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Best Product: An Ethical Question?

DILEMMA

We have a new company built around a technology we have created. With that new technology we can go one of two ways, but don’t have the resources to do both.

The more financially viable direction would be to apply the technology to housing construction. We believe the business case works out very well in this case. But while we think there is a contribution we could make here, there are lots of technologies in the building trade, and it seems this direction would offer less to the benefit of society.

The other option is to go into body armor. We believe this would make a very important contribution to society, and save many lives. But body armor would take a lot more money, time, and R&D and could very possibly bring down the company because the resources are just not there.

How do you make the right decision in this case?

A New York Tech Company

RESPONSE

The fact that you are discussing “contribution to society” as a key consideration in the formulation of your target market is highly commendable. Far too often, contribution (and/or harm) to society is largely an afterthought or is approached in terms of potential liability, if the subject is raised at all. I have far too few facts to give you a definitive answer on this one, but several (hopefully helpful) items come to mind.

The way you describe the situation pits more certain profitability with less social benefit (housing construction) versus higher risk accompanied by greater social benefit (body armor). I would challenge you ask some further questions to see if the challenge before you can be stated in such terms.

First, does one application (body armor) of the technology so clearly win out in terms of social benefit? While body armor does seem to do more immediate good by saving lives, every technology has the potential to “bite back” as Edward Tenner’s book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences suggests. For instance, can body armor facilitate reckless behavior such as making the declaration of war easier or encouraging violent means of battling crime (and thereby harm innocent bystanders) when there are other “low technology” options available?

Of course, similar questions could be asked about the unintended consequences of supplying your technology to the housing construction industry.

My point here is not that body armor or housing construction are bad markets to serve, nor is it to say that measuring “social contribution” is undesirable or impossible so that we should give up on such a noble undertaking. Rather, it is to simply remind you of how complex these issues can be, and that selling your product to either market may well produce both good and bad consequences.

Second, both markets have inherent risk. As you state it, there are lots of competing products in housing construction, and there is a lot of investment needed for body armor.

Thus, I believe the question before you needs to be reformulated to reconsider the social benefits in light of the possible risks and rewards of each of your potential target markets.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

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