Money Can’t Buy Business Ethics

May 7, 2012

The difficulty with any system of morality is that nearly everyone has their own personal standards concerning the limits of acceptable moral behavior. Some develop such sensibilities during their childhood; they learn by way of parenting, religion, education, or other means. Some people continue to build moral boundaries throughout their lives while others have a system that fluctuates depending on the situation (and a few seem to have no morals whatsoever). The point is that it’s often tricky to form a consensus when it comes to questions of morality and ethics. We can’t even agree upon a moratorium for murder (it may be acceptable in the case of self-defense, war, capital punishment, and so on). And when it comes to the business world, it can sometimes seem like the only moral code is “might makes right”.

Michael J. Sandel may be best known for “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” based on his popular course at Harvard University, but he continues his crusade to question corruption in “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”. We’re all familiar with the concept of marketing; it bombards us constantly through television, radio, and print ads, billboards, and even the colorful packaging we see in grocery stores. More recently, anyone who operates in the online arena is subject to banner and pop-up ads. And more and more businesses are utilizing social networking to become trusted “friends” of individuals in order to personalize the marketing experience. But are there limits to how far companies can go in their quest for the almighty dollar?

Sandel might not have the answers, but he’s definitely willing to ask the questions and start a discussion on the topic. While he admits that there is a time and place for marketing and selling strategies, what seems to disturb him is the fact that such tactics have moved into spheres where they may not morally belong. He argues that as a society, we have somehow lost sight of the place of marketing within our culture, that we have, in fact, become a market society rather than relegating this aspect of our civilization to the economy where it belongs.

His take is that marketing has invaded our government, our medical, legal, and education systems, and even our homes. He considers the moral implications of some of the things we are willing to throw money at, such as paying volunteers to act as guinea pigs for pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies, or giving our children money as a reward for good grades, just for example. And what about people who have enough money to “jump the queue”, as Sandel puts it? Is it morally right that someone should receive preferential treatment because they can donate a new wing to a hospital or a new building to a university?

As business book summaries go, you may find this one a bit unsatisfying, but the truth is that this audio book will not answer all of the questions it asks. In fact, it really leaves that task up to the listener, perhaps with some guidance. The truth is that we all have a fair idea of what is morally right when it comes to business practices. But most of us simply never think to ask some of the questions that Sandel poses. This audio book may not make you a better person or prompt you to change the way you allow the marketing culture to invade your life, but it will make you aware. And that is where change begins.

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