Heroic Careers-Business Ethics: the Conflict of Interest

Greetings superheroes.

So we’ve established that you shouldn’t be supervillains.  Now that we’ve done that, a problem presents itself: how exactly do you make a living without being evil?  After all, since you have to eat somehow, and you can’t be evil, well, how do you do both?

Recalling that ethics addresses right and wrong, good and evil, it makes sense that these rules would extend to business as well.  After all, we all know that there are plenty of ways to do evil business, and the last few years have shown that evil business practices affect everyone, even those only tangentially related to the marketplace.  Evil should have no place in business.

And yet....

Business ethics covers a broad range of situations and topics, but many components of business ethics relate back to one simple concept: the conflict of interest.  The conflict of interest occurs when a person or organization holds conflicting interests with may influence their motivation.  For example, if a superhero fights the head of an evil corporation, there is no conflict.  However, if that hero holds stock in a rival corporation, there’s a problem.  Are we sure the hero is fighting the corporation simply because it is evil?  Or is it possible the hero is fighting to make money?  Note that this simple ambiguity is enough to cast doubt on the hero’s actions.  The presence of a conflict of interest does not necessarily indicate corruption, but it is enough to cast doubt on an otherwise blameless hero.

Now, we’re not saying you shouldn’t have a life outside of being a hero…

We’re just saying that there are heroes out there who don’t do the best job of avoiding these conflicts.  For example, take the Flash:

The Flash started out as Barry Allen, a chemist who works in a crime lab.  One day, while standing too close to a shelf of chemicals during a lightning storm.  Those chemicals somehow gave him super speed and netted him a neat second job with the Justice League of America.

Now, no problem there, right?  Well, unless that crime lab starts investigating the Flash….

Crap

See, poor Barry is in a conflict of interest no matter what he does.  If he refuses to work on the case, he is refusing to do his job.  If he does work on figuring out the Flash’s identity, what’s to say he won’t tamper with the evidence?  In either case, Barry should probably call in sick or find a new career for a while until the heat blows over.

And of course, let’s not leave Spiderman out of this.

When Peter Parker was first bitten by a radioactive spider and gained superpowers, his original plan wasn’t to become a superhero, but instead to enter the ever expanding, exciting business of being a circus freak.

However, after his Uncle Ben was killed during one of Spiderman’s performances, he needed to find a way to help support his aunt as well as fund his way through college.  So, he picked a new career, one with all the respectability of being a carny but without the benefit of bars to prevent onlookers from hurling fruit at him.

He became a photojournalist.

At first, he figured he could use his powers to get close to the action and take pictures of hard-to-find supervillains.

However, anyone familiar with the Marvel Universe knows that Parker’s employer doesn’t distinguish between Spiderman and costumed bad guys.  In fact, he lumps them together.


Now, there’s nothing wrong with making money as a photojournalist…

but there is a slight problem with making money as a photojournalist by taking pictures of events you directly influence.

Here’s the difficulty: what if Spidey was running a little short of cash that month and needed a few extra pictures to pay the bills?  What would stop him from photographing himself doing a few aerial acrobatics and selling those shots?

Worse, once someone discovers that the photographer and the subject are the same, what prevents accusations of fraud from coming down on the newspaper Spiderman works for?  After all, they were the only one with those pictures and they just managed to keep getting them.  Who’s to say they weren’t making the whole thing up?

This is why the National Press Photographer Association lists in their code of ethics “Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.” (http://www.nppa.org/professional_development/business_practices/ethics.html)  This is also why when Spiderman recently revealed his identity

His newspaper took the opportunity to sue the everliving daylights out of him.

He should have kept working as a carny.

Now, around this time, you may be thinking to yourself, aren’t you making a little too big a deal out of this?  Well, here are two real life examples of people taking this VERY seriously.
First, in a recent case in Bakersfield, California, persecution in a drug case was held up because the defense attorney pointed out the crime lab and the District attorney’s office were too close.  One lab analyst’s credibility was questioned because he was a “close friend” of a crime victim.  If being a close friend is enough to have evidence discredited, imagine the Flash’s problem.
As for Spiderman, people take fake photographs very seriously.  Remember the scandal over a photograph back in May when Osama bin Laden was killed?  No, not that they wouldn’t release a photo of a dead bin Laden, but this photo:

What’s the big deal you ask?  Well, after Obama stopped talking for real, a few photographers stayed behind to take a picture of Obama fake talking.  This is like your dad taking a picture of you pretending to make that little league catch or pretending to kick a soccer ball so you’d have something to put in the Christmas card to Grandma.  Except instead of faking a childhood game for a holiday card, in this case it was the president faking something he did 5 minutes before so that the photographers would have something to put in their magazine.

This set off such a scandal that the White House was forced to issue a statement saying they would never do that again.  And all for a picture of something the president does almost every other week.

More on business ethics to come!
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  • By Link Ethically | Think Ethically on February 10, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    […] Business ethics for superheros.  At the “Superheros Guide to Heroism!,” which I have so far found to be quite a […]

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