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Posts Tagged ‘Ethical Decision Making and Behavior’

Racial Slurs are a Matter of Ethical Context

ESPN’s use of the headline “Chink in the Armor” (describing the New York Knicks’ first loss with Asian-American, NBA point guard Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup) illustrates that ethics, while not relative, is certainly contextual. The cliché represents a weakness or flaw, but the term “Chink” is also a racial slur for Chinese-Americans (cf. a “niggardly” reference for a selfish African-American basketball player). In the wake of “Linsanity,” puns were proliferating without regulation until a moral mishap forced corporate backpedaling and new industry standards. Former network sports editor Anthony Federico appeared to lack malicious intent with this Medieval phrase. However, the context of his oversight and implicit association of his “incite” shows that bad etymological choices can result in unemployment. The bottom line is that Federico was not fired for racism, but for making a poor editorial decision that potentially cost huge amounts of goodwill with key audiences in the United States and Asia for ESPN and parent company Walt Disney .

Consider Saturday Night Live’s sublime parody on our nation’s double standard on race and political correctness and the Daily Show’s satire on a “Lingrown toenail . . . during Black History Month.” While both sketches contained jokes and insults against Asian-Americans throughout their segments, purer purposes and comedic context provided the needed justified protection for administering racial smears.

Granted many find it unjust when minorities freely use these pejorative terms among members of their own race. Is there a double standard when a Caucasian cannot mention the word Nigga(er) and/or Chink when so many African-Americans do in greetings and in popular music, or when a younger Jeremy Lin identifies himself as ChiNkBaLLa88 on his Xanga account? It isn’t that ethics is relative (right for one group but wrong for another), but rather contextual. Minorities use these monikers with a mutual understanding that the words are not historically loaded or racially charged but accepted with affection and respect as opposed to their original meanings. For some, the co-opting of these derogatory words and phrases represent a way to master what was formerly enslaved. For others, it represents a way to deal with past pain. Whatever the solution, ethical context matters.

Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage

Contributing Author – Monday Morning Business Ethicist

Can Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) find honor and redemption as an industrial infiltrator? In the 11th chapter of a newly published book, Inception and Philosophy, I argue that he can . . . though only in his dreams.

Perhaps Dom has no choice in being a corporate spy and is not responsible for his actions. He may be considered honorable because of his professional expertise, or admirable devotion to family. I root for the “hero” too, but find Dom both unethically and recklessly irresponsible for violating principles of freedom.

Are we not all morally flawed and in need of redemption?

If you enjoy thinking about Inception, you’ll like this collection of 22 edited essays covering the various ethical, metaphysical, and religious themes of the film.  You can find Inception and Philosophy at Barnes and Noble, and sneak a peak at Amazon.com.

Say it isn’t, Joe.

Ten years after the Enron Corporation was exposed for its massively systemic and cleverly-planned ongoing accounting fraud, the moral structure of college football is being shaken to its core at Penn State University.

Prospective institutional cover-up for act(s) of sexual abuse allegedly committed by head football coach Joe Paterno’s former defensive coordinator and charges of multiple subsequent infractions have already brought down Penn’s State organizational leadership and storied football program. Will the Nittany Lion’s devotion to a winning culture and Paterno’s subscription to resilience and ‘enduring adversity’ eventually parallel Enron’s obsession with profit at any cost and adherence to their former CEO’s ‘survival of the fittest’ principles?

The developing scandal emits conflicting emotions: I am torn by the outpouring of support for an 84-year-old legend who has earnestly dedicated himself to building a long tradition of winning with integrity without the infamous scandals often associated with a major college program. I am sad for these young, innocent boys who would not have experienced further horrors if someone in power had pushed the issue. Properly evaluating a rapidly developing news story is difficult; determining the relevant ethical considerations may represent the best next step i.e., the distinction between law and ethics, and the connection of responsibility to leadership.

Corporations like Enron were familiar with the law; they knew how to exploit and profit from it. University President Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno met all legal requirements and will not be tried in a criminal court. The ethical question is whether they failed to meet their moral duties and obligations as human persons. Even more so—in their de facto roles as leaders, figureheads, and guardians in their community—greater responsibility is often associated with greater privilege. What personal responsibilities do individuals have beyond their specific job descriptions? Is an act of omission as heinous as the sin of commission?

The university has decided in the best interest of ‘business’ to relieve Spanier and Paterno of their responsibilities. Further clarity is needed before passing judgment on whether Penn State shares a similar aura of hubris with Enron. Even without the pride, their indecision produces greater consequences than even the dissolution of a major corporation.

In the business of uncovering the truth in the digital age, this game will have no winners. Prayers, comfort, and support to the victims and their families.

Structurally Unlucky

 

During a lecture hosted by our university’s engineering department, I was introduced to the Paradox of Design:

The lessons learned—from historically massive engineering failures such as steamships (Titanic) and suspensions bridges (Tacoma Narrows Bridge)—lead to success in future innovations; however, successful designs can evolve into eventual failures.

Dr. Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University

If the Titanic had not struck an iceberg, bigger ships with fewer lifeboats would have been built. If the Narrows Bridge’s retrofitted cables had not snapped, thinner and lighter bridges without trusses and stays would have spanned the world’s waters. According to Petroski, “When something just works, we may not know how close we stand next to failure.”

I see clear parallels between these engineering disasters and the collapse of the financial sector. Economic institutions incrementally moved from investing in sound traditional strategies toward speculations in creative derivatives; initial success invited additional risk exposure. Philosopher Bernard Williams coined a notion of ‘Moral Luck,’ where the same act can produce wildly different outcomes, and praise and blame are assigned for partially uncontrolled circumstances. In this lucky or unlucky world, the Titanic does not hit the iceberg; Tacoma still has their bridge; the housing bubble has not burst . . . disaster is momentarily delayed for a much larger breakdown.

Yet while continued success can pave the way for larger failures, I’m not a Luddite who opposes progress. Engineers and economists need to take creative and innovative steps in design and application. Of course, ethical foundations are often found lacking. Increased regulation always follows tragedy and failure, resulting in a better artifact, community, or corporate structure for the short term. Ultimately, a well-established prior corporate ethos (structure/character) frames the proper boundaries and appropriate risks in future decision making—especially in times of success.

Thanks to Professor Petroski for connecting the history of suspension arches to design theory; and to my father for showing his son the buildings and bridge(s) he helped design as a structural engineer.

A Social ‘Theft’work?

The Winklevoss twins represent two enemies that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in the process of designing The Social Network (2010). Did Zuckerberg steal the inspiration for Facebook from the brothers’ idea for their website? The answer may hinge on the divisive issue of intellectual property.

The debate centers around the intrinsic right to own non-tangible, creative ideas. According to traditional patent, trademark, and copyright laws, intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets. Dissidents like Richard Stallman−a software freedom activist−argue that intellectual property creates a ‘bias’ toward property rights by confusing non-physical monopolies with ownership of physical things.

Regarding the creation of Facebook, courtroom and journalistic evidence shows no formal contract between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses . . . only interesting and entertaining “dorm-room chit-chat.” A mere week after beginning what Zuckerberg referred to as ‘the dating site,’ he started working on a separate ‘Facebook’ project. Zuckerberg appears to have considered the two as competing for the same users’ attention, but also seems to have regarded them as different in key ways. While Zuckerberg does appear to have intentionally strung along the twins with the goal of making his own project the more successful launch, the Winklevosses $65 million lawsuit settlement seems more than fair−especially considering that the entire dispute took place over two months in 2004 and that in the years since, Zuckerberg has built Facebook into a massive global enterprise.

The Winklevoss twins are demanding that the case be reopened not for money but for honor. If there is no such thing as intellectual property rights, then there was nothing to steal and additional demands represent mere ego and greed. If intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets, then the battle between information highway robbery and issues of gentlemanly agreement should return to the top of Facebook’s News Feed.

Update: the Winklevoss suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge in Boston as reported on July 22, 2011.

The ‘Customer’-Physician Relationship

Medicine is subtly shifting from an emphasis on what is ideally best for the patient to an environment where hospitals are marketed from survey results and physicians are instructed on how to encourage customers to check the ‘Excellent’ box when rating their care. The danger in primarily viewing a patient as a consumer is that well known adages like ‘the customer knows best’ can gravitate toward motivations based primarily on the profit motive rather than the apparent benefits of collaboration, patient voice, and better service.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us to ask whether we are treating persons (customers) as a means to some end (profits) or as ends themselves (patients). When push comes to shove at medicine’s financial margins, decisions tend to lean toward monetary gain. Efficiency and profits are needed components of every venture (even Kant says not to use people as a means only but as a means as well as an end). Yet this move from taking care of patients to customers—while promoting friendlier hospital environments—may be damaging to the health care system in the long run.

The Hippocratic Oath has been condemned for promoting a ‘guild-like’ environment and its ancient author set aside in the hope of adopting the examples of other tightly managed industries (ironically, some business academics call for managers to take on the guild-like professionalism of the medical field). While some combination of treating patients as a means and as an end is probably acceptable, it seems that the customer/consumer metaphor is being adopted wholesale.

To Hippocrates, a physician’s first consideration was to use his/her art for the patient’s well-being—a re-emphasis that can benefit all stakeholders. Otherwise, this move to make the medical environment more patient-friendly has the potential to make it ultimately more vulnerable.

Written in conversation with Cory Wilson, M.D.

The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

Does BP = Beyond the Pale?

The Center for Public Integrity reported that two refineries owned by BP accounted for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified most of BP’s citations as “egregious willful” reflecting rule violations designed to prevent catastrophic refinery events.

Consider the 582-page application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well that never once discusses how to stop a blowout. Granted, the Minerals Management Service does not require a plan. Instead, amid lax regulation and/or a sloppy corporate cut and paste job, BP pledged that cold water mammals including sea otters, walruses, and sea lions would be protected in the Mexican Gulf. They also provided a Japanese home-shopping network Web address for its primary spill response provider. Not to be outdone, BP attempted to contain the public’s outrage by paying big bucks to fill top search items like “oil spill” with their own video material.

As a practical outlet for the philosophy of morality, ethics gives structure and boundaries. BP’s actions could be considered beyond the pale (unacceptable) for its loss of human life, underestimating the environmental impact, or social gaffes from its CEO. Some counter these unfortunate occurrences with the corporate behemoth as a victim of bad moral luck, regulators unable to keep up with complex rig technology, or managers pressured by the continued drive to hold down costs and make money for shareholders. Do these nuanced qualifications deserve further consideration before making final judgment or does BP’s systematic stench of unethical behavior run outside agreed standards of decency?

Elementary, My Dear Daughter

Our daughter’s summer birthdate forced us to choose whether to begin her educational career (kindergarten) a year earlier or later. I often lamented the ‘early entry’ decision over the years against my child’s objections that any delay would have given her a different set of unknown friends. I argued the extra year would have been better for her physical and emotional maturity.

Through much reflection and ribbing from my spouse, I now realize that the primary reason for waiting was so that I could have our daughter home with us one more year. While there is nothing wrong with this wish, it shows that the entire decision-making process needs more attention.

I wanted to delay the inevitable for these precious elementary school moments of time feel like sand slipping through my fingers.

The days are long but the years go by too fast.

Alex Kettles (former CRU Director, Oregon State University)

MTV’s Rev Run and Justine Simmons have encouraged families to save time by running their household like a business. Organizing the family according to a corporate model would pit our daughter as a stakeholder/employee having a compelling interest in the outcome and her parents as corporate executives. The kindergarten teacher acts as a mid-level manager as we concurrently are tax-paying shareholders of the public school system.

Current stakeholder theory holds that we have a morally significant non-fiduciary relationship with our daughter and that we should consider her needs (e.g. personality type, educational style, teacher qualifications, institutional quality, etc.) as well as our own. Our fiduciary interest demands proper consideration but pales in comparison. Holding my daughter back a year may make her more competitive in the marketplace or as a prospective college student in 12 years but the shareholder thesis that our primary social responsibility in our ‘familial’ corporation is to increase profits (à la an academic scholarship) seems relatively shortsighted.

As a parent or any leader in an organization, some decisions cater to other’s needs; many revolve around our own interests. Surfacing the multiple motivations behind a decision requires time. Despite the inevitable conflict, life often demands an immediate response and does not wait for an all-things-considered thoughtful reply. Fortunately, these crucial relationships are not about getting the correct answers but of managing the competing interests of all parties by asking the right questions about our motivations. Achieving this balance is not simple and may not be possible. Yet considering the various needs of stakeholders ultimately represents a fundamental elementary starting point in organizational management.

Film Recommendations: College Road Trip (2008); Father of the Bride (1991)

Should Shopping Carts Stay or Should They Go?

Is it wrong to take shopping carts from parking lots?

These neighborhood eyesores elicit either the typical exasperated brush off or disappointed shoulder shrug. They inspire the creation of local field guides to identify strays and blogs preventing their abuse. Yet what is at stake in this particular transfer? Is the act illegal, or does taking a shopping cart away from its natural premises represent a moral violation? Are we going too far with calling the act unethical as it simply is an unaesthetic eyesore? Does it rather only represent a frustrating financial and time-consuming clean-up venture for the ownership and/or municipality?

What kind of individual or joint transgression if any is committed by this action? Moral and legal boundaries or aesthetic and pragmatic ideals aside, nobody connects that tomorrow’s grocery and electronic prices are higher because of the current massive cart movement on city streets−costs that are invariably passed onto other consumers (cf. litter as a classic example of what economists term a ‘negative externality.’)

Some cities have chosen to lay the burden on the victims and fine the store owners for the return of their carts. However, most municipalities combine punishment of the presumed thief/litterbug (often a fine) and encourage some type of responsibility from the store owner (e.g., walking customers out to their cars and bringing back the carts, anti-theft devices which lock the wheels, and charging security deposits on carts).

While empathizing with those without the financial means of transporting their goods and identifying with the plight of the homeless, a person’s financial status cannot decide the morality of an act.Some stores try to hire cart retrievers to take care of the immediate problem. But the long-term prospective moral concern affecting our groceries and outdoor strip malls remains.