The previous two posts have dealt with the problem of conflicts of interest, which is a somewhat easy topic to discuss because there is a direct right and wrong: it is wrong to perform certain tasks if you have a strong competing interest which prevents you from fulfilling that task.
But let’s say you get pas the conflict of interest and go to work in the business world. You go to work every day, and you do your best to make money without breaking any laws or causing any harm. Sounds simple, right?
Well, no, that’s not all. Let’s pretend I was talking about sports instead of business. If you were playing hockey, you would never play with the goal of just not breaking the rules. In order to be a good game of hockey, you also have to try to win. And that means playing to win without breaking the rules. And these two goals are often at odds with one another. If you don’t do everything you possibly can to win, its not a good game. And if you don’t follow the rules, its also not a good game. If you are on a team of superior players, this is not an ethical challenge: you simply play your best and you’ll win. But what if you’re the underdog?
But here’s the other thing about sports: if you cheat at everything, you lose everything, too. Because if the game becomes no fun to play, no one will want to play it. And then there will be no game at which to excel.
But sports is only so strong an example because, even if you lose, at the end of the day you’ve only lost a game. But what if the stakes are much, much higher?
For example, what about war?
In fighting a war, losing can mean enslavement, disaster, and death. And if you’re in a war in the first place, you are probably fighting over something really important in accordance with Just War theory. But if losing means, say, the extinction of your entire species, it means that you may be tempted to flaunt the “rules” of war (as far as they exist) to gain an advantage. Because if you don’t, you may lose everything. That doesn’t mean its pretty.
And you know that as a superhero, you’re usually on the weaker side. So, no, its not an easy choice. But at the same time, you can’t break all the rules, because once you show yourself to be a great danger, you may inadvertently drive support towards you opponent.
But back to business. Business is not 100% like war or like sports. Unlike war, the ideal outcome is beneficial to society as a whole in that the winner will supply a better, cheaper, or different product or service that is superior to the competitors. So while the outcome can be a loss for one side, society wins. Likewise, it is unlike sports because not only a game but real livelihood in on the line. If you loose in business, you could end up loosing your home, your security, and your means to make a living. And if you are in a company, it may mean the loss of many peoples’ livelihoods, not just your own. In short, there is real reason to cheat, lie, and steal for the sake of your business. You have a moral obligation to act ethically, but also a moral obligation to make money. So in a way, business is between war and sports in terms of what’s at stake, but shares its characteristics: you have a moral obligation to win for yourself, but also a moral obligation to obey enough of the courtesies and rules to keep the game going.
Oh, and here’s the problem, there probably isn’t a way to eliminate unethical behavior AND create an ideally productive business or sports environment. At this post on the site Ethics for Adversaries (and yes, that site’s subtitle inspired this post’s title), Wayne Norman notes
Every writer I’ve ever read on ethics in adversarial settings takes explicit note of the obvious: that is it neither possible, nor desirable, in a deliberately adversarial institution to regulate away all unethical behavior.
As Arthur Applbaum puts it in the book that shares the name of this blog, if “the best of regulatory worlds is understood as a set of rules and levels of detection and enforcement that best balances the gains of eliminating the costs and harms and liberty restrictions of the regulations themselves, then the best set of regulations will legally permit a great deal of adversary action that is economically inefficient, harmful, and liberty-restricting.” (p. 196)
Fair enough, but businesses follow the rules, for the most part, because if they don’t they generally don’t succeed. Enron failed, as did Bear Sterns. But they also don’t behave like Jimmy Stewart’s character Its a Wonderful Life.
So I see 3 possible options for superheroes in business:
1. Obey the rules and conventions of business as best as possible.
2. Play as hard as the rules and conventions will allow and out muscle your opponent
3. Play by the rules, but throw the conventions out the window. In other words-go insurgent.
I’ll address each one in turn in future posts.
But before I go, I need your help. If you’re reading, I could use some ideas of heroes who didn’t play by the rules but still did the heroic thing. Any ideas?