Business Ethics Requires You to Become a Careful Thinker

by Diana Drake

Brian Berkey has a flip phone. Why would a Wharton School professor of legal studies and business ethics choose to forgo a connected smartphone? Like any good academic, he’s been watching the data.

Dr. Berkey has been in part influenced by the research of his department’s former PhD student Vikram R. Bhargava, who co-authored the study Ethics of the Attention Economy: the Problem of Social Media Addiction, published in Business Ethics Quarterly.

“There’s been some interesting discussion in business ethics about the ways in which tech firms are at least generally designing some of their products to be addictive,” notes Berkey, an expert in business and environmental ethics who specializes in moral and political philosophy. “With social media and smartphones, the goal is to keep people staring at a screen for as long as possible, and to get people basically addicted. The model is not so different from tobacco and gambling and these other kinds of things that are harmful to the people who end up [addicted]. There’s reason to believe that is where we are going to end up with some of these technologies. Even though we didn’t see it so clearly at the time, there’s something quite objectionable about deliberately designing products to get people addicted, even if those products are smartphones or social media platforms.”

Holding Companies Accountable

As a business ethicist and philosopher, Dr. Berkey thinks a lot about how people acting in positions within companies – like the CEO, for instance – should approach their decision-making, particularly around social justice issues like climate change, designing driverless cars, and creating potentially addictive or biased technologies.

So, who should hold a company accountable for the ethical standards around technological development? Often, the consumer plays a vital role. “What we might think of as the first line of defense, government regulation, lags behind the development of the technologies; governments are rarely prepared to effectively regulate new products, especially new technological developments in the early stages,” notes Berkey. “And then, there’s often debate for many years and pushback from the industry, when discussion of regulation gets going. So, in terms of who holds the companies accountable, I think the only plausible answer is that it’s all of us.” Screentime monitors and less-addictive grayscale screens are examples, he adds, of early consumer-driven solutions.

The ethics of technology – from product development and algorithmic discrimination to surveillance and privacy – is ripe for discussion and debate in business-ethics circles these days. And it is just one of many topics that Berkey and his Wharton colleagues are considering as they explore doing the right thing in the context of business.

Amy Sepinwall, a Wharton associate professor of legal studies and business ethics, uses her background in both law and philosophy to help students begin to think foundationally about right and wrong and to understand moral theories and moral justice.

“A lot of people who are not working in business and who didn’t have a business education believe that any 18-year-old who wants to go to business school as opposed to studying film theory or something must be a moral monster. That’s radically unfair to these students.” –Wharton Professor, Amy Sepinwall

“Sometimes I think it’s easiest to define business ethics not as what someone ought to do in business, morally speaking, but instead what are some of the typical questions that we should think about related to business and ethics,” notes Sepinwall. “Some of those include: What should the purpose of a corporation be; should it be run just in the interest of shareholders or in the interest of wider society? How should managers treat their workers, from equality in the workplace to the degree of oversight over employees? What is a fair distribution of profits among stakeholders? What are corporations’ obligations to the global poor if they have particular competencies, expertise or even drugs that are too expensive for people in developing countries to afford? How should we understand the market and the limits of the market? Even if people are willing to buy certain things, does that mean they should be bought and sold, like organs or surrogacy?”

Much of Dr. Sepinwall’s recent research focuses on corporate constitutional rights and gender and racial justice, specifically corporations with conscientious commitments that sometimes interfere with people’s equality interests. What gets her students going? Thinking about the rights of business owners relative to the rights of customers.

“A very current issue in the law is around people who work in the wedding industry and don’t want to have to provide their services for same-sex couples,” says Sepinwall, who has closely followed the case of Masterpiece Cakes (Masterpiece Cakeshop) v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. “The piece I’m working on right now is precisely on that issue: To what extent if at all should the government [consent] to the interests of certain business owners not to have to provide their goods and services for same sex couples? Should a baker be able to refuse to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding because he opposes the wedding on religious grounds?”

A Force for Good

While going deep into discussions about these dilemmas, Dr. Sepinwall observes that students are “unavoidably drawn” to wanting to know what the law says about ethically charged issues. They believe that the law will always step in to make sure nothing bad happens. As both a lawyer and a philosopher, she pushes back on that idea. “They think that if something really is immoral, then a law will prohibit it,” says Sepinwall. “In business ethics we have to say no to that. At best, the law is providing a floor, and sometimes the right thing to do is not the thing that you are legally required to do, but it is still the thing you ought to do anyway.”

Thinking analytically is an important skill for contemplating the ethical issues facing business, notes Sepinwall, who adds that the Wharton undergrads taking her classes often welcome the vibrance of business-ethics discussions alongside their finance requirements. She thinks it’s equally important for students to check in with yourself as a way to maintain your integrity. Who are you? What do you care about? Why are you making a particular decision?

From where she stands, the next generation of business leaders, while not always willing to voice moral judgment, is both earnest and ethical. “A lot of people who are not working in business and who didn’t have a business education believe that any 18-year-old who wants to go to business school as opposed to studying film theory or something must be a moral monster,” observes Sepinwall. “That’s radically unfair to these students. I think they see working in business as a way of making the world better. Sometimes that’s for lofty reasons, like providing clean water in developing countries. Maybe they want to make the next iPhone, which is massively important to the world too. They see business as a force for good.”

Dr. Berkey also wants to stress that ethics is not always about acting in accordance with your conscience. Instead, he spends a lot of time asking whether his inclinations are getting things right. “In scholarly business ethics, we take seriously the possibility that we might be wrong, listen to other people and try to be open-minded. The most important thing to consider is whether we ought to change our thinking.”

Conversation Starters

Wharton’s Brian Berkey says, “There’s something quite objectionable about deliberately designing products to get people addicted, even if those products are smartphones or social media platforms.” Do you agree with his perspective that these tech innovations are addictive and ultimately harmful to society? Share your thoughts in the comment section of this article.

Have you wrestled with an ethical issue that required deep thought and consideration about doing the right thing, either in business or otherwise? Share your story in the comment thread of this article.

Dr. Amy Sepinwall believes that younger generations see business as a force for good. Would you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

13 comments on “Business Ethics Requires You to Become a Careful Thinker

  1. I can see where the idea that tech innovation can become addictive and ultimately harmful because, in the past few years, there has been an increase in mental health issues, especially during the COVID period. Another thing that was seen through this period, was the increase in the use of cellphones which can be seen as an addictive habit, which is not good. Furthermore, I recently faced the ethical dilemma of keeping the secret from my roommate that she was going to let go of her job. The reason for not telling her was because it was an internal decision that I was informed of and trusted with. Although I did want to tell her because I would want someone to tell me that I was going to be terminated if they knew, I did end up honoring the confidentially placed in me. Lastly, I agree with Sepinwall’s assessment because we can now see more companies focusing on sustainability and their impact as a company. As part of a younger generation, I can see my generation leading businesses that have a great focus on their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and ethics. We have different prioritizations and will implement a more ethical approach in companies. 

  2. It is concerning when products are designed to be addictive. Such addictive products can affect your mental health and overall well-being. Phones today are essential to everyone’s daily lives. I am at fault for this too because there are times I am constantly on my phone or when I cannot find it, it is like I go into a panic because I feel like I always need my phone. This is not healthy, and I have taken notice of that and tried to restrict my screen time on my phone to help me with this. In today’s world phones are especially addictive, especially with the younger generation. I remember when I was younger, I did not have a phone until I was in high school. Kids now in first grade have the newest iPhone and cannot live without them because they become so addicted to them. For example, I recently went to a family event where I saw my little cousins glued to their phones and were socially awkward. When I was younger all my cousins and I would play board games, play tag, hide, and seek, or do some kind of activity because we loved being outside. This has all changed because kids would rather be on their phones than be active and go outside. Being on your phone at such an early age causes kids to grow up always needing a screen to look at, creates social isolation, and can even impact their ability to focus. Many people depend on their phones for everything, and this can be an extremely challenging thing to break.

    • I think that the phone was just created to connect people faster and then more and more things started coming. The people at the time didn’t know about its drawbacks. They saw problem with communication and they solved it. It was many years later that the drawbacks were known and if at the time they did research about drawbacks of phone when first iPhone was just launched they still wouldn’t be able to find such dangerous drawbacks. It was people who started overusing these things. Today too businesses are started by finding a real-world problem and not to make consumers addicted but although there are some who just might want to these unethical things like making addictive products but you can’t judge everyone based on it. Finally, the phone is just a tool nobody is forcing you to use, use to study or for other things. It is entirely up to you

  3. I once dealt with an ethical issue that left me to think long and hard about doing the right thing. My girlfriend had come to me about an argument she was having with her mom and left her really upset. While listening to the argument I had realized that my girlfriend was wrong in the argument with her mom, but I did not know what to tell her. I did not want her to feel like I was going against her and feel like she was not being heard. I also did not want to lie to her and just agree and go along with what she says when I do not believe that is true. Although doing the right thing is telling her the truth about how she was wrong in the situation I also did not want it to come off like I am not being there for her by disagreeing with her. It left me in a position where I would either make her upset or be dishonest with her. Eventually I did the right thing and was honest with her about what I thought and made it clear to her that I was not taking sides. I also reassured her that I understood where she came from and why she was upset about the argument. Instead of just disagreeing with her and saying she was wrong I simply gave her another perspective on the argument.

  4. I completely agree with the assessment by Dr. Amy Sepinwall. Younger generations are more focused on doing the right thing and helping each other rather than using each other. People are paying more attention to the negative impact businesses can have on society and are using their voices to change this and promote sustainability which will benefit everyone. People are demanding businesses to be more responsible and contribute to helping the environment instead of destroying it. Many people who take notice of businesses who are doing things that are unethical stand up and use their voice to fight against these businesses. Many people have led boycotts or protests to change the ways of business that are unfair and unjust to society. Some people have even taken it upon themselves to create businesses or organizations that their focus is to help those in need or lead environmentally friendly practices to help benefit society and morally do the right thing. Younger generations know the positive impact businesses can have and how much they can truly help with social issues, environmental issues, and economic issues across the world.

  5. It is preoccupating to see how our society is becoming more addicted to new technologies such as social media. Even more, to know that many companies are actively deciding to make their technological products more and more addictive each time. It is terrifying to realize that their goal is literally to keep people staring at the screen as much as possible in an exploitative manner, especially if we can understand how technology such as social media can become addicting. As we are scrolling through social media and watching reels or TikToks about a group of people dancing to a kung fu panda-themed song, our brain and neurotransmitter receptors are flooded with dopamine, which gives us little “highs” of instant satisfaction, that our brain likes, so this makes us continue our mindless scrolling. The problem with this is that as our brain gets used to receiving dopamine during social media use, it stops producing its natural “feel good” neurotransmitters such as endorphins, and begins relying on social media for dopamine production and reception. This is what causes social media and smartphone use to become so addictive. This is something that has happened at least once to all of us who use a smartphone. We watch a funny short video, and we like it, so we keep scrolling, and 10 minutes pass by and we say “5 minutes more won’t harm!” and the next time we check our watch, it has been 30, 40, or even 50 minutes. While superficially it doesn’t seem worrying, the use of social media can become as maladaptive and dysfunctional as any other addictive disorder as it affects our mental health, as well as our normal performance on tasks. I have to agree with Dr. Berkey that these technologies, aside from the problems of privacy and security, are harmful to our society making people addicted to instants of dopamine as any other drug does and causing anxiety and depression, especially in young people, and in some way, I get why Dr. Berkey has a flip phone. But aside from worrying, it is important to recognize that CEOs and entire companies are behind these apps, purposefully making their services and products addictive, reinforcing phone-checking habits, and using emotional triggers with no moral concern.

    However, I have to agree with Dr. Berkey that consumers play a vital role in holding companies accountable for ethical development. We, as consumers, or even shareholders of a company, have the power over the products we are buying and using, and the product ethics and ESG analyses that we are demanding. Government regulation lags far behind when controlling the release of new technologies. The idea of business ethics in technology is still ripe, just as it is in ESG adaptation, but we need to educate ourselves on this topic so that we can understand how to approach our business models more ethically and act more responsibly as consumers or shareholders. With this, I also need to recognize how much I agree with Amy Sepinwall. According to her, when we are talking about business ethics is much less about what we should do, but it is more about asking ourselves, what is the social goal of our companies? How can they practice inclusion of women and other marginalized groups? What is their environmental or social responsibility? If we can base our companies on these questions, we could approach our business models from this perspective more effectively than if it was just a plain and simple list of actions we must follow. It must be found in the hearts of companies and their CEOs through these questions.

    When we are talking about business ethics, according to Sepinwall, is also important to ask, what are the rights of business owners compared to the rights of consumers? As businesses are in some ways morally responsible for environmental and public health issues, they are also responsible for social matters such as discrimination. Are businesses excluding people from their markets because of their sexual orientation, gender, or religious beliefs? While anti-discrimination laws sometimes prevent such scenarios from happening, they are only providing a floor on which businesses can guide themselves, however, some things are not legally required to do, but they are still morally important. To achieve this, we, young leaders, have to find our moral values in ourselves and how can we implement them in our companies to overcome bias in the workplace and markets, as well as stay open-minded and willing to change our ways of thinking for the common good.

    • Hi Isabella,

      I find your debate with your workplace psychologist quite interesting, because I partially agree and disagree with your point of view. I agree with your stance due to the fact that the goal is to accomplish equity among various genders in the workplace, while this does not necessarily mean that there should be an equal percentile split of all genders in a workplace.

      I think the primary reason for my disagreement is due to our different conceptualization in equality. I view equity as providing people with exceptional, outstanding abilities among others the opportunity to work for a certain job, meaning that opportunity is based on meritocracy, whereas your outlook of equity is providing marginalized groups an equal opportunity, because of the fact that they were marginalized and had less opportunities compared to others due to their sexual identity.

      Yes, it is unconscionable that certain companies have an inherent bias that women and members of the LGBTQ+ community is less efficient and even inferior to men in work. This is evidently the company’s fault. However, we should not view equality as having the same number of genders in a workplace, since this is, surprisingly, a discrimination towards men.

      Speaking of numbers, 7.2% of the adult population does not identify themselves as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and among them, women make up a larger proportion than men. This leaves us 92.8% of the adult population not being in part of the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, among the 92.8% of the adults, there are slightly more men and women. Now, in this numerical context, shifting the percentile of workers based on their genders is ridiculous, from a men’s perspective. This is because men must go under more intense competition compared to other genders. From this process, we can imply that men with the same ability as other genders can be disqualified for a job because of the equality system based on gender. Thus, I think the opportunity should be for people with outstanding abilities, while viewing them without any biases on their gender.

      This is my business ethics. In fact, everyone has different business ethics. From this article, Dr. Sepinwall mentioned the rights of business owners and business consumers. However, I believe that the rights of business employees are also significant, because they make the business operate. Without them, the product or the service, in the first place, will not be created. Like you have mentioned in your comment, as businesses are morally responsible for environmental, public health issues, and social matters, I think they are also morally responsible to provide fair opportunities to people with abilities, not based on other external factors.

      Ethics, morals, and law are three different sectors that businesses should consider. However, when considering these sectors, it is important to view all perspectives, not only the marginalized groups, but also the dominating groups, and the implications that all groups will have to undergo because of a company’s actions.

      To achieve this, I agree that we, as a consumer, the upcoming business owners and employees, and of course, the young leaders, have to find our moral values in ourselves and how we can implement them in our companies to overcome bias in the workplace and markets, in conjunction with staying open-minded and willing to change our ways of thinking for the common good.

    • Hello Isabella,

      First and foremost, I wanted to address your input on the conversation of business and ethics, which was clever and very descriptive in describing the addictive nature of social media and modern technology. I completely agree with your stance on the dopamine-driven cycle of addiction, and it’s indeed concerning how companies are deliberately designing their products to exploit these neurological mechanisms. The time distortion effect you mention is something many of us have experienced, and it’s a clear indicator of how these technologies can interfere with our productivity and well-being.

      However, I’d like to extend a new dimension to your view on consumer power and their ability to hold companies accountable. It is true that the people, or the consumers, have the ability to overpower the companies that they feel have done them wrong. However, we also fail to consider that social media platforms have the power to challenge the social identities of individuals. If someone chooses to opt out of social media usage, they may end up losing social connections, and thus fall back into the cycle of social media usage again.

      Your statement about how laws are “only providing a floor on which businesses can guide themselves, however, some things are not legally required to do, but they are still morally important” hit the bull’s eye. I also believe this is something that companies fail to consider when designing products.

      However, we should also think about the corporate resources of these tech giants. The vast resources used to influence public opinion and lobby against regulation can outweigh consumer voices. Therefore, as consumers of these companies, we need to find ways to prevail against this power that they yield to ensure that the morals we discuss are implemented. Furthermore, the very nature of these addictive technologies makes it hard for consumers to rationally evaluate and limit their use. This also contributes to what individuals call “FOMO” or fear of missing out on the usage of these platforms. The psychological explanation behind this is that individuals have a fear of missing out on activities, such as social media, that would contribute to their quality of life. To worsen matters, in many cases, there aren’t viable, less-addictive alternatives that offer similar functionality as these social media platforms. When looking at the situation at large, many factors hinder the full potential of consumers to take command and speak up against the design of intentionally addictive products.

      Thank you, Isabella, for your thoughtful and imaginative comments on this matter. As technology continues to grow into a major part of our society, it is more important than ever to discuss the moral or less moral intentions of the companies that we rely on.

  6. A very little time ago I had a debate with a workplace psychologist on whether inclusion laws in companies were discriminatory or not. Even though the answers seemed pretty clear and easy to conclude, it was amazing how she was able to articulate her answers to state a strong argument for my question. First, we need to understand that even though it might feel discriminatory to “favor” certain marginalized groups in the workplace what we are trying to reach is equality, a world in which no one is given more or fewer opportunities because of their gender, or sexual orientation, we need to realize that we are not in that world yet. Women and other marginalized groups have been discriminated against in the workplace for hundreds of years, and still, some people don’t see women or members of the LGTBIQ+ community capable of doing the same jobs with the same or even more passion and compromise that men do. Many people nowadays, mistake these laws and think that you are going to be favored and given a job at a company just because you are a woman, when in reality there are many other requisites you need to fulfill to be employed, not merely the simple fact of being a woman. Such laws are there because we need to stabilize the balance between the opportunities given to men and women and other groups and try to replenish years of setbacks of equality in the workplace, and laws are crucial for this to happen.

    I agree with Dr. Sepinwall that young social entrepreneurs and leaders nowadays are seeing business as a force of good to address social and environmental issues. Nowadays we have a lot more access to information about the climate crisis and social issues, such education and information about the problems affecting our society nowadays is very important because by informing themselves people can get inspired and encouraged to be part of the change by choosing a specific issue and focusing on that. Through my Wharton research journey on businesses with environmental and social initiatives, I have been able to discover many amazing youth-led startups whose main goal is to create a positive change in our planet. Some of them are Repurpose Global, Rising C-Suites, Paul’s Table, and many other businesses that have decided to contribute to our environment by promoting a circular economy, offering opportunities to high schoolers with novel ideas, and trying to change meat production and the vegetarian food industry.

  7. Yes, he’s right that some things like social media and smartphones can become addictive for people who use them too much, but that’s no reason to stop making, selling, and using them because each product has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s the same with social media. Among the advantages of social media are the ability to stay in touch and communicate with family and friends, access to the latest news, receive education and entertainment, share any information with anyone, and so on. Of course, social media has its drawbacks, such as addiction, but so do other products. A good example would be coffee, as coffee has many benefits, such as increasing energy levels; increasing the chances of a longer life; reducing the likelihood of coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, depression; improvement of sports results, etc. But still, it has its drawbacks, most of which are related to addiction (the same as social media). Therefore, in my opinion, there are many products that can cause addiction, and we should not focus on what is bad about certain products and stop producing, buying and consuming them because of that. We can try to eliminate disadvantages in products such as addiction, and this is the right decision compared to stopping the production and use of a product that has many advantages.

  8. Dr. Brian Berkey’s perspective on business ethics and product addiction grabbed my attention because they were extremely relatable to today’s world. His words “Even though we didn’t see it so clearly at the time, there’s something quite objectionable about deliberately designing products to get people addicted, even if those products are smartphones or social media platforms” resonated with me because I could completely relate and agree with his claim that a majority of consumers are addicted to some form of business, whether it be smartphones or social media platforms. As a high school student in an era dominated by smart technology, I also admit that I am addicted to products offered by the industry such as YouTube or social media platforms, just like Dr. Berkey says.

    His concept that consumers should hold companies accountable also struck me. Before reading about his views on government regulations and how they often failed to enforce business ethics, I had always thought that industries in all fields would be limited by the government. Because of this, I felt comfortable with the idea that consumers such as myself would be protected. However, Dr. Berkey posits that the opposite is true, emphasizing that consumers like myself are responsible and that we have to attempt to fill in the role of protecting ourselves from unethical business practices. This caused me to wonder about the extent of my obliviousness regarding regulations and their effects.

    While I do acknowledge that we, as consumers, must hold companies accountable and make sure business ethics are always in the conversation, doing so is an extremely difficult task. This is partly due to the fact that many consumers, as Dr. Berkey stated, are already addicted. Essentially, this means that not every consumer would be willing to uphold the principles introduced by Dr. Berkey. The idea of consumers not wanting to leave their positions of comfort reminded me of Plato’s allegory of the cave. Sometimes, people do not want to leave where they feel safe and comfortable, and in this case, that would be comfort in addiction and not having to worry about business ethics. While it is plausible that consumers should keep industries in check, it would be difficult to convince them to do so because the majority are already comfortable with whatever an industry decides to do.

    After reading about Dr. Berkey’s perspective on business ethics and addiction, I couldn’t help but think of the ways his ideas about the ethical role of the consumer connect to several current issues being faced today such as the dominance of artificial intelligence and smart technology industries. I strongly believe that it is imperative for young consumers like myself and producers in today’s world to consider business ethics with every action, whether it be on a large scale or something as small as scrolling to the next video on your phone.

  9. I recently read a news article about Meta, and how its increasingly popular platforms Instagram and Facebook have allegedly been brainwashing children with its addictive algorithms. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to court to address these claims, he apologized to the hundreds of angry parents that showed up, saying that he is “Sorry for everything they have gone through.” Furthermore, Insiders claim that social media companies deliberately manipulate their algorithms to make sure that they are extremely addictive. The more time that people spend on their phones, the better and more profitable it is for social media companies. This sort of unethical profiting must be regulated by the government. Alcohol has certain age restrictions to prevent excessive addiction, and I believe that something similar must be implemented to social media as well. The UK recently introduced a law that bans children under the age of sixteen the usage of social networking services. While I do think that this is quite extreme, and that certain tweaks should be made to it, I think that they are going on the right track. Social media was invented in the first place to connect people together, but companies like Meta have lost their intentions. Meta has become a company that only strives for profit, not caring whether their users become addicted or not.

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