Dear Ethix – Issue 32


I have used your publication in my roles as chair of the ethics committee at a senior community center in Seattle, chair of a homeless shelter for women and children in Lynden, WA, and as a basis for communicating issues with a trucking company working out of Mexicali, Mexico. In all cases the information has been well received.

LeAna Osterman, Lynden, WA
“Market” Ethics

I really appreciated David Gill’s article, “The Market Made Me Do It” in the September/October issue of Ethix. Pigs at the Trough and Soul of the Firm will be added to my reading list.

I remember attending an ethics course put on by my employer (a Canadian Telephone company) back in the 90’s. I left that course completely disillusioned when the instructor (one of the corporate lawyers) defined ethics as: “the sentiment of the community.” Very similar to “The Market Made Me Do It”. There are certainly many very obvious real life examples illustrating that the “sentiment of the community” can lead to situations far from right. The phrase still gives me chills.

What dangerous definitions these are when there is no higher moral standard to serve as a foundation.

The article on Tyco in the same issue of Ethix was also very inspiring.

Keep up the message!

Len Dacombe, P.Eng.
Director IT Strategies & Policies, The Canadian Wheat Board

I really enjoyed David Gill’s latest Ethix column entitled: “The Market Made Me Do It.” That shopworn phrase has “justified” more injudicious acts than any other single set of words.

Gary Sandy, Woodland, CA

Responsibilities for Multinational Businesses

Does IBTE address questions about what the effects of multinationalism are in the developing world, or whether public corporations have a positive or negative effect on “an ethical” distribution of wealth in the world? For instance, should multinational corporations have responsibilities vis a vis distribution of wealth? This doesn’t seem to be a focus of IBTE from the web site, but you might have done some thinking in this area and I’m curious as to what you might have to say.

John Lewis, Seattle, WA

We do not have position papers on many of the issues we discuss in Ethix. The particular issue you raise was discussed in the conversation with David Korten a bit more than a year ago, and is the subject (from very different perspectives) of some of the books we review, e.g. Good Business and The Divine Right of Capital. Al Erisman

Religion and Business

I found the (July/August 2003) issue particularly rich in ideas and interesting comments, especially the IBTE Conversation: “Can Ethics be Taught?” and David Gill’s closing note on religion in business.

I did not grow up in the United States, but during the 20 plus years I have lived here, I have remained intrigued and somewhat puzzled by the mix of business, religion and morality that seems to drive the rhetoric around business and political ethics. Ethics in business and technology is a debate worth having, this is why I am a member of IBTE, but I have difficulties assimilating ethical business behaviors in a biblical context.

First, an assumption that non-believers and non-religious people have a lower moral and ethical fabric is, in my mind, very presumptuous. Statements that ethics and accountability can only exist in Christian intellectual circles and only be taught in religious schools are rather self-promoting and I would challenge the idea that, say, an animist group of hunters in the rainforest does not have a proper code of ethics and accountability.

Narrowing the debate on ethical behavior to a lack of religious faith in society does a disservice to the complexity of the business world. Do deeply religious communities, in the United States or elsewhere, really provide an environment with higher business standards? Are deeply religious leaders, in business or politics, better managers because they answer to a higher calling?

The bible and especially the new testaments are unequivocal about the fate of the rich man in the eyes of God and clearly defines proper Christian business behaviors.

A successful businessperson, an innovator, an entrepreneur, often must bend the established rules while seeking new ways of doing business. He or she usually enjoys pushing the limits of the conventional wisdom to discover new territories, grow market shares, increase shareholders value and reap personal gain. A successful leader must be inspired, creative, charismatic, risk taking and self-assured.

But the byproducts of these wonderful skills are a perceived superiority often bordering on arrogance, a feeling of being untouchable and that the old rules don’t apply, and the certitude that the vision must be fulfilled at any price.

Managers are asked to resolve conflicting demands that inherently pit business needs (profits, efficiencies, shareowners value, quarterly growth, etc.) against people welfare (safe working conditions, workers’ education, risk-rewarding culture, environmental stewardship, etc.).

I see the paradox of modern ethics as attempting to reach a satisfactory authenticity to reconcile conflicting corporate and humanistic goals: How can we get a corporate tiger to behave like a lamb, or a corporate lamb to behave like a tiger?

Ethics in Business and Technology is a topic of the greatest relevance today. Corporate behaviors (“I need to balance the book for this quarter, so I am going to fire a few people … It will also show that I can make the tough decisions…”) and more, all point to a potential ethical black hole. Is it worse than in the past? I am not sure. Can it be changed? I sure hope so.

We all have to keep going and growing.

Philippe Jeanjean, Somerville, MA