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Business Rules the World. Do we want it to?

Posted: Sat, November 17, 2012 | By: P. Tittle



One of the most common – and most serious – weaknesses of codes of ethics, and indeed, most ethical theories, is that they don’t prioritize values.  They’re fine for many of the simpler ethical questions, but when goods and interests conflict, when virtues and rights collide, they don’t provide a way to determine which interest, which right, is stronger.  For example, it’s all very nice to say that both customers and shareholders are valued, but which is valued more?  Do you opt for lower prices or greater profits?  And it’s all very good to say that loyalty and honesty are among the company’s virtues.  But what does an employee do when honesty seems to be a breach of loyalty?  Does the employee blow the whistle or not?  The code I begin to develop here is an attempt to solve that problem, an attempt to prioritize values.

First, I propose that life be set in the position of highest priority: nothing is more valuable than life itself.  This is so if only for logical reasons – without life, nothing else is possible, nothing else matters.  A point of clarification: violations of this value, that is, the causing of death, need not be sudden or immediate: a slow poisoning is a poisoning nevertheless.

Included at this point, though perhaps better listed as a separate, second, item so as not to be forgotten, would be the resources necessary to sustain life: food, water, and oxygen.  Again, a point of clarification: since I am referring to quantity of life as this point, I refer also to quantity, not quality, of resources.

Having put life at the top, however, I hasten to explain that life for life’s sake is not my aim.  Rather, I see the value of life to be in its quality; life itself is a means to an end, the end being a certain quality of life.  And I suggest, therefore, that freedom from pain and injury be listed third in our hierarchy.  A life of pain is not a life worth living.  It is here that quality of resources are implicated.

Obviously, even to this point, there are questions I need to address.  With respect to the first value, that of life itself, just exactly which life forms am I including?  I am a little uncomfortable specifying only human life.  But I am more uncomfortable including all life: the simplest construction project surely kills a few worms, and prohibiting such construction for that reason seems unwise.  Where I draw the line is not clear to me at the moment.  However, with respect to freedom from pain and injury, I include all sentient life: the presence of pain is worse than the absence of life for many creatures, especially those with fully developed pain receptors but little sense of time continuity and attendant life plans.

A further problem is that we often don’t know for sure that someone is going to get killed.  So probability must play a role.  But, and here’s the big question, how probable is probable enough?  If there’s a fifty-fifty chance that someone will get killed if X is done, is that a sufficient reason for choosing not to do X?

With respect to resources necessary to sustain life, one might well ask ‘how much life?’  Is it fair to say that the conduct of business must not diminish resources below the level required to sustain life while at the same time allowing life unlimited increase?  I think not.  Surely we can calculate the ideal quality of life we desire, and from that calculate the ideal population level, given the nature (limits and renewability) of our resources.  (I suspect these calculations have already been done, but since limiting population means limiting markets…)  Business must then not diminish the resources below the level needed to sustain that population.

Further, while in theory, the quantities of food, water, and oxygen necessary to sustain life are known amounts, ensuring these amounts is a difficult matter in practice.  Since people are, at this moment, dying for lack of food and water, one might assume that we’ve already gone beyond the point of equilibrium.  However, surplus food and water elsewhere on the planet suggests that the problem is one of distribution, not quantity.

With respect to the third value, that of freedom from pain and injury, one must ask ‘how much pain and injury?’  Specifying ‘serious’ solves little – ‘how serious is serious?’

Further, given that all sentient life forms are included, one must ask whether they are also to be given equal consideration?  That is, is a rat’s pain of the same value as a human’s pain?

And yet, even to this point, even with the most conservative answers to these questions, this code of ethics, if implemented, would radically change the face of business as we know it.  Let me repeat that.  Even with the most conservative answers to these questions, this code of ethics, if implemented, would radically change the face of business as we know it. 

Before describing some of these changes, I’d like to append to my code two possibilities for veto.  The first veto is that of voluntary and informed consent: if the person who is (probably) going to die or be injured is identifiable and s/he agrees to (the risk of) that death or injury, one is justified in carrying on with one’s business.  Proxy consent of non-human sentient life is not allowed, however.

The second veto involves the purpose of the business: if one is in the life-saving business, then perhaps some degree of life-taking is justified.  Ditto for the business of life-sustaining resource production or the business of serious pain and injury alleviation – some ‘taking in kind’ may be allowed.  The notion of sacrifice is difficult and beyond my objective at the moment, but I want to leave this door open: perhaps we can justify causing some pain, or even death, to some life forms, even of our own species, if we can thereby prevent a great deal of pain or save a great deal of lives.

Now, the application of my code so far is simple: no business decision that entails death, the destruction of life-sustaining resources, or serious injury is ethically justified.  (See what I mean by radically changing the face of business….)

The implications of this code, however, are extensive: if the conduct of one’s business entails someone’s death, one should not conduct said business.  No business is worth dying for.  Even CEOs would (hopefully) agree.  I expect the entire industrial revolution would have been considerably slower had this code been in use.  Even today, some of the higher risk operations such as mining might be far less developed (and perhaps alternate energy sources would have been far more developed).

Further, if business-as-usual involves causing serious pain, one should not engage in such business-as-usual.  No company’s existence, let alone its profit margin, is worth another’s pain, be it human or rodent.  That is to say, almost any business involving animal experimentation would have to close.  A fourth brand of dish detergent or eye mascara is simply not worth causing severe pain to even one rabbit.  It is also to say that the military business would have to shut down.  No more manufacture of ‘anti-personnel missiles’.

And if the consequence is bankruptcy, so be it.  Better that a company go bankrupt than that someone dies or gets seriously injured.  (Note that the company does not have a right to life or to freedom from pain and injury.)

Further, assuming that we are already over the point of equilibrium with regard to life and resources, any business that is not environmentally-sustaining is ethically unjustified.  Wow.  That alone cuts out a lot.

Now at this point, I’d like to anticipate and respond to one objection.  Closing down my business, one might argue, will involve a lot of negative consequences: thousands will be put out of a job, there will be no food on their tables, etc.  To respond, I don’t believe that a business closure has ever resulted in employee death or even serious pain and injury.  When a company employs the whole town and it goes out of business, the town becomes a ghost town, yes, but because its people have moved on, not because they’ve died.  Life goes on.  Perhaps they are poorer, but better that some are poor than that some are dead.  So, by my code, since life and freedom from pain and injury are ranked above having a job, the closure must be chosen if otherwise someone will die or get hurt.

The greatest result of implementing a code such as the one I propose might be, simply, the reduction of business.  So many businesses provide services or products we simply don’t need, or at least not in the quantity they’re being produced, and as long as their production, in the process, violate this code (and I’ve just identified the first three values – I expect values four through whatever would include various freedoms and virtues that would further enhance quality of life),  their very existence is unjustifiable.

With the reduction in business per se will come, hopefully, a marked decrease in its all-pervasive role in our lives.  Nations are already just corporations; presidents and those who fill political offices are, more often than not, business men – not philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, scientists…  Business rules the world.  Do we want it to?  Do we really want someone’s pursuit of profit to determine our lives? 

This essay originally appeared at P. Tittle’s blog, “Bite-Sized Subversion” - HERE

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