs at an unconscionable rate, then it will be duty-bound to stop selling the product, though surely the restaurants and public buildings that are the company’s main customers will make that choice for them.

In the end, what’s required are vigilance and good faith. Anyone who sells a product is obliged to go to reasonable lengths to ensure their product works, and to grapple with credible evidence to the contrary. A sincere belief in your product is nice — it helps you get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror — but it’s not enough.

Could the FBI really force Apple engineers to break encryption?

Would FBI Compelling Apple Mean Using Forced Labour?

News surfaced recently that, in the event that the FBI is successful in getting a court to compel Apple to unlock an iPhone, the company’s engineers might simply not do the work.

In addition to raising interesting practical questions (still hypothetical at this point) for the FBI, this turn raises interesting ethical questions about forced labour. It’s easy enough in the abstract to accept the idea of a court forcing a corporation — a lifeless thing —to do something. But it’s somewhat more difficult to stomach the idea of a court order compelling a number of human individuals to do work over a period of weeks. We’re all familiar of course with the idea of courts forcing people to do things — to disclose a piece of information, for example. But forcing labour, in the absence of a criminal conviction of the individuals involved, is dramatically different. It may even be a violation of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, which forbids “slavery [and] involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This is also a reminder of the complex relationship between corporations per se and the people that, roughly speaking, make them up.

Back in 2011, a lot of people criticized then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney for saying during a campaign stop that “corporations are people.“ In context, it was pretty clear that Romney wasn’t referring to the controversial notion of corporate personhood, but rather to the simple fact that corporations are (in a practical sense) composed of people. When corporations profit, inevitably some people profit. And, more importantly for the present case, when corporations do labour, some people do labour.

The current Apple v FBI situation is a good example of Romney’s point. You can’t compel Apple to unlock an iPhone without compelling its human engineers to do certain work.

Of course, requiring people to do work they don’t particularly want to do is generally regarded as permissible within the context of a labour contract. When you sign up for a particular job, no one promises you that you’ll love every minute of it. So in complying with the (possible, potential) court order, Apple’s engineers would merely be doing their jobs. But on the other hand, there’s apparently now evidence that such a request would be considered sufficiently odious to make those engineers give up their jobs entirely. In that event, getting the work done would mean either literally compelling the individual engineers to do the work, or finding engineers with very specific skills to take their place.

And news emerged just today that the FBI may have found a way to get into gunman Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone without the help of Apple and its engineers. Whether the non-Apple route will work remains unknown. But the case still raises interesting questions about the rights and duties of corporations, and the way (or the extent to which) those rights and duties are ultimately held by humans. We offer legal protection to corporate property, not out of respect for corporations but out of respect for their human owners. And we should think twice before legally compelling corporate action, when that action would in practice imply forced labour for the corporation’s human employees.

What Are Corporate Boards Ethically Obligated to Know?

game_of_telephoneJust what are corporate boards obligated to know? More precisely, what lengths are they obligated to go to in order to get to know the things they ought to know?

The topic came to mind when I read today’s story about how the salary of the CEO of Canada’s biggest banks, RBC, had gone up 44 per cent to $10.9 million during his first year on the job. One has to ask: just what information does RBC’s board have at hand that would justify that level of compensation, and that very substantial change in level of compensation?

The question is not a trivial one. In fact, it’s the topic of a program of research we are currently conducting at the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Ted Rogers Leadership Centre. The question, more generally, is about what boards are obligated to know. Of all the things a board could know, which things must it know, in order to do its job properly?

The question turns out to be harder than it sounds. Boards typically need of quite a lot of information, and face plenty of obstacles to getting it.

What do boards need to know? Boards of directors are ethically and legally responsible for the oversight of firms. While it is not the job of directors to manage the firm, it is the job of directors to govern it. Both individually and collectively, directors have fiduciary responsibilities to govern the firm by selecting, paying, guiding, and assisting top management. Performing those tasks well requires considerable information. In general, directors need to have sufficient information about the firm they are directing, as well as about the industry within which it operates. They need to understand the relevant bits of corporate law, and to have basic financial literacy. With regard to specific decisions, directors may need very special information. With regard to a major strategic decision such as merger or acquisition, for example, directors may need to have detailed information about not one but two organizations, as well as detailed valuations and reliable market forecasts. With regard to setting executive compensation, boards may need not just detailed information about performance, but also information about industry benchmarks as well as information about what a given CEO’s other employment options are.

Why is it so hard for boards to get the right information? The fundamental problem is that most directors are, at least vis-a-vis the specific organization, amateurs. They are (mostly, preferably) outsiders — they are outsiders on purpose — and so by definition they spend much less time in direct contact with the organization than, say, the CEO or other employees. So they are automatically subject to relative information poverty.

The result is that they have to rely on others. Who do they rely on? First and foremost, they rely on insiders, especially the insider with whom they have the most interaction, namely the CEO. But of course, there’s always the worry that the CEO will, shall we say, “filter” information. After all, if no one particularly wants to give the boss bad news, who on earth wants to give the board bad news? Boards also may get information from other firms. The board’s audit committee, for example, ought to be able to get information directly from the firm’s accounting department, but such direct access is not universally available.

Boards also sometimes look to outsiders, a category that includes consultants (such as compensation consultants, strategy consultants, and governance consultants) and professionals (such as external accountants and outside legal counsel). Compensation consultants are a key example here: many large firms make use of those. But anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that directors often doubt the reliability and value of comp consultants, even after having paid good money for their advice.

That’s why our research is focused on the wide range of structural and procedural principles that we argue boards ought to attend to. The right structures and procedures need to be in place to make sure (or to make it more likely) that boards will be diligent and effective in their pursuit and use of information.

So, for example, how do you ensure that boards will seek and appreciate a wide range of information? Start by having a nominating committee that is dedicated to seeking out real diversity. How do you make sure that boards have the right expertise to make good use of the financial information available to them? Implement a ‘board skills matrix’ to identify gaps in their collective knowledge. How do you make sure that boards make proper use of consultants? Make sure the board has the appropriate budget, but also implement policies to reduce redundant use or other kinds of over-use of consultants of dubious value.

In the end, that’s what governance is about. It’s about not just doing the right things, but putting the right processes in place to make it more likely you’ll do the right things on an ongoing basis. So the shareholders (and other stakeholders) of RBC need to ask not just is David McKay worth $10.9 million, and not just did the board gather the right information in making that decision, but did the board put in place the policies and procedures to make sure that it has the right information, and uses it correctly, on an ongoing basis? That, after all, is what a board is really for.


By Chris MacDonald and Hasko von Kriegstein

Fast Food Chains, Cage-Free Eggs, and Animal Rights

cruelty-free-eggsIt’s not all that surprising that restaurants that focus on fast, cheap food look to suppliers who focus on fast, cheap production methods. Fast food chains and factory farms, in other words, seem like a match made in heaven. But from the point of view of animals, it’s a match made in hell. The fast food industry’s capacity to efficiently turn ingredients into meals implies a huge demand for the products of the cruelty-prone meat and dairy industries. You don’t have to be a zealous animal rights activist to cringe every time you see images of battery hens, and imagine what a life — even with the very basic mental life of a chicken — would be like in a tiny, crowded cage.

But there are signs that things are changing in this regard. See, for example, the recent announcement by Burger King, along with iconic Canadian coffee chain Tim Horton’s, (both of which are owned by the same parent company) promising to use only cage-free eggs by 2025.

Just how big a deal is such an announcement?

It’s easy to be cynical about a target that’s nearly a decade out. Given that the average tenure of a CEO is far less than that, it risks looking like a leadership team making a promise that someone else is going to have to keep. The key question, of course: Is there a plan in place? Is substantive action underway already? If so, then this is long-term planning, rather than punting.

There are also big questions about supply chains. A big restaurant chain can simply decide to change what it sells if it can’t find a source. So the announcement of the restaurant chains’ intentions implies a need for big changes within the egg industry. And, perhaps not surprisingly (given the purchasing power of the two chains) there are signs that the industry is listening: witness the recent announcement that Canadian egg farmers aim to abandon battery cages by 2036.

Finally, it also should be noted that this move sets a powerful precedent for other restaurants. A pair of restaurant chains, even popular ones, can’t change the practices of the egg industry on their own, and hence can’t make a meaningful dent in the total quantity of cruelty in the industry. But the move by these two (although not the first) could have knock-on effects in several ways.

First, it helps establish a supply chain (see above). Second, it signals to consumers that cruelty-free eggs can be had, even at a fast-food joint, and so it’s OK to expect that from a fast-food joint. Finally, it gives implicit permission to managers at other fast-food chains to live according to their own values. No one prefers eggs from unhappy chickens, but many managers may feel that competitive pressures won’t allow the alternative. Burger King and Tim Horton’s have essentially signalled that they see a path to that alternative, and are willing to follow their conscience to it.

Could this all be a marketing ploy? Of course it could. But in the end, that may not matter. As long as BK and Tim’s see good reason to move to cage-free eggs, they will do it, and there’s good reason to believe that other restaurant chains will follow.

Is it Ethical to Watch the Super Bowl?

football_tackleIs it unethical to watch the Super Bowl?

As evidence mounts that professional football is essentially a highly-organized mechanism for inducing brain injury in large numbers of young men with few other options, the question arises whether watching the causing of all that brain injury is itself unethical.

If the game itself is ethically problematic, is watching problematic, too? Is it wrong to find joy in watching young men sustain brain damage?

The question is amplified with regard to the Super Bowl, which sees millions of non-football-fans tuning in, nachos and beer at their sides, to watch the spectacle. Are those millions of game-day converts complicit in the carnage?

We should start by acknowledging that there is of course no plausible causal connection between the casual viewer and the brain damage being done to players. An individual viewer tuning in on Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t matter a bit. But then, in the aggregate, we matter a lot — pro football wouldn’t be such a high-paying endeavour or such an enticement to the men who risk their brains to play it, if millions of us didn’t tune in on a regular basis.

But at very least we might wonder about the extent to which our watching amounts to a kind of tacit endorsement. It might be considered unseemly to enjoy watching the brutality in the say way that it’s unseemly to enjoy watching a serious car accident. You didn’t cause the accident, let us assume, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to enjoy watching it.

And an argument could be made that enjoying watching football is even more unseemly than enjoying watching a car crash, because the damage inflicted during football is intentional, and hence morally suspect. When you watch football, you’re enjoying not just watching brain damage, but watching young men lured into brain damage by large financial incentives. And in case you think the financial incentives justify the brain damage — “those guys are well paid to risk their brains!” — remember that most of them still probably don’t fully understand the risks. In part, that’s because probably no one has a full understanding of those risks, and because even when we know about risks, we tend to brush them aside in irrational ways when factors like pride are at play.

So hey, I hope you enjoyed the game. I did. But none of us should be altogether proud of that fact.

Top 10 Business Ethics Stories of 2015

cropped-beh_1b2

In addition to blogging here, I also co-edit a news & commentary website called BusinessEthicsHighlights.com. Below is a list my co-editor, Alexei Marcoux, and I have put together of the Top 10 business ethics stories of 2015. Enjoy! (If you prefer the PDF version, click here: BEH Year in Review, 2015.)


Year in Review: The Top 10 Business Ethics Stories of 2015

By the editors of Business Ethics Highlights (BusinessEthicsHighlights.com)

It has been a busy year in business ethics and corporate social responsibility. From the cheating carmaker to the price-gouging pharma-bro, to the coffee company that wanted us to have a casual chat about race with the barista, the year has been a cornucopia of case studies in the ethics of commerce. Just about any media outlet’s “year in review” could serve as fodder for a year-long course in business ethics. But we’ve gone ahead and drawn you a roadmap.


Below, the editors of Business Ethics Highlights present their entirely unscientific Top 10 Business Ethics Stories of 2015. This is our list of the top 10 items we reported on during 2015.* To create this list, we looked both for individual stories that had made a big splash, and for companies or individuals who had made the news multiple times for different reasons.

In no particular order, here they are.

Volkswagen was perhaps the biggest business ethics story of the year. The attention it got springs from two main sources: first, VW is a big, big, well-regarded company, not some fly-by-night operation. Second, the company didn’t just engage in some sort of minor rule-bending, fiddling along the margins: it outright lied to regulators and to customers regarding a key aspect of its cars’ performance. No wonder people were so interested in the lies the company told, in how it tried to scapegoat its engineers, and in the possibility that there just might not be very much that’s special about Volkswagen, in terms of the company’s likelihood to engage in wrongdoing.

In September, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, quickly went from utter obscurity to being the world’s most hated chief executive by buying a company that makes a life-saving pharmaceutical and promptly raising the price from $13.50 to $750 per tablet. Most recent update: Shkreli has been arrested, for fraudulent activity unrelated to his price-gouging. Few tears are being shed, even among those who would defend his price-gouging as an unremarkable side-effect of an otherwise-beneficial free market.

Another issue that has seen a lot of attention this year is the sale of homeopathy, and other ‘alternative’ medicines. Toward the end of 2015, we featured a piece by BEH co-editor Chris MacDonald, which generated a huge amount of discussion on social media and which, within 24 hours of publication, became Canadian Business magazine’s most commented-upon story of the entire year. Check out “Homeopathy: the Ponzi Scheme of Healthcare.” The key idea: relevant experts know that Ponzi schemes can’t make you rich, so they’re illegal. So, by analogy, why hasn’t homeopathy been outlawed yet?

BEH’s own most popular item of the year was a story about BBQ restaurants being “banned” in Austin, Texas. The bylaw the city passed was not a ban, per se, though it was sometimes referred to that way. But it was a proposed limitation on restaurants’ right to emit smoke, which raised interesting philosophical questions about just what counts as pollution, and what counts as nuisance. Frankly, we’re not quite sure why this ‘tempest in a teapot’ topped our stats; are visitors finding our site by mistake while googling BBQ recipes?

Various elements of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ were big in the news this year, and continued to generate controversy. Fans and foes have been vocal. For example, back in September the New York Post published an op-ed on why Airbnb helps make New York more affordable, contradicting those who claim that the accommodations service is driving up the price of lodgings. And ride-sharing service Uber continued to please users while angering traditional taxi companies and frustrating municipal lawmakers.

Another of the big stories of the year involved an organization that most wouldn’t think of as a business in the traditional sense, namely FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association)—the governing body for soccer worldwide. In May, several of the organization’s leaders were arrested for corruption—but not its bombastic president, Sepp Blatter. The following month, Blatter resigned, and was more recently banned, for 8 years, from participation in any soccer-related activities, by FIFA’s ethics committee.

Fast-food company Chipotle created a tempest in a taco by announcing that it would stop using genetically modified ingredients. Critics called the move anti-scientific, citing the lack of evidence to support anti-GMO sentiment. More recently, suspicions arose that Chipotle’s anti-GMO stance was a smokescreen to distract from the company’s dodgy sanitation practices. Why keep the kitchen clean when you can impress people with your holier-than-thou sourcing practices?

Not surprisingly, wage inequality continued to be an important theme. August saw the release of a list of “CEOs who make at least 800 times more than their employees.” One of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett, chimed in and agreed that inequality is a problem, but added that one standard prescription – raising minimum wage  – is not a solution.

Gender equity was also a big topic in 2015. Women fighting for equality got a boost from high-profile women, including Jennifer Lawrence (lamenting gender-based pay disparities in Hollywood) and tennis superstar Venus Williams (trying to correct the gender-based pay differential in pro sports).

In March, Starbucks announced an ambitious – some would say quixotic – plan to get Americans talking about race. The idea was to encourage customers to chat with baristas about what is without a doubt one of the most pressing social issues of the day, namely race. Skeptics scoffed, mocked, and rolled their eyes. The foam had barely settled on the latte before Starbucks declared that the #RaceTogether campaign was over.

There you have it, our year in review. Each of the stories above involved winners and losers. But then interesting times are always a mixed blessing.

* In fact, BEH only began publishing in March of this year, so our review of the year naturally only goes back to then.

© 2015 Journal Review Foundation

Business Ethics Highlights is produced by the editors of the Business Ethics Journal Review (bejr.org), and published by the nonprofit Journal Review Foundation (tjrf.org).

Loblaws selling homeopathy is junk science and bad corporate ethics

Homeopathy has the potential to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Ask us to help you select a remedy.

Photo: Chris MacDonald

This post has been updated with comment from Loblaws.


Imagine you walked into your local bank, and saw a sign that read:

“Lottery tickets have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the lottery that’s right for you!”

You would, I am sure, be shocked. Anyone with the slightest bit of financial common sense knows that lotteries are a losing proposition. For every one person who (temporarily, at least) gets rich, there must necessarily be thousands or millions more who lose money. Lottery tickets are a bad bet, and to advise someone to buy lottery tickets as an investment strategy would be fraudulently bad investment advice.

But worse still would be a sign that read:

Ponzi schemes have the potential to ensure a comfortable retirement. Ask us to help you select the Ponzi scheme that’s right for you!”

This, of course, would be even worse advice. After all, lotteries sometimes (if rarely) pay off. Ponzi schemes never do. They always collapse, eventually. They make investors feel good, in the short run, but they are utterly incapable of securing anyone’s long-term future. So advising people to buy into a Ponzi scheme would be the height of professional irresponsibility for a financial institution. Only a company seeking to profit from gullibility—to prey upon the public’s lack of financial sophistication—would even think of such slimy advice.
So what about healthcare? Shouldn’t the same standards apply? Wouldn’t it be shocking if a company promoted a healthcare product that had not just a slim chance of working, but literally no chance at all?

Here’s a sign that greeted me in the back corner of my local Loblaws supermarket:

“Homeopathy has the potential to stimulate the body’s own healing powers. Ask us to help you select a remedy.”

The problem here is of course that homeopathy doesn’t work. It cannot work, as a matter of simple biology, and it’s been thoroughly tested and proven not to work. Scientific consensus is clear and unambiguous on this. For some symptoms, homeopathy can provide a short-lived placebo effect. But that’s very limited, and it’s not the claim being made when homeopathy is sold. A company the size of Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has no excuse for not knowing this.

Of course, some people claim that homeopathy works for them. This can readily be explained by reference to any of a number of perceptual failings and cognitive biases. The short version is that personal perceptions and recollections are not reliable: medicine needs to be rigorously tested using blinded trials. After all, many of us know someone—a former neighbour or second cousin once removed—who scored big on the lottery. That doesn’t mean lotteries are a reliable investment strategy.

Presumably Loblaws thinks they can get away with this because of the weasel words they use: words like “potential” presumably mean they’re dodging making any specific claim about cause and effect. That may keep them on the right side of the law. But it still makes the company’s behaviour deeply unethical. If by “potential” they merely mean “it’s not logically impossible,” then the claim about homeopathy may be true. But if they mean that stimulating the body’s own healing powers realistically could happen, then it’s false.

If Loblaws isn’t selling something that works, are they at least selling hope? Perhaps. And hope is a wonderful thing. But many desperate people also buy lottery tickets as a matter of hope, in a desperate attempt to get themselves out of poverty. In both cases, what is being sold is at best false hope, and there’s no honour in selling that.

Homeopathy is the healthcare equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. Loblaws—and any other retail outlet that sells it—should be ashamed.

 


Update:
The publication of the commentary above (here and on Canadian Business) created a minor firestorm on social media. Within 24 hours this commentary became Canadian Business’s most commented-upon piece for the year. About 24 hours after the commentary appeared, Loblaws responded via twitter, as follows:

loblaws1

loblaws2

Interestingly, the company makes no effort to defend homeopathy itself, or to justify the enthusiastic claim made by the sign shown and quoted above.
-CM

How design can help companies make better ethical choices

What does it take to design an ethical plan of action? What would you do if you were head of compliance at Volkswagen, or SNC Lavalin?

The question arose recently, as I spent a weekend as a speaker and judge at the terrific Ethics in Action case competition, held at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business.

For those not familiar with the concept, a ‘case competition’ is an event in which teams of business students (typically 4 per team) are presented with business scenarios and tasked with giving a presentation, recommending to a panel of judges (playing the role of the ‘board of directors’) how the company should deal with the crisis. Students are judged on the quality of their analysis, the strength of their recommendation, and the poise with which they present it.

At the Dal competition, one of the cases teams had to address involved a company trying to recover from a string of bribery crises. The dilemma effectively was this: what should the company do, going forward, to recover from its problems and to attempt to prevent future trouble?

As we judges recognized, there’s no right answer here — or at least, no clear one. Lots of moves could be and were suggested: enhanced compliance training, careful screening of business partners, establishing a whistleblower hotline, and so on. But none of those moves, either individually or collectively, could come close to guaranteeing that scandal would not strike again at some point in the future. But each of them made a good deal of sense, and all were ingredients of a plausible path forward. Probably.

This implies a useful perspective on ethical problem-solving generally, namely this: every decision made in response to an ethical crisis is a kind of hypothesis. It is a guess — hopefully an educated guess — about what is going to work

This follows more generally from what we might call a “design” perspective on ethical decision-making. Because design (whether of machines or institutions) just is a process of hypothesis formulation and testing. In terrific 1985 book, To Engineer is Human – The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Henry Petroski argues that every structure that engineers build is an hypothesis — an educated guest to the effect that ‘yes, indeed, this bridge IS strong enough to bear the weight of all that traffic on a daily basis.’

What does this perspective imply about good ethical decision-making?

The most insightful work I know of on this topic is to be found in a brilliant 1996 paper by Caroline Whitbeck, called Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems. In her paper, Whitbeck discusses ethical decision-making as a design problem. The parallel between problem solving in engineering and problem solving in ethics, Whitbeck argues, suggests the following advice:

1) Some design problems have have no real “solutions”, where “solution” means “perfect answer. Sometimes we have to cope with a problem, rather than fixing it. Other problems are amenable to several possible design solutions, any of which might be “pretty good.”

2) Some practical problems are liable to suggest answers — design solutions — that are clearly wrong. Even if there’s no clear right solution, there may be plenty of clearly wrong solutions, and weeding those out is pretty useful.

3) Competing “pretty good” solutions may have different advantages & disadvantages. Just as two engineering solutions might have competing strengths (one offers better safety, where the other offers better durability, perhaps), different ethical solutions can have different virtues (as when one produces better outcomes, but the other does more to protect the rights of the vulnerable). Such competing virtues can be incommensurable, and it’s important to admit as much.

4) Finally, solutions to ethical problems, like solutions to engineering problems, typically need to achieve a particular performance or goal (there’s a job to get done), conform to specifications & constraints (you don’t have all the time and money in the world), and be reasonably secure against accidents and changes.

Overall, this design perspective has two major benefits. First, it reminds us that we are human, that our problem-solving is always a matter of looking for better solutions, not perfect ones. But it also reminds us that progress is possible, and that hard work to arrive at better solutions can pay off. There’s always a way to build a better mousetrap.

Do we really want Amazon policing authors?

Should a bookseller help a convicted murderer and rapist earn a living? In brief: yes. It’s not an appealing conclusion, so sold your nose, and listen to the reasons.

Amazon apparently disagrees with me, or is at least willing to bow to public pressure on the matter. The company has apparently removing an ebook apparently written by convicted Canadian killer and rapist Paul Bernardo from its website.

Amazon came under fire last week for selling the ebook. The book, importantly, is not about Bernardo’s own criminal exploits — he’s not profiting off his own crimes. Rather, the book is supposedly a political thriller of some sort. But many people were far from thrilled to see the widely-despised convict publishing at all.

Why should Amazon distribute Bernardo’s book? Some commentators have mentioned the need to protect free speech: Bernardo is a convict, but even convicts retain fundamental rights. But free speech is a red herring in this context. Amazon would be within its rights not to publish Bernardo’s book. No one has a right to be published. That’s not what the right to “free speech” implies. The right to free speech simply means that when you attempt to speak (or write) no one may rightly take action to forcibly stop you from speaking or writing.

So Amazon is within their rights to stop selling the book, but they are still wrong to do so.

Consider the precedent Amazon is setting here. For the sake of consistency, we need to realize that Amazon is now effectively claiming the right — and perhaps the obligation — to vet every author prior to agreeing to sell his or her book. And in doing so, what principles should they apply? Should all murderers be excluded, or only murderer-rapists like Bernardo? Or all criminals? How about war criminals. That’s a category that (ethically if not legally) includes a number of past heads of state. Should Amazon sell CDs by rappers with criminal convictions? And so on.

For what it’s worth, Amazon currently sells books by a number of other serial killers and mass murderers, including the likes of John Wayne Gacy, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and the most infamous mass murderer of all time, Adolf Hitler.

The argument for a nonjudgmental approach by Amazon is strengthened by the fact that it’s Amazon, in particular, that we’re talking about. Amazon’s dominant position in both book publishing and book selling means that it would be incredibly dangerous for the company to start picking and choosing, on moral grounds, which authors it chooses to work with. We, the public, should not want Amazon to help itself to that kind of moral authority.

Amazon should reverse its decision, and go back to selling Bernardo’s book. And we should respect that decision. Not because we think Paul Bernardo is especially worthy (or even, frankly, minimally worthy). The question isn’t who he is, but who we are.

%d bloggers like this: