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?

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