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Making money from causing harm

November 1, 2010

This week it transpired that an as yet unnamed British company has been supplying the state of Arizona with sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs required to carry out the executions of death row prisoners. This news has been greeted by loud calls for the company in question to be exposed, none louder than that of Clive Stafford Smith, founder of Reprieve, writing in the Guardian newspaper.

Now, there may be many good reasons why the actions of this mystery company should be condemned. These reasons, such as they are, will point to various ways in which facilitating a practice which is morally impermissible is itself morally impermissible. Some such actions will also be the proper subject of legal censure, and Stafford Smith suggests that in this case the sale of sodium thiopental may fall foul of EU Council Regulation 1236/2005. While the debate over the proper assessment of this case is an important one, I want to focus on Stafford Smith’s closing comment: ‘this British corporation should be reminded that the medical profession boasts of a Hippocratic oath, not a hypocritical one’.

This is a nice sound bite on which to sign off and was widely picked up in the British media. However, it raises an important issue. Why should we think that a business organisation or its employees are bound by the Hippocratic oath? Ok, so in this case the organisation produces medical products, but the production of supplies for a profession does not obviously make the producer part of that profession, any more than the manufacturer of spades becomes a miner. This brings us on to a wider question: what, if any, is the link between codes of professional ethics and business ethics?

The idea that a code of ethics is central to the practice of a profession is well established; while medicine is the most obvious example, we see a similar phenomenon in the organisation of other professions such as engineering, accountancy, and law. The existence of codes of professional ethics is justified in various ways: professionals are in a particularly powerful position to affect important aspects of our society – its well being, or the risk to which it is subjected, for example; they have been put in a privileged and trusted position by society and so owe something back; there are significant informational asymmetries between professionals and others in society and so we need a guarantee that these will not be illegitimately exploited.

This noted, it is worth making a few related points. Firstly, all these characteristics do not obviously apply less to senior executives in business organisations than they do to ‘professionals’; secondly, the content of codes of professional ethics tend to be tailored to the particular profession in question; thirdly, the comparison goes both ways – not only do business practitioners appear to have many of the morally relevant characteristics of professionals, but also the majority of professionals face significant commercial considerations in the day to day conduct of their trade.

In 2009 many of the graduating class of Harvard Business School signed a professional oath . They were subjected to many snide comments in the media for their ‘idealistic’ and ‘naïve’ approach to business. But why should the power of business, the privileged position of the business elite, and the advantages their specialist knowledge brings not be subjected to the same constraints as those we impose on professional bodies? Of course, the appropriate code of ethics would have to take into account the particular nature of business activity (and this may be why the idea of applying the Hippocratic oath seems somewhat incongruous), but this does not speak against the need for or applicability of such a code.

And from those who would, despite these points, claim that business is simply a category apart from the professions we might ask for an explanation of how the doctor engaging in private practice or in commercial research, or the engineer negotiating a contract for a new project should conduct themselves. Business ethics has much to learn from the professions, but equally the professions seem in need of guidance when their expertise meets the commercial world. Overall, we could perhaps learn the most by stopping thinking of business as some entirely discrete activity and investigating how our understanding of business might be combined with our understanding of other closely connected and ethically charged activities to the benefit of our ethical appreciation of all.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2010 2:01 pm

    As an addition to this blog, here are a couple of other places where the relation between business ethics and professional ethics is discussed:

    Chris MacDonald’s business ethics blog – http://businessethicsblog.com/2010/11/05/management-ethics-oaths-without-professionalization/

    And a paper by Joseph Heath, ‘Business Ethics Without Stakeholders’, which can be downloaded from his homepage, here: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~jheath/

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