I’m preparing to teach Current Topics in Law and Ethics in the graduate business program this summer, which I have not taught before. I have two syllabi from colleagues but I’m trying to reinvent the wheel by reducing the law and increasing the ethics content. One thing about ethics discussions and ethics advice: they can provoke passionate disagreement. I often find The Ethicist column in the Sunday NYTimes magazine irksome, and its advice provokes rants in a good friend. Today Rushworth M. Kidder’s How Good People Make Tough Choices* drove me to write this post as a reality check. In Chapter 3 “Right Versus Wrong: Why Ethics Matters,” Kidder offers three cases as typical of the approach to ethics that focuses on right versus wrong (as opposed to the more problematic right-versus-right ethical dilemmas). The premise of each is that they distinguish between the legal and ethical, in that none involve breaking a law. One involves a part-time receptionist at a property-management company who is instructed to lie to elderly tenants who complain of inadequate heat that the boiler is broken, when the owner has turned down the heat to save money. The receptionist does not want to lie to the tenants but fears losing her job if she tells tenants the truth. Another involves a person interviewing for a job that requires conducting survey interviews in a crime-ridden part of town. Two previous employees left the position after one day and the third was mugged and physically injured. The question is whether the supervisor conducting the interview should inform the candiate of the previous employees’ experiences. The third involves a manufacturer and mail-order seller of automobile master keys, who sells the keys to anyone who wishes to buy them “even though it was obvious that some of the purchaser might be automobile thieves.” Kidder asks whether the seller is responsible for the consequences of selling master keys. The answer in each of these cases, he writes is “one side is wrong.” Kidder writes “the world presented in these cases is not one of great moral complexity. It fairly quickly reduces itself to a black-and-white, right-versus-wrong world.”
Whoa. I agree that it is wrong not to disclose to a prospective employee that prior employees either couldn’t handle the job after one day, or were injured while performing it. Failing to disclose such danger could also expose the employer to negligence liability, for failing to notify the employee about the job’s potential for harm. I agree that it is wrong to lie to tenants about the cause of inadequate heat. Failure to provide adequate heat may well violate the state’s health code for rental residential dwellings, and could endanger the physical well-being of tenants, especially elderly tenants. I also sympathize with a receptionist torn between telling the truth and losing her job.
I flatly disagree with his characterization of the third case. It poses the rhetorical question, “is it any worse . . . to sell keys by mail . . . than for mail-order houses to sell guns that might be used for murder?” That’s a manipulative way to ask a valid question. Here’s how I ask the question: “is it ethically wrong to sell any item that can be used for both legal and illegal purposes?” If it were ethically wrong, what could one sell? Is it ethically wrong to sell DVD burners that can be used to unlawfully copy copyright-protected music and movies? Is it ethically wrong to sell video equipment that can be used to create child pornography? Is it ethically wrong to sell duct tape that can be used to bind the wrists of kidnap victims? Is it ethically wrong to sell Slim Jims, tools that can be used to open locked car doors? Rushworth Kidder must never have locked his keys in the car.
Of these three cases Kidder says ‘[t]hey may even provide useful examples to present to individuals whose ethical baromter you would like to read: [their responses] . . . will shed light on their moral stance.” You now know that in his world my moral barometer is falling.
*Which, perversely, I think of as “When Tough People Make Good Choices.” I’d read that.