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Corporate Ethics: Not an Oxymoron

December 28, 2011, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea? 

Gone are the good old bad old days in which Ethics was the lonely elective in B-school that no one elected to take. We've all heard about the new wave of humanitarian businesses – so numerous in fact that special legal designations have been created to incorporate the idea of for-profit philanthropy. But traditional corporations, too, are taking ethics increasingly to heart, recognizing that their reputations, and in some cases their very survival, depends on their having a solid ethical framework with which to navigate a rapidly changing world. 

Paul Root Wolpe is one of the leading ethicists in the nation. His specialties, neuro and bioethics, are of increasing concern to companies like Pfizer that are developing and marketing products that affect the way we think, feel, and, in the case of Viagra – well – get intimate. But amid widely-publicized corporate scandals, global environmental threats, and powerful advances in biotechnology, says Wolpe, big companies find themselves tromping through an ethical minefield, desperately in need of guidance. 

Conveniently enough, Wolpe points out, there happens to be a well-established field called Ethics full of friendly ethicists with loads of good advice. Wolpe himself and his colleagues have found themselves in increasingly high demand as advisors to corporations looking to integrate a fundamental set of ethical guidelines into their business practices. Given the rapidly-changing nature of the marketplace and the unprecedented power of new technologies to do harm or good, these guidelines need to be crystal-clear, yet flexible enough to accomodate the future. 



What's the Significance? 

In the coming decades, businesses and the general public will face ethical questions of an entirely new nature and degree. Prescription medications will enable us to change our personalities and behaviors far more precisely than we can with, say, Prozac. Assuming they have no negative side-effects, should we be allowed to purchase over-the-counter personality drugs that make us funnier, smarter, or more Emo? And in the more distant future, should parents have the right to genetically manipulate their offspring in utero? Can you imagine the medical liabilities? The insurance costs??

As an alternative to running off to live in the forests, or cynically embracing all change as inevitable, ethics offers a third way – a malleable system for responsible living that enables us to set meaningful goals for ourselves as a species and apply our energies to meeting them. In the land of Jersey Shore and Desperate Housewives, even the word Ethics may sound quaint – but the dilemmas we'll be facing in the very near future will make it more and more difficult to ignore. 


This post is part of the series Re-envision, sponsored by Toyota. 

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com


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Corporate Ethics: Not an Ox...

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