Thursday, October 7, 2010

What rules?

Can we separate our business dealings from our personal morals? Are business ethics merely an inconvenience? Are they generational? Do the ethics of our parent's generation, or my generation, even matter to the next one? Or are we all just re-writing the rules as we go along? What's acceptable? What line can be blurred and what line was boldly crossed without even an ounce of regret?

Ethics (also known as moral philosophy) is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality — that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice, etc.

Business ethics (also known as Corporate ethics) is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and business organizations as a whole. Applied ethics is a field of ethics that deals with ethical questions in many fields such as medical, technical, legal and business ethics.

Do these concepts merge? Do we have a responsibility to deal ethically in our business dealings as we do in our personal lives? If we know something is not truthful but our employer encourages us to press onward do we not share the blame if we are willing or unwilling accomplices? We still complied and lied. It doesn't matter who enforced it. To say that this is just the way the world works seems like a cop out. Have we accepted that this is the only way?

Today I sat in a classroom of business students and was stunned by a general disregard for ethics. The prevailing wisdom of the group was that if a consumer didn't complain or bring up the issue directly then there was no moral responsibility to disclose anything. Even if that anything could be cancerous and cause death. It was as if I sat in the room with future tobacco executives, circa 1950. And yet there is a serious detachment from morals and business that I believe my generation and the one behind me is sorely missing. The Internet has taken our souls. The television has given us the impression that it is ok to lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top as long as it is covert and you are smiling while doing it. Isn't this the premise of the show Survivor and Big Brother? Form alliances, and con your way to the top? It is also the premise to many other shows. The most conniving and convincing wins. It's good television, and what's good for tv must be good for the real world. This is our new business model.

I can't comment much about the new movie The Social Network because I haven't yet seen it, but from reviews it sounds like the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg, took someone else's idea and muscled out a co-founder, fellow friend and financier in the process. Yet to many in today's generation that is merely good business. It made him billions right? There is no moral dilemma here when it involves making money, but to what end?

I think the issue for a lot of younger people hearing about morals and ethics is that they believe someone is preaching to them about religion. We live in a day and age where we can research anything we want to ourselves. We don't need someone pushing their ideals upon us. Who are they anyways? The role model becomes the one who is successful not the one who is condemning the one who is successful. They are just envious. They didn't have the drive themselves. In order to be successful we have to bend the rules a little, or a lot, and who's rules were they anyways? They were written ten years ago. We live in a different age and the Internet has changed everything. There are new rules. Oh wait, there aren't. They are the same rules, just shorter attention spans, and less desire to follow them.

I'm guilty of it. I blurred the line in my job before. I tight roped the line of ethical and unethical. I turned the black and white a beautiful shade of gray. There were days when I did things I wasn't proud of. I justified my decisions for doing so by the fact that everyone was doing it and more blatantly. I was "more" ethical and  still completely unethical. Yet in my mind I wasn't doing anything wrong. I justified it by comparing myself to someone that was far worse off. I can't be that bad...I didn't shoot anyone. We can push that boundary further and further out. If we know it's wrong, it's wrong. It doesn't matter how we spin it. But in life we have to do this sometimes right?

If anything this re-shifting of our economy should wake us up to the decisions that led to it. I worked in some industries that are responsible and saw this thing coming like a freight train in 2005. It was inevitable, but I needed a paycheck. I wasn't the culpable party because I was just an order taker. I didn't directly sell to anyone, but I knew it was dirty. It was like driving the car for a drug dealer. You know he's dealing, just because you aren't doesn't mean you aren't guilty too. A lot of smarter men then me should carry more of the guilt but they cashed out already. Maybe they wrote the new rules.

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