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How Much Does the Business Leader Need to Know?

DILEMMA:

Where is the Line?

I am the business guy in a biotech startup. We have some intellectual property that provides the foundation for our company, a tool for cutting and splicing DNA. We are currently applying the technology toward plant modification. However, there has been some interest in applying our technology to animals, and even humans. I recognize the good that this technology could do, but also the potential harm. Since I am not one of the scientists on the team, but am one of the leaders of the company, I am struggling with what questions to ask. I do not know where I should ask questions, what questions I should ask, and where I should simply sit back and manage the business. How would you advise me?

An Executive With a Midwest Biotech Firm

RESPONSE:

Dear “Business Guy,”

Thanks for writing. The fields of business ethics and bio-ethics are full of challenging questions on their own. The issues get much more complicated when the two intersect. Reading between the lines a bit, it sounds as though you may have some moral concerns about your role in supporting applications of technology that may cross the line into the territory of “playing God.” In sum, you seem to be wondering if it would be wrong for you to continue to work for an organization, or support the development of technologies, that could be engaged in activities that go against your moral convictions. While biotechnologies make this question more salient, I believe this is something that every employee in every industry should ask.

Without knowing the details of your situation, I would suggest three important questions as starting points: (1) What are your own standards, and are there good reasons behind them? (2) Are there criteria in place or ongoing conversations in your organization to determine the ethical boundaries of research and its implications? (3) What regulations are in place or being discussed? The latter two questions may go far in allaying some of your fears. Moreover, it would be wise to get involved in forming corporate and public policy so that you can try to prevent a situation in which you have to choose between your vocation and your conscience.

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

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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