Business Ethics Roundup Sept. 13th – 19th

This week in Business Ethics is marred by the death by ovarian cancer of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She died during the week of Rosh Hashanah which in Jewish lore means she is particularly blessed. Here is a guide for my readers unfamiliar with the surrounding concepts.

Rosh Hashanah 2020 — A Guide for the Perplexed

Currently that American Institution, the Post Office, is under attack. Don’t believe me? A federal judge called the changes: “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” It is very poor business ethics indeed to sabotage a public agency, a public good for all Americans, for private gain. I found a good article on the importance of the sorting machines which I include here as well as the article I got the federal judge quote from.

Tragically there appears to be increasing violence surrounding requests that people wear masks and practice social distancing. In a particularly callous attack, a 67 year old gas station worker suffered a fractured skull after being assaulted with a pipe. It is a particularly bitter reality that during a worldwide pandemic, many Americans are unwilling to pull together in the wake of the viral threat to protect each other from infection. This generation of Americans is half helpless to act on behalf of the common good. Many believe in the crass nonsense of libertarianism and similar beliefs that the only interest is self interest. The generations of Americans that sacrificed in the face of war and epidemic must be astonished at this willingness to sacrifice our fellow Americans out of simple pig headedness.

Are we entering the Pyrocene, the age of fire? Stephen Pyne suggests in the High Country News that is indeed the case. He says that in previous ages we had ice ages and this current situation is the other side of the coin, that is, ages of fire. It’s a good read and a fairly brief one. It is attached below.

Over the last twenty years, financial institutions including the often mentioned five, HSBC, JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank, Standard Chartered and Bank of New York Mellon (BNY Mellon), conducted about 2 trillion dollars in suspicious activity. Rest assured this is a developing story and we are going to hear more as the particulars work their way to the surface.

Federal charges of among other charges, commercial bribery, were filed against six individuals who are charged with bribing Amazon employees to gain an unfair advantage. The bribes totaled about $100,000. Temporary suspensions of competitor accounts was one of the means used to gain advantage.

This kind of crime causes people to buy inferior or even dangerous goods. Let’s hope Amazon acts to clean up its staff.

New York filed a 2 billion dollar lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson for its role in the opoid crisis, that is, encouraging opoid use and downplaying the risks of addiction. Since Oklahoma has already won a case and 500 million dollars from the company, one has to wonder why the state has waited this long and is that the correct amount?
In positive business ethics, a firm from the UK is making protective masks out of peas which is very environmentally sound.
How is it that a video in which a man committed suicide live on Facebook does not violate their standards and is still up? Facebook says it has a policy against suicide and videos showing self harm but isn’t enforcing it.
Very poor business ethics indeed.
Movie Theatres have been open for about a month but the economic returns have been disappointing. Mulan’s crash at the box office could not have helped matters.

Business Ethics Roundup: Sept. 6th – 12th

We begin with the wave of fires creating waves of destruction in the American West. Governor Gavin Newsom says the debate over climate change is finished. He says in these California fires you can see the results of climate change with your own eyes. I strongly agree but I felt that the fires in Australia last year should have ended the debate. This is further evidence.

Climate change is going to be a continuing issue in business ethics. How are businesses, particularly, the international corporations, going to act on this issue? Their responses will be as important as that of many medium size nations.

Sir David Attenborough tells us in his latest documentary that 60% of the vertebrate animals have disappeared since 1970 and the rate of natural extinction has been accelerated 100 times.

Many businesses impact species extinction. The international trade in animals and animal parts is savagely destructive of the earth’s species. And we have only a limited time to act.

Let’s segue to a somewhat nostalgic and yet current note, that is, vinyl records have outsold CD’s for the first time since the 1980’s. That may be just a chimera though since streaming services are seizing the lion’s share of the market.

There is a famous insurance fraud case making the rounds on social media. A woman in Slovenia cut off her hand with a band saw claiming it was an accident that happened while cutting branches. Unfortunately for her claim, she had just taken out five insurance polices which would have resulted in an award of more the equivalent of more than a million US dollars. This was certainly suspicious but her boyfriend’s internet searches on artificial hands done before the loss clinched the case for fraud.

Apparently another case of stupid criminals but a very sad one (although the hand was reattached).

California’s legislature faced with a shortage of firefighters and inmates showing bravery and tenacity fighting the wave of fires has passed a law making it easier for them to expunge their records and become firefighters.

As a form of positive business ethics, I am impressed by the act. It seems to me simple justice that those on the frontline of fighting these terrible and now increasingly regular fires should be rewarded.

Rio Tinto’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, is going to resign following the destruction of sacred aboriginal sites. The company attempted to deal with the crisis by canceling bonuses but considering the harm done this was a non-starter.

This was an appalling crime and there is no real penalty. Under the law, they could destroy at will any cultural artifact on the land they controlled. The Juukan Gorge rock shelters had shown evidence of continuous human habitation for 46,000 years. They were an irreplaceable evidence of human history completely unique.

What kind of people are these to disintegrate and destroy cultural artifacts at will? And what kind of nation allows its cultural treasures to be annihilated without a hint of caution or penalty?

And finally, I would like to add my voice to Emily Stewart‘s writing in Vox. She is calling for providing all citizens of the United States with Internet. I strongly agree. If we are going to advance as a nation, that is a minimal requirement. Further, in a crisis like the current pandemic we have already seen the importance of being connected.

But please read the article, the author is detailed and impressive.

James Pilant



A Bright Orange Crayola

A Bright Orange Crayola

I’ve always thought children were wonderfully intelligent but what I like most about them is their honesty, that they are genuine. They haven’t learned the dangers of showing your real feelings or real thoughts.

And they’re bright. Children are learning at incredible rate. Did you know that that by the time a baby is five months old, it has learned to match the facial expressions of an adult? By the time a child is five, its ability to understand facial expressions is almost as good as an adult. And they are clever. How clever?

Let me tell you a story.

On the wall of my office is a picture from a coloring book marked with a bright orange crayon.

There was a five year old and I gave her a piece of candy, something to color and some Crayolas to color with. I expected her to be gone for a while but she came back very quickly and asked for more candy. I from the very heights of adult wisdom told her she could have one as soon as she finished coloring her picture. She said, “That’ll take forever!” and left apparently depressed. She then returned very quickly with the entire picture colored with broad strokes from the aforementioned orange Crayola. She wasn’t very much in the lines but she did color the whole picture.

She out foxed me. I told her to color the picture. I didn’t specify how or in what manner or even that she should use more than one color. She had held to the strict terms of the agreement and defeated my intent that she spend at least ten minutes coloring. It was a triumph of lawyerly reasoning and I the actual lawyer was on the short end of the stick being out reasoned and out thought by a little girl.

Of course, the stakes were very small. I keep a good amount of candy in my office. Being a diabetic I can’t eat it myself so it all goes to the occasional visiting child and sometimes a co-worker comes by and gets one. Since I can no longer eat candy, I buy the expensive dark chocolate and caramels and live vicariously through other people’s happiness while eating them.

But even thought the stakes were small, a loss is a loss, and being clobbered in a David vs. Goliath style struggle is pretty unsettling when you play the Goliath role. Nevertheless, I admire her for it. She was clever and knew how to think and that’s at five years of age.

Of course, the sporadic visits of children to the office are not my only experience with the learning power or reasoning of the very young.

I have one son who is now twenty-four. When he was just a small boy, instead of telling him no all the time, we made a deal. If he could give me a good reason to have something. I’d buy it for him. At first he was clumsy and made poor arguments but very rapidly began to develop real negotiating skill. And I kept the bargain. If he argued well, he got toys, and as time went by, the toys became video games and then movies and books. A few years ago, I watched him negotiate with his buddies while playing a D&D style game. It was like watching a shark in a pool full of minnows.

With children, it’s important to listen to them and cultivate their abilities. I know it is hard. They often repeat arguments, have outlandish ideas and no experience. But if you stay with it, pay attention and talk to them like adults, it pays off.


Why We Should Publicly Mourn Our Dead

Why We Should Publicly Mourn Our Dead

“Commonwealth” is an old English word, charming in its implications. It is the idea that we have a political organization based on developing and preserving our common goods.

As of this day, 190,000 Americans are dead as a result of the COVID19 infection. The international pandemic has hit us hard.

One of the functions of a moral commonwealth is to deal with this kind of society wide pain. Historically massive death tolls are not unusual. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are reliable producers of death and disorder.

Truly a wall of death is marching across this country. We often remark on the raw numbers and remark on the death of a significant casualty from time to time but the real toll, the absence and sorrow over these lost lives seldom appears in the public discourse.

Public mourning is one of the duties of the President. It is a vital part of unifying the nation in the face of external and internal threats. For instance, a National Day of Mourning was declared for the death of former President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Yet, no such day has been declared for the many victims of the virus.

I believe that one of the basic elements of business ethics is pursuit of the common good. Another is solidarity in the form of citizenship. Businesses should be regular and committed participants in pursuit of the public good.

This also applies to politics. Celebrating and remembering the lives of the fallen is an act of unification, a public ritual that defines us once again as members of a greater whole, The United States of America.

Would so many deny the reality of the COVID 19 outbreak if we had mourned our dead publicly? Would people refuse to wear masks in the mass numbers we have now if all over this nation there had been public ceremonies honoring the dead?

I don’t think so.

The failure to mourn has been a national catastrophe and has directly contributed to the division and pain in this country.

When our leadership changes, there will be an opportunity to once again celebrate the lives and contribution of the fallen. We should not miss that chance.

James Alan Pilant



Business Ethics Roundup Aug. 30th – Sept. 5th

This week had some interesting aspects. After a deluge of foreign seeds began arriving in the United States, Amazon was caught without an appropriate policy. Well, now they have one. You can’t send seeds by Amazon. Looks like they went for simplicity in their policy making.

John Oliver’s feud with Danbury, Connecticut is reaching a crescendo. Will the city rename its sewage treatment plant in his honor? Will the feud come to a peaceful outcome? Stay tuned.

The Atlantic story about our president’s general contempt for veterans has made major waves in the political world. However, the editor of the magazine says there is more to come! More dramatic news than this is hard to imagine but nothing about our current political climate can be described as normal. Next week should be interesting.

An alligator skin handbag worth roughly $26,000 was destroyed in Australian customs for lacking a permit. This calls attention to the crime of animal parts being marketed to our jaded upper class. The struggle against this kind of nonsense is critical to preserving endangered species.

To close on a somber note. deaths in the United States due to our pandemic may reach 400,000 by the end of the year.


Self Improvement and Cults

Self-Improvement and Cults

Americans appear to be obsessed with self-improvement. They want to be smarter, better looking and more confident. And to satisfy this need, there are books, films, courses, and the occasional cult.

The Nxivm cult used its clients’ needs for self-improvement, in particular the quest to find meaning in their lives, against them.

Sometimes I walk through the self-help sections of bookstores and marvel at the offerings. The books say you can be better at any worthwhile goal, often immediately. I am a Black Belt and it takes years (in my case – seven) to learn martial arts. This has given me a healthy skepticism about claims of speedy success. There is no golden road to improving yourself.

For instance, weight training. I learned a lot about lifting weights when I was using it to supplement my body development. Many of the books promise powerful benefits in six weeks of training and they are very often illustrated with before and after pictures. In actual fact, it takes about six months to get visual results with weightlifting and only with a strong routine. There are good internet articles on how the before and after pictures can be manipulated.

So, I have a healthy skepticism about claims of speedy improvement, etc.

But Nxivm got around the skepticism. Your first intro was someone of the first rank in society, often an heiress or a leader in a field. (The same method of recommendation is often used in Ponzi schemes.) And as you progress in the training you meet more and more opinion leaders and everything is designed to appear professional and well organized. The elements that in America are the epitome of our ruling class were used to sell what eventually turned out to be a tawdry sex cult where women were systematically degraded and manipulated in the name of liberation.

I would love to name a simple cure for cult recruiting, but there is none. We are taught or more correctly sold on the idea that self-improvement can be made easy and that it is purchasable. The fact is that we develop meaning in our lives by focused thinking, by experience and by our actions. Each of us can generate self-worth in multiple ways.

I know — I know. Relying on our own efforts seems like such a slender reed when confronted with our often-overwhelming reality of pandemic, bizarre politics and global disasters. But that is where the struggle for meaning takes place. You can quit, embrace a cult, settle for a religion, do just whatever your group does, conform, …

But the battle for who we are is always going to be internal, intensely personal, and dependent on our own struggles.

James Alan Pilant

The First Principle

The First Principle of Business Ethics?

Should the inherent value of human life be the first principle of Business Ethics? I believe so and what is more, I believe we should teach it that way. And we should start teaching it now.

Surely, there is enough intellectual thrust in the idea of human life as a value that we can teach it to our students. Not teaching it is wrong. It is a base concept in our ideas of civilization. The depth of the idea in every major religion provides further evidence that it is something of a universal concept. But there is much philosophical support for it as well.

We do no honor to the separation of church and state by claiming neutrality in regard to the importance of human life.

It needs to be in every book of business ethics enshrined as a basic concept.

Current events demonstrate the need for a greater focus on morality and ethics in training our youth.

There are more than 140,000 dead and millions infected in this nation as of today. We may have according to one estimate by the CDC, 300,000 dead by the end of the year.

We have not properly mourned these people. And for many of our leadership and political class they might be road kill in terms of significance. Not only have we failed to celebrate their lives, many believe that the disease is a hoax and there fore their deaths are some kind of “fake news.”

What kind of society have we become where humans are discarded with little thought and an obvious contempt for their lives? When did we arrive at the point where the basic fact of 140,000 dead have so little effect on policy? How did we get to a place where significant portions of the population have become deniers of reality and followers of bizarre conspiracy theories such as Qanon.

If we were to be engaged with some foreign threat akin to the Second World War, are there enough of us willing to act in concert as fellow Americans to put up a fight? You find that an exaggeration? How many Americans are refusing the simple precaution of wearing a mask to protect themselves and others?

How does our society view people now? Basically they are seen by our ruling class as consumers and workers, and if you pare that down, money.

I don’t believe that healthy cultures, healthy nations, consider people only in terms of how much money value they produce and how much burden they are when they are old.  

Healthy cultures value human life, pursue the common good, regulate the excesses of capitalism and have a sense of solidarity, what we used to be brotherhood.

We can bring business ethics teaching more in line with that of a healthy society. Getting the basic concepts of morality and ethics out in the business community would be very helpful in building a better society.

James Pilant

Our Guiding Light

A few days ago, the White House press secretary said that Science shouldn’t stand in the way of re-opening schools. You get the impression that “science” is wrong to figure in our decision making. I disagree.

Rationalism is the idea that we should make decisions based on facts and using reason to get the best possible results from those facts. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, a crisis whose like we haven’t seen in the last hundred years.

We have a choice here. We can go with patent medicine cures, internet conspiracy theories and the wishful thinking of politicians whose devotion to economic continuity continues to amaze. Or we could look at the facts of the situation, that is, the science of pandemics and what experience we have of them.

We live in a conflicted society. While there are many who believe in facts and science, there are millions of Americans who long for authoritarian direction. They believe that optimism and hope placed in a strong man ruler can overcome the complexities of our age. Some hope in divine guidance from a current politician who they believe resembles a flawed “David” or a useful “Cyrus.”

However, for the moment although we may have to work to keep it, we live in a flawed democracy and the very idea of a government for and by the people is from the age of Enlightenment. An age in which the uses of reason and logic were exalted.

Just now, we are confronted with the decision whether or not to open our schools. There is great variation in how the virus is spreading geographically and how many resources can be employed in one school or another.

I realize that for some office holders in this nation, a full reopening of the schools would be advantageous. I don’t care.

We should protect our children as much as possible. Let us move forward as fellow Americans basing our decision on the facts at hand using human reason as our guide.

In the United States, we are confronted with many serious problems ranging from the current need to decide how schools should reopen to more long term difficult problems about policing and racism. Let us remember that we were once a revolutionary society that challenged the divine right of kings based on our belief in human judgment and self determination.

Let us place the guiding lights of reason and logic before us and move ahead with confidence that even if we err that we are making every effort to make the best decisions possible.

James Pilant

Three Moral Codes

If you had never had read a book on business ethics published in the United States, you might assume that the first thing they would discuss would be American codes of Conduct or at the very least our informal codes of conduct. The fact is they don’t discuss it at all, and I think they should.

Our teaching of business ethics would be more effective if we didn’t imply that all moral beliefs are basically relative to time and place – and spend so much time implying that the moral minimum is all that is necessary. Most human beings believe in higher values and have a strong sense of morality.

If we start with a baseline of common American morality, our teaching will be more effective.

American do have some common beliefs about morality. Our informal codes are things like you shouldn’t overcharge or be rude to customer or damage the environment. I believe using some polling data you could with a little research generate a generalized American sense of morality.

That would be a nice start but there are two more codes common in this nation. Many Americans belong to one religion or another. Current data says that — 43% of the Americans polled identify themselves as Protestants and 20% identify themselves as Catholic. These religions have highly developed moral codes.

If you wanted to talk about Protestant codes of conduct you could use the one advocated by the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran World Federation publishes these basic premises:

Dignity and justice

Each and every person is created in God’s image, is gifted with talents and capacities, and has dignity, irrespective of social status, gender, ethnicity, age, ability, or other differences.

Compassion and commitment

Inspired by God’s love for humanity, we seek to show care and compassion toward people who are suffering—the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized, and minority populations and faiths, who experience discrimination, violence, and hardship in different contexts.

Respect for diversity

Differences among us express the richness of God’s creation.

As a global communion of churches we value and seek to understand our differences in culture, history, and context.  

We also cherish the way in which these have shaped our theological understandings, our perspectives on moral and ethical questions, and our practice of ministry, mission, and service.

Inclusion and participation

We are committed to being inclusive and enabling the full and equitable participation of women, men, people of all ages and people with disabilities.

Our commitment to inclusion encompasses church life and society, and the decision-making processes, activities, and programs of the LWF itself.

We understand that power dynamics, cultural norms, access to resources, and other factors create barriers to participation and we work to overcome these.

Transparency and accountability

We are a responsible steward of the resources and responsibilities that God has entrusted to us.

We are committed to transparency in our aims, processes, decisions, and use of resources. We strive to being accountable to the people we serve, including our member churches, partners, and donors. 

If you wanted to start with a code of ethics this would be a good one.

Now, the Catholic Church has a huge set of teachings on business ethics clearly implied from their voluminous teaching on social issues. From time to time Popes issue encyclicals on social issues. They are not small documents and the first dates to 1891 and the most current one was published in 2015.

To summarize very, very briefly, there are four core elements:

  1. The Dignity of the Human Person
  2. The Common Good
  3. Subsidiarity (there is a lot on this)
  4. Solidarity

So we have informal poll driven moral rules, that we can derive from general behavior and beliefs. We have a culture with a code of ethics associated with Protestantism and we have Catholic Social Doctrine.

None of these are hiding but you seldom (never) see them in business ethics text books.

Maybe it is time that changed and we start discussing some basic rules of morality before we get into our examples and case studies?

If we are going to talk about business ethics, let’s start with rules of ethical behavior.

James Pilant

—- The Lutheran World Federation’s web site contains a good deal more information – and is generally a good read.

—- The Faith Initiative Home Page has voluminous amounts of data on Catholic Social Teaching and I heartily recommend it.

A Common Act

Macy’s cut 3,900 jobs then awarded its top executives 9 million dollars in bonuses.

We see this all the time. But there was a time when cutting employment at a company was among the very last options considered. Why do see this all the time now?

First, shareholder value is a doctrine that has wide acceptance in the United States.

Second, the power of the managerial class has grown to catastrophic proportions over the last few decades.

Third, our sense of moral outrage has decayed to the point it has little effect.

Peter Drucker said the business of a company was to make customers. I strongly believe that. Something vital was lost when companies adopted the shareholder model and focused purely on the money. That something vital was in most cases morality and social responsibility.

The shareholder model allows you to abandon patriotism, mistreat your workers, abuse your customers, and take your company overseas — or any combination of those. One of the wonderful things about this nation – is that I know a good number of business people who know they could do those and won’t.

But for every corporate stakeholder, the focus on corporate shareholders is a disaster, except one, the managerial class. If you are a manager you get to decide what the shareholder’s interest is. And I am not exaggerating. I’ve seen many shareholder battles over what the company should be doing with its money where the managers pound the shareholders into mush.

And what do these wondrous wizards of finance believe that the corporate shareholders want? They want buy backs to build up stock values and they want highly paid professionals to run their company and if these highly paid professionals are in some way successful they should be loaded with stock options and bonuses!

Obviously this only sounds self serving, because after all they are only serving shareholder interest. — Yeah, right.

And lastly our sense of outrage has faded. We in the middle of the United States lived in the carved out and exploited part of American that used to make stuff. We see closed factories, shuttered businesses, and lost opportunities. It was easier to be outraged when there was more to fight for. The business press calls this creative destruction – which is a fancy phrase for simple destruction. And don’t forget that in thousands of cases we didn’t get just a closed corporation we also got a mountain of contaminated water, land and air – another gift from maximising shareholder interest.

Let me tell you. Corporations and the other forms of business are in many ways government creations. You can’t incorporate without a government. Articles of incorporation give a company a lot of powers like possible immortality and tax benefits and some legal immunities. It is okay for we the people to ask for something back from the these companies with their government privileges and myriad methods of support from our communities like an educated workforce and roads and bridges.

We could start by expecting loyalty to the communities they live in and the nation that gave them birth.

James Pilant