Business Ethics

Trust and Institutions

Last week I attended part of a fascinating conference on Trust, organized by the Blavatnik School of Government in Oxford. In her opening paper, Katherine Hawley raised many interesting questions, including those of whether trustworthiness is a virtue and whether it can be a virtue of institutions. Continue reading

What kind of internet ought we to have?

Happy internet slowdown day! Here are some apropos practical ethics questions for all to discuss as we sit patiently, waiting for the internet to load. What kind of internet ought we to have? Should sovereign nations decide for themselves what kind of internet they will have, or is this an international issue, requiring cooperation between nations? What do particular internet companies owe their competitors, and more vaguely, the internet? What right does an individual or social entity have to know about or to police the storage and usage of data about that individual or social entity? What right does an individual or corporation have to access data or restrict access to data at certain speeds?

These kinds of questions are of massive practical importance to big internet companies like Google, who finds itself embroiled in an ongoing antitrust dispute with various entities in Europe, and like American cable company Comcast, who might stand to profit from a change in current net neutrality regulations.

And yet interestingly – and unsurprisingly, I suppose, given the power of moral language – much of the debate surrounding this issue is cast in moral, rather than practical, terms. Continue reading

The Right to Forget the Stock Market’s blemished Past

One of the great pleasures of studying human behaviour is to see that what we find in our experiments, what we theorize in our papers and textbooks – as unlikely and counterintuitive it appears to be – actually predicts what happens in so-called real life. Take, for instance, the current build-up of a stock-market bubble in the UK, happening even more dramatically in the US. In the UK, the FTSE 100 is on its way to surpass the record set during the high times of the dotcom bubble and already surpassed the levels reached during the 2008 financial bubble; in the US the Dow Jones has already reached new record highs. Despite having recently experienced the devastating consequences of a stock market bubble bursting, banks and investors return a few years later to the same hyperbolic forecasts and predictions, and start to build up another bubble. It is as if the past did not exist. Compare this behaviour with the following anecdote, which most business school students probably know.

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On the Ethics of Tipping

At lunch-time, I will often venture out of the office for lunch to a sandwich shop with a friend. In my sandwich shop of choice, the staff have placed a small jar labelled ‘tips’ on the counter.  Now, in the UK at least, sandwich shop staff seem to fall into something of a ‘grey area’ with regards to tipping convention. Whilst we normally tip waiters and waitresses in restaurants, and bartenders (amongst others), we don’t tend to tip people who serve us in other ways. For example, I don’t feel it incumbent upon me to tip my butcher, who arguably does a lot more work in an individual transaction than someone serving me a sandwich. However, this discrepancy is perhaps not surprising; a great deal of research suggests that tipping decisions are influenced by various social norms;[1] tipping waiters and waitresses is simply ‘the done thing’, whilst tipping butchers is not. Perhaps we just lack a clear social norm in the case of sandwich shops. Continue reading

Notes from a philosophical Starbucks

Modern High Streets in the western world are dreary, wretched places. They’re all the same as each other – brash, jostling queues of the ubiquitous supranationals that are our real governors.

They’ve shut down the shops owned by real people. Each offers a ‘retail experience’ which is identical wherever in the world the shop is. That’s what we want, they tell us confidently. Customers, they say, are nervous, conservative creatures, who need to know that they’ll have the same taste in Des Moines as in Oxford. Eventually, and tragically, they’ll be right.

This hasn’t just happened, of course. It’s the result of a determined and aggressive policy. Real, unbranded people stand no chance before the corporate blitzkrieg.

But at least some people realize that there’s a war on. Here’s Paul Kingsnorth on the Reverend Billy, the founder and leader of the ‘Church of Stop Shopping’: ‘In his stentorian wail…..he will treat the assembled [Starbucks] customers to a sermon on the evils of ‘Frankenbucks’….He will tell them about the battles the company has engaged in to prevent its workers joining trades unions. He will tell them about Starbucks’ corporate policy of ‘clustering’ many outlets at once in parts of town where there are local cafes, and expanding the clusters until only Starbucks is left…’1

 Stirring stuff. But something very similar is happening in the philosophical High Street, without much or any opposition. Continue reading

Podcast: Is Networking Immoral?

Guest Post: Ned Dobos, University of New South Wales

This post is a summary of a talk presented by Dr. Dobos at the University of Oxford. Listen to the Podcast

Despite being ubiquitous in both the public and private sectors, “networking” has largely escaped ethical scrutiny. But is it the perfectly innocuous business and career-advancement strategy it is presumed to be? Let us concentrate on a specific kind of career networking: networking aimed at increasing one’s prospects of prevailing in a formal competitive selection process for a job or university placement. That is the end, so what is the means? How exactly is networking supposed to deliver this advantage? Experts tend to answer with at least one of the following responses: 1) networking is about building relationships with people that are (or might be) in a position to benefit your career; 2) networking is about demonstrating your worth to these people.

On either account, networking arguably involves seeking unfair advantage.

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Google and the G20

The furore over Syria at the G20 meeting has distracted attention from the potentially highly significant agreement by the leaders of the world’s largest economies to support an ‘ambitious and comprehensive’ plan to address the massive global problem of multinational corporations’ failure to pay tax where they earn it, using transfer pricing and other methods to pay lower tax elsewhere or none at all. Continue reading

Jane Austen’s Ring: Should We Care?

Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, recently put an export ban on a ring once owned by Jane Austen, bought legitimately by the US singer Kelly Clarkson at auction last year.

Why? Because, apparently, the ring is too important a part of our literary history to go abroad. Continue reading

A World without Advertising?

Recently , UNICEF launched their Children’s Rights and Business Principles, the sixth of which says that businesses should ‘use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights’. This is hard to deny, as is the claim that many companies are seeking unjustifiably to manipulate children and their parents for profit. Indeed there seems little reason to restrict only advertising inflicted on children. All of us are subject daily to ever more invasive and insidious targeted advertising, much of it online.

 Some advertising – such as that outside my village for a Cub Scout jumble sale at the weekend – is not only harmless, but useful. It informs us of things we didn’t know and which we often find it helpful to know. But most advertising is not like this. It is what is often called ‘persuasive’ rather than informative, aiming at directing our choices in ways of which we’re often quite unaware. This is clearly true of ‘subliminal’ advertising, where the image in question is not registered by consciousness at all. But it is true also of a vast amount of persuasive advertising. We may be consiously aware of it, but it leads us without our realizing it to make purchasing decisions on the basis of considerations which we could not accept as relevant were they made transparent to us. There are various reasons for favouring one after-shave over another: aroma, price, healing properties. The fact that a link between the after-shave and excitement has been established in my mind through exposure to ads showing, alongside images of the product, someone surfing is not one of them.

Persuasive advertising, then, undermines our capacity for autonomy or rational self-government. It might seem remarkable that citizens of modern democratic societies allow businesses to do this to them. But it is not, since the very success of the practice depends on people’s not being fully aware of what is going on.

 There are various possible defences of persuasive advertising. One is hedonistic. If I enjoy using the advertised after-shave more, because of the frisson I get when I splash it on, why does it matter what the source of my pleasure is? This response is likely not to persuade those who attach independent value to autonomy. But even hedonists might claim to take pleasure in the knowledge that they are able to make their own decisions rationally, knowledge which of course none of us can now have.

Another defence is economic. Advertising encourages consumption, and increased consumption is necessary for growth. This is a poor argument. Growth itself is undesirable, once an economy has reached a certain level (as all economies in the developed world have), since (see books such as Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science and Wilkinson & Pickett’s The Spirit Level) wealth above a certain threshold does not greatly benefit its possessors, and also causes harmful inequality. The argument is especially implausible in the context of global warming.

 Advertising also supports many worthwhile ventures, such as newspapers or art exhibitions. And doubtless there are other things that can be said in favour of it (it can be amusing, or aesthetically valuable in itself, for example). But its subversion of our autonomy is so great that any goods it produces are insignificant in comparison, and there are of course other ways to learn about the world, be amused, or encounter aesthetic value. Fortunately, philosophical suggestions don’t have to be feasible. So I recommend a world-wide ban on persuasive advertising from now, for one year. Then we could see how much we missed it.

Just give me the Humbug

We’ve all had fun hating Goldman Sachs again after one of their own sold them out . Mr Smith says that ‘culture was the secret sauce that made [Goldman] great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years’ whereas now Goldman pursues its own interest rather than its clients’ due to a ‘decline in the firm’s moral fibre’…. Hold on. Yes, I know its hard not to burst out laughing.

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