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Do Dollars Outweigh Ethics?

Are capitalists, entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives allowed to use the explanation that, “the market will determine what is right and wrong?”  Does the ability to sell a product give a company permission to not question whether it is appropriate to sell it?  Can one choose to separate their morals and ethics from their business transactions?

What impact should ethics have on decisions?

What impact should ethics have on decisions?

Anything Within the Law Goes

There are those that will make the argument that as long as something is not legally forbidden, a business is entitled to sell it and cannot be blamed for any outcomes that arise out of use of a product.  The argument would be along the path of, “If the law permits it, and there is a desire for the product within the market, then there is nothing wrong with relying on ‘caveat emptor.'”  The producer of the product cannot and should not be held accountable for a negative consequence. Often, this line of reasoning has been used to defend the makers of products that have been associated with products like:

  • firearms
  • tobacco
  • alcohol.

And while those tend to be the most commonly referenced industries referenced when discussing the issue of revenue versus what is in the best interests of  both the individual and society as a whole, the universe of potential businesses can be expanded far further:

  • soft drinks
  • candy
  • processed foods.

This second list may have had some readers who agreed with the first list of three products now feeling the argument has gone too far and needs to be scaled back.  They will feel that the freedom of the market and individual choice are now being encroached.  However. few people can honestly defend this list of three as being healthier options than alternatives.  Yet, many readers will look at the list and feel that it is the shopper or customer who bears the responsibility for choosing what to consume (and any consequence that comes from it).  Although, most people would be quick to disagree with restricting a company’s right to manufacture or produce those products (preferring to leave it up to the customer to choose for him or herself to purchase it or not), the question is, “should the business ignore clear deleterious outcomes in the pursuit of the almighty dollar?”

As a business owner, is it a sufficient excuse to trade in products that are known to have negative outcomes by dismissing the concern with, “If I don’t sell it, some other company will, so I might as well do it?”

The Other Perspective

Certainly, there have been numerous companies that have used their ethics as a marketing advantage.  Whole Foods being one company that has successfully used their ethics in sourcing products, Restaurants that trumpet the use of organic products, specially cared for (vegetables, animals, coffee, etc.), and companies that highlight their treatment and pay of their workers or suppliers, etc.  In that way, the business attempts to align their ethics with the ethics of the customer(s) they target.

The answer to the question is very personal.  There is no “one answer that works for all people in all situations.”  However, the question should not be forgotten when it comes to making decisions within the company.

David Zahn