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



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



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

Simple Honor

Some years ago two friends made an agreement, a pact so to speak, that if either won the lottery, they would share it equally.

Their names are Joe Feeney and Tom Cook.

A few days ago, Tom Cook won the lottery. He called up his friend and told him he was sharing the money.

And so they have.

Both the philosophies of Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Party celebrate greed and self interest. By their standards these men are fools to be pitied.

I beg to differ. I believe that these men are what makes America worthy and great. Doing what you don’t have to do because it is right has been, is and should continue to be an American value.

It is the cumulative actions of millions of Americans that establishes the moral posture of our nation. And that is important.

But the battle of doing what’s right takes place individual by individual. It would be so nice that every time an ethical dilemma we had an opportunity to think and search the internet and maybe get some good advice before we acted. Most ethical decisions take place in seconds or with out any thought at all based on our previous decisions.

So, in my opinion, Tom Cook made his decision thirty years ago to do what he thought was right and never varied from it.

I am so proud to live in a country with human beings like Tom Cook.

James Pilant

Doing What’s Right!

Let’s start with a story. (The one linked to above.)

A Conservation Officer was fired for refusing to kill two bear cubs. Bryce Casavant was ordered to kill a mother bear and her two cubs. The mother bear had been eating garbage and had become habituated to humans. However, Mr. Casavant saw no evidence that the cubs ate garbage or had become habituated to humans so he placed the two cubs with a wildlife group that raised them and released them in the wild.

For not killing the bear cubs as ordered he was fired.

This story in a way had a happy ending. Going back to work in a job environment where you have been fired and there was a legal process that took roughly five years that your employer lost, — well, don’t expect a cake on your birthday.

In high school we are assured that talent and merit are rewarded. Sometime television and certainly fairy tales support the idea the we should always do right because we will be given benefits.

That was all nonsense. The simple fact of the matter is that doing right is hard. It is seldom rewarded and often badly rewarded.

Should you do right? Absolutely.

Why? For the good of your soul. And not just that it is a cry of significance of self importance and the fact that you made a difference.

When you look back upon your life, those times when you did what was right without reward are the times to be treasured, the times when your life gained its full meaning.

James Pilant

Dead and Unimportant?

We like to think that we are personally important, that our lives have meaning and that if something happens to us, people will be upset. But for much of our leadership class we are less than numbers, less than cattle, routinely dismissable and unimportant.

For a portion of our leadership, the fact that many of us are sheltering at home and protecting ourselves is an unacceptable assault on prosperity and all other economic activity.

Doubt me? What about the politicians quoted in the article below?

If you have children and I have a son, the words of the Governor of Missouri are particularly chilling:

“When they go to school – they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it … We gotta move forward,” Parson said in an interview on local radio.

The most casual reading of the symptoms and effects of the coronavirus and the occasional press reports of dead children might give one pause from such claims. But what is the life of your child compared to “we gotta move forward?”

If you can’t read between the lines here, let me explain it to you. Your children’s health and lives are secondary and I mean really secondary to the economy of the State of Missouri or the larger nation for that matter. And that is what this politician and the other politicians in the article are clearly saying.

Now, I don’t have to explain to you the economic positions of these statesmen. You can reason out the political party and how the basic precepts of making money for our ruling class became their focus whatever the penalties imposed on American citizens including their and your deaths.

Some have found a way to speak out for their dead relatives and sometimes the dead leave messages. Here, read this article:

People are using their and their relatives’ obituaries to cry out their significance and their contempt for the political leadership that helped end their lives. Here’s a quote.

“Isabelle was a giant, and powerful in her kindness. She made a difference each and every day in many people’s lives. And like hundreds and thousands of others, she should still be alive today,” Tulip wrote.

“Her undeserving death is due to the carelessness of the politicians who continue to hedge their bets on the lives of healthcare workers through a lack of leadership, through a refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and through an inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize the risks of the coronavirus,” she said.

I applaud these individuals who claw back some kind of significance from those to whom their deaths were and are unimportant.

I never really thought that I would hear politicians say out loud how little important our lives had for them. But they are not even shy about it. I suppose expressing public loyalty to the health of the business community is more effective in recruiting campaign funds than expressing concern for dead citizens who after all have little money to spend.

It is unethical to place economics ahead of human life.

It’s wrong.

Every elected official is a public whose first concern should the welfare of the American people and the preservation of our lives.

James Alan Pilant

I am a COVID 19 Long Hauler

It has been weeks since I had the flu and I still suffer symptoms, some new and some old.

I got the virus back in May and figuring two weeks of suffering from my internet research carefully counting the days in a notebook. Once past the two weeks, I added another week of quarantine again according to my sources on the internet. And in a general sense, I am better but I still stay at home avoid all social interactions go out only for food.

However each day is a surprise. Some days are good and some days bad. And I get new symptoms and lots of old ones. My perception is that I’m taking liver and kidney damage. Since my chest aches a lot of the time, my heart is probably also involved and since I’ve had episodes of confusion I may have brain damage.

Before I explain any further, I want you to know that an intelligent and capable response to the virus like they did in many other countries would have saved me from this ghastly experience. Our national buffoon through his incompetence has severely injured me and may yet kill me.

The up side is my intelligence is slowly recovering. I know this because I could only read a paragraph or so before losing the thread. This was back in June. Now I can almost get a chapter down before I get to tired to continue and it seems every day that I can cover a little more ground. I believe that his mirrors my physical status and I am recovering but it may take months.

There was a time when I worried that this state of affairs would be permanent.

Writing about business ethics and the failures of companies and individuals has had a certain detachment. I wasn’t a victim and I didn’t know anyone involved nor was I in sight of the effects.

Now I am on the frontline of an epic failure of governance, an abdication of responsibility without equal in the history of the nation. We may lose as many as a hundred thousand more Americans before a new President in January can impose federal leadership over this nation and stop the spread of the pandemic.

But there was more to this disaster than the buffoon in the White House. I was astonished to discover politicians who proudly announced that the elderly as well as many others must be sacrificed on the alter of profit. As a bit of a historian and raised in the church, the fact that I was actually seeing human sacrifice to the golden calf of the Old Testament was difficult to absorb.

I knew as a writer of business ethics that American businessmen and corporate officials are not a very worthy bunch – and their bought political servants merited and still merit little more than contempt. But to actually allow people to die for profit, for commerce, demonstrated an absence of Christianity as well as basic human morality that was stunning in its scope.

That some politicians actually suggested that the elderly sacrifice themselves for a strong economy made the predictions of “Brave New World” and “1984” pale by comparison.

But that wasn’t and isn’t the bottom. Fueled by Fox News and the irresponsible policies of tech giants like Facebook, Americans have indulged themselves in denialism, conspiracy theories stupid beyond all human belief and crass willingness to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Americans so they can go maskless, drink alcohol and live their lives as if nothing is wrong.

The spirit of rationalism and the belief in science and expertise is under attack all over this nation. We are an object of pity across the planet as our uninformed and uneducated factually challenged class of bloviators tells us to disregard the evidence of our eyes and ears and embrace lives of meaningless aggrandizement.

As a victim of the disease, the idea that it is a fraud cooked up by the deep state must be pretty comforting but only if you haven’t got it yet or none of your loved ones has died or having the most passing of acquaintance with actual health care workers whose outrage at our national lack of action and their consequent suffering and casualties may have made them a little angry.

This is a turning point in the history of the United States. I may not get to see much of it, but some of you will. Treasure the new beginnings and changes that come of the deaths of so many who were so precious to so many others but valueless obstacles to a strong economy for some of our political class. Remember the names of these wicked people and their enablers. The blood of the dead cry from the earth for justice.

James Pilant