Think Inc.
A forum for Hawaii's
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current events and issues.


Is wrong ever right?

Business ethics range from the situational
to the absolute, and each has consequences

By Michelle Alarcon

From childhood, we are told to do the right thing. But what is the "right thing?"

As I learned more, I realized that society has not truly agreed on what is right and what is wrong, and perhaps never will. After all, conflict is the cornerstone of progress.

Furthermore, who decides? Is it the Bible, our moms, friends, the law, our bosses? How does right-ness or wrong-ness evolve? Think about when discrimination was OK. Eventually, societal awakening declared it to be wrong.

Ethical dilemmas continue to plague us as interlocking interests emerge. In business, there are stories that these tests may sometimes go to an extreme where organizations deliberate the cost of human life vs. the cost of pulling a defective product off the market.

Socrates analyzes two philosophical views on ethics: One is that something is right only if the benefits outweigh the harm -- a utilitarian view that promotes a cost-benefit analysis in determining ethics; the other states that certain actions, such as lying, are inherently right or wrong -- that no matter how much benefit comes out of lying, it will never be right. Here, we can see how two conflicting ideas can each have their share of reason. For example, if killing a person is inherently wrong, why are death penalties justified as beneficial to society?

Business schools further present ethics in terms of economic view or social view. The economic view states that business practices are ethical if its activities serve the interests of its stakeholders, where competition is the norm and maximization of profit is the goal. The social view contends that businesses exist for the interest and benefit of others in society and should not be purely self-serving but rather constantly balancing their interests with those of society.

Rep. John Dingell of Michigan said in an ABC News article: "Enron went from the Number seven company on the Fortune 400 to a penny stock in a stunning three weeks because it apparently lied for years in its financial statements." If this was true, was Enron doing this in the interest of its stakeholders? Even so, is it right to lie?

How do such lapses happen? More importantly, are unethical business practices preventable? This question itself is challenging. Sadly, there are people who are simply conditioned to do bad things -- those who lie, cheat, or steal to get what they want. And, as the clichˇ goes, one lie eventually leads to another; perhaps for fear of being exposed for previous wrongdoings, empty arrogance or mere stupidity. With Enron, this practice may have led to the company's demise.

Ethical dilemmas arising from uncertainty stand a good chance of being preventable through corporate training and other programs. But those coming from evil-minded people may be something that should be dealt with during the hiring and selection process.

Michelle Alarcon is an assistant professor of management at Hawaii Pacific University. She can be reached at

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