Does Business Have a Place in the Moral Universe?
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May 29, 2013

Does Business Have a Place in the Moral Universe?

By Jessica Love

It seems that wealthy Disney tourists can hire disabled “guides” to help them cut in line. For $130 an hour, according to a recent report, a guide will pretend to be a member of your family, letting your entire party bypass long lines. The scheme—not quite what Disney had in mind when it created its accommodation policy—has inspired nearly universal anger and condemnation.

And yet it is worth asking just why we find the ploy so distasteful. After all, says Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, “the most Milton Friedman-worshiping card-carrying free market economist would say, ‘This is the free market. If you have money you can buy things.’ Why are we outraged about that?”

But outraged we are. This, says Waytz, is a perfect example of “what happens when you try to fuse market values with things that do not operate in the world of markets”; it feels inherently wrong for someone to profit from someone else’s hardship. (That the disabled guides also profit seems somehow beside the point.)
And while it remains unclear how widespread the guide service is, it is clear that established businesses are not immune to similarly questionable ethical decisions.

Take, for instance, the “Homeless Hotspot” scheme—homeless people were paid to carry Wi-Fi devices—that marketing agency BBH Labs attempted to pull off last year at Austin’s South By Southwest festival. Again, asks Waytz, why the outrage? “You’re paying homeless people. You’re giving people a service. There are a lot of those examples where we sort of overlook the world of morals because we’re too concerned with the basic cost benefit analysis.”

It is not Waytz’s goal—not in his course on business ethics at Kellogg, not in his research on morality, and not in his new blog hosted by Scientific American—to tell people how to be ethical. Instead, he says, his goal is to provide another way of thinking about ethical dilemmas.

Business typically operates in the realm of numbers and profits and shareholders; in this world, employees and companies do “good” by performing competently. But we all exist in another world too, says Waytz, a world where “instead of thinking in terms of secular values like money we think in terms of sacred values like health, safety, and basic human freedoms”

“There are a lot of difficult decisions that people make that involve very quantifiable things,” Waytz says. “But the toughest decisions involve things that are nonquantifiable; they involve trading off different values.” What is a leader to do, for instance, upon witnessing a colleague’s unethical behavior? Does she prize loyalty, staying true to her coworkers and organization? Or does she prioritize justice, and blow the whistle? Further, asks Waytz, “what about these decisions that are constantly pitting individual interests versus collective interests, short-term interests versus long-term interests?” These are dilemmas we will all face over the course of our careers, and it is worth at least considering how we might respond to them ahead of time.

Adopting a morally concerned, values-based approach isn’t necessarily bad for the bottom line, either. Businesses that operate solely in the realm of cost benefit analyses miss out, says Waytz, on major opportunities to run their organizations more effectively, incentivize people less expensively, gain new markets, and generally contribute to society in a socially responsible way.

Waytz’s new blog “The Moral Universe,”cowritten with Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki, will tackle morality’s “muckier” issues. Do we behave morally toward strangers out of a sense of empathy? To make ourselves feel good? To build a positive reputation? And, asks Waytz, does good behavior lead to more good behavior, because it encourages us to be the sort of people who do good deeds? Or might it actually do the opposite, as we believe we’ve already filled our “moral quota for the day”?

Such questions, of course, have no easy answers. But researchers’ understanding of morality and its underpinnings continues to advance. This should come as good news to businesses dealing with the onslaught of new dilemmas ushered in by globalism.

Consider the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh. “Who is morally responsible for that?” asks Waytz. “Consumers? People who are producing clothing there? Can we really say that it is immoral to offer people work even under unsafe conditions if the alternative is not being able to work and earn money at all?” And the questions continue: “How do you navigate ethics cross-culturally when doing business over there relies on more corrupt practices? When is it appropriate to take a morally relativistic stance and say, you know, ‘When in Bangaladesh, just behave as they do’? When is it appropriate to take a morally absolutist stance and say ‘No, there are certain things that you just can’t do’?”