When you were a child, your parents told you it’s not nice to tell lies. And if you were caught cheating, you were duly punished.
They followed one of three mainstream moral theories, all of which condemn cheating. The Consequentialist (or Utilitarian) argues that the results of cheating are usually bad, and therefore cheating should be condemned. The Deontological (or Kantian) argues that permitting the cheating of one allows everyone else to cheat, and before long no one can believe anyone. The third theory, Virtue Ethics (Aristotle), suggests that virtuous people don’t cheat; when they do, it’s a character flaw that should be excised.
How is this applied in the business world? Given the consensus among traditional moral frameworks, is cheating condemned and punished? Every school of business worth its salt has at least one mandatory requirement of a business ethics course.
Legally speaking, the impact of these theories is apparent. Fraud is punishable by law. If you aren’t sure how far the arm of the law extends, take note of reports that about $251 billion in fines was paid by fraudulent banks alone since the Great Recession (Forbes 8/29/14). Deliberate or manipulative, those “too big to fail” had a hand in bringing about the financial crisis and they were found guilty in courts of law or settled out of court (without admitting guilt) for billions of dollars.
Cynics may say that this was the banks’ “cost of doing business,” while a less sanguine response is that they were found to have cheated their customers, their mortgage clients and all the regulatory boards that were supposed to police their activities.
As we are witnessing lately, the attack on the independent media (mainstream, extreme, print, television and internet), questions of “lying” or “fake news” have been front and center in claiming that media outlets have become the “oppositional party.”
Cheating, lying and the standards by which they should be judged have been political fodder for any pundit invited to a talk show (“left” and “right”). Was there deliberate lying or “mere” choice of selective data? Is it “simply” a question of perspective? Media control is a classic fascist trope.
Presumably in the business world, the stakes are different compared to those associated with “Lying Crooked Hillary” or “Cheating Ted Cruz.” Political mud-slinging is as old as our republic, but is the same true of business? Is capitalism based on cheating?
Unlike our judgment about businesspeople, we are quick to agree that we can never trust a politician, and therefore only outsiders (like Donald Trump) deserve our votes. Professional politicians say whatever they are paid to say, and they will change their minds regardless of promises made to constituents. This sentiment brought to power our 45th president.
So, why aren’t we using the same moral outrage when it gets to the business world? Is it because we (cynically or realistically) know that the only purpose of a firm is to make a profit no matter what (moral or practical) corners it cuts, as Volkswagen has done in manipulating its diesel emission controls?
William Boston reports that “Sales of the VW brand . . . rose 2.8 [percent] world-wide to 5.9 million vehicles, driven by 14 [percent] growth in new car sales in China and nearly 7 [percent] growth in Central and Eastern Europe.” He continues, “Volkswagen shares were up 3.8 [percent].” And all of this after the diesel scandal (Market Watch, 1/9/17).
Where is the inner moralist in each of us that is willing to punish all cheaters, even put them out of business? Brittney Cooper, in an alarming headline, argues that “The Powerless Get Punished for Cheating, and the Powerful Benefit” (New York Times, 9/29/15) Shocking? Perhaps we subconsciously admire their clever engineers.
VW is obviously “powerful” and its financial reach extends the entire globe. Paying some $19 billion in fines is similar to the banks’ “cost of doing business” in this country, a fee or fine worth paying if caught by snoopy regulators.
Morally speaking, there is an equivalence in all moral violations regardless if they occur in the political or economic domains. Cheating remains cheating no matter who commits the act (and against whom), and bad behavior should be punished no matter how rich or powerful the villain.
Are the same people who punished Hillary Clinton not willing to punish VW? Is it because psychologically it’s easier to vilify a person than a corporation? But if the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United (2010) claimed freedom of speech rights to corporations as persons, why not apply the same logic?
On a good day morality and legality are based on logical arguments, and emotional outburst are best left outside of reasonable judgments.
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at email@example.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com