Business Ethics #3- How Do You Play Fair and Play to Win?

Greetings heroes!

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.

You can't be both an ok Deadpool and a terrible Green Lantern

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.

Option 4: be a Jimmy Stewart Ninja

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?

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  • Tom Simcoe  On February 13, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I don’t know if this counts, but how about Huck Finn helping Jim escape slavery? He thought that what he was doing was bad because it was against the law. Oscar Schindler broke the law, but he knew the law was immoral.

    • superherosguide  On February 13, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      Hi Tom,
      Good suggestions, the Huck Finn one works quite well because Twain had Huck struggle with the “rules vs. ethics vs. rules=ethics” quandary. It is familiar to us, so we dismiss it, but at the time it was a real struggle. Schindler is also an interesting case, more so because he failed so completely at business. But I guess what I’m looking for are cases where someone did an “on the margin thing” in order to perform an ultimate good, like a business man who lies in order to save his business, and it is portrayed as heroic as opposed to cowardly. And I know, that’s a tricky idea….

      • Tom Simcoe  On February 13, 2012 at 11:54 pm

        That is tricky. How about Vick Mackey from The Shield? Jack Bauer from 24? In both cases, the heroes’ questionable deeds in pursuit of good things are made heroic by the exaggerated comparative badness of the bad guys, who do worse things in pursuit of bad things.

  • Mili  On February 14, 2012 at 5:58 am

    How about Severus Snape from Harry Potter, who played spy for Voldemort right till the end without anyone (least of all Harry) suspecting he could be up to any good?
    And how about V, from V for Vendetta, who was essentially a vigilante and blew up things as part of his protest against the terrible government?

  • superherosguide  On February 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Those last four are really good, and I’ll try to use them. Thanks!

    I don’t know if this is a little old school, but I came up with the samurai from Yojimbo, who played two gangs off of each other by hiring himself out to both and becoming each ones’ greatest problem in order to free a village.

  • Ian Hart  On April 29, 2012 at 2:31 am

    Strategically oriented heroes tend to disobey rules, and even violate ethics for the greater good.If some of these cases are heroes can be argued, but they stand for a greater cause, and unless the work is extremely idealistic, there usually isn’t a better option.
    Cases from comics would be characters like V and Batman. Groups like the Secret Six and the Suicide Squad might be borderline cases. They do ‘heroic’ things like defeating super-villains, but by using super-villains, and unethical strategies themselves.
    Cases from manga/anime would be Lelouch (Code Geass), Akiyama (Liar Game)
    Cases from books that jump to mind would be Ender (Ender’s Game) and some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

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