I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about ethics and entrepreneurship here lately. I had plenty of ideas before the Would You Buy Happiness post, but the conversations in the comment section of that post definitely gave me a lot more.
That discussion reminded me that people have certain assumptions about what goes on in business that alters their moral evaluations of actions. When we bracket a certain domain of human activity and have special moral evaluations for activities within that domain, it becomes what ethicists call a morally special category.
Let me explain: for many cases, there are salient features of the case that tip off our moral intuitions about the case. We can look at a politician who lies to his constituents and a wife who lies to her husband and see that the important feature is the lying that’s taking place, and we might agree that the lying that took place is something that is a morally relevant feature of the case. Depending on the story, we might also think that the lying was justified, but that depends on the details of the story and other upstream assumptions.
A morally special category of actions would have the same morally relevant features as other cases, but the fact that it’s within that category of actions makes us think differently about the rightness or wrongness of the action. For instance, we might excuse the politician and the wife for lying, but not an entrepreneur who does so, even though many of the morally relevant features are the same.
I don’t think that the realm of business is a morally special category – that is, I think that our moral intuitions and evaluations of what happens in the the realm of business should match the moral intuitions and evaluations of what happens in every other realm of human activity. That said, we should be able to look at cases outside of the realm of business, find the morally relevant features of those cases, and then be able to compare it to cases within the realm of business.
What’s With The Cases?
Before we move on, I should probably explain why we philosopher-types use cases to guide our discussions. Many people have heard a story about some aloof philosopher dreaming up cases and thought-experiments and it provides a lot of fodder for comedians and jokesters, and, honestly, many philosophers deserve to be the butt of jokes; I’ll save that critique and discussion for another day. But cases and thought-experiments pop up all over the place: physicists talk about friction-less planes or perfect vacuums, medical researchers assume perfect subjects, and economists assume perfectly-rational subjects. The reason we talk about these things is that we’re trying to filter out all of the information that makes evaluations and/or decisions hard to make.
We do the same thing in ethics to fix the morally relevant features of the cases. For instance, imagine that I kicked you in the shin. It doesn’t matter if I kicked you in the shin indoors or outdoors – whether we’re inside or outside isn’t morally relevant. It doesn’t matter if your hair is 3 inches long or 4 inches long or if you’re wearing a normal shirt. It might matter if your shirt says “Charlie sucks!,” just as it probably matters if you’re threatening me with a knife. You get the idea.
The trick, then, is coming up with a case that captures all of the morally relevant features and excludes everything else that doesn’t matter. You saw this at work in Would You Buy Happiness; my first model wasn’t adequate, so I had to fix it. I didn’t fix the case to prove any point – I fixed the case to focus the conversation.
What I’ll be doing in this series is picking classical or common cases from the non-business realm and then moving to the business realm. We’ll be looking to see the differences between the non-business cases and the business cases, if there are any.
When Helping Someone Else Helps You
Our first case will be an adaptation of Immanuel Kant’s shopkeeper from The Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals. We won’t really be talking about Kant here, so don’t worry – I just wanted to point out that this discussion has a precedent.
But, before we get to the shopkeeper, let’s talk about the non-business case:
Case #1: Imagine that I made dinner for Angela one evening to surprise her. It so happens that I made a meal that is our favorite meal, so I also got to have a yummy meal at the same time that she did. In this case, I did something for her (in other words, to benefit her), but I also benefited, as well.
Think about that case for a minute. Now for our second case:
Case #2: Imagine that the owner of a candy store gets a new kind of candy in that she knew people would love. She gives out free samples of the candy because she wants people to enjoy them, but she also knows that people will want to buy the candy because it’s awesome. In this case, she’s doing something to benefit others (who wouldn’t want to try some free, awesome candy?), but she also benefits from the action since people will then want to buy the candy.
Think about that case for a second. Got it? Okay, last one…
Case #3: On this very blog, I give away free planners. I believe that they’re helpful – and my belief is verified by the people who write me and say that the planners help them. But I also benefit from them downloading the planners since it could serve a marketing/promotion/business motive. (I decided to use my actual case on this one because it’d be on people’s minds anyway.)
The interesting thing in all of these cases is that one description of them is that the actions are done out of self-interest, and that’s partly true. It’s partly true because each agent knew that they would benefit, but it glosses over the (stipulated) fact that the agent didn’t do it merely out of self-interest.
Case #3 covers many of the promotion and marketing techniques that you see online. Someone might want to get you on their newsletter, so they give you something free. Someone else might have a series of high-value, sticky content or an ebook that gets interest on a product. Or someone else gives a discount on a product or service so that people buy it.
Some people are too quick to dismiss these activities as a marketing ploy, but such a quick dismissal depends on background assumptions about the character and motives of the person.
In each case, the action benefits the entrepreneur. If they’re doing it right, the action also benefits others. How is it different than me making dinner for Angela?
In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about dirty hands and entrepreneurship. But until then, what do you think about this discussion?
Thought-provoking post. As for my thoughts, I see no moral difference between the actions in any of your three cases. In each case, there is a mutual benefit given. Angela, the candy shop customers, and your site visitors each get to enjoy something that benefits them – in return for you (in cases 1 and 3) and the shop owner getting a benefit.
Entrepreneurs cannot simply be in business to give stuff away. There is no value there – for anyone. (After all, if you’re not going to be able to eat, can you really produce great content?) In all cases, there must be mutual benefit – an equitable exchange.
In case 1, you exchange your time in creating the meal for your own pleasure – and Angela benefits because she also enjoys the meal.
In case 2, the candy shop owner exchanges candy (which she must pay for) for her own increased sales – and her customers benefit by being exposed to candy they will enjoy.
In case 3, you exchange your time in creating the planners for your own increased sales – and your visitors benefit by getting helpful planners.
As long as the benefit is mutual (i.e. as long as no one is exploited), what’s the problem? 🙂
.-= Charlotte´s last blog ..Giving Up =-.
A lot of entrepreneurs either forget this or have a hard time getting their mind wrapped around. I’ve said it before: sharing and selling aren’t two kinds of things – selling is a type of sharing. Create valuable stuff that helps people and/or makes their lives easier, and recieve in kind.
My answer to your question about what is different between the entrepreneur and you making dinner for Angela:
When you made dinner for Angela, it only involved the two of you. There was nobody besides the two of you that benefited from your act of giving.
When you made planners to give away, it involved you and anyone else who could possibly happen upon the link and download them. You don’t know all of the downloaders personally, and you don’t have any way of knowing what matters to them other than the small percentage of feedback that you receive.
The difference is that Angela is a real person whom you know and can do relevant things for that matter to her and to you; and the demographic for whom you make planners for, while a real set of people, is still effectively anonymous. Your perfect “right” customer is a person you have in mind, but you cannot actually KNOW them the way you know Angela.
Now, I don’t know how that actually helps this discussion, but that’s my take on it. 😉
.-= Rachael´s last blog ..Monday Confessional =-.
I’m curious here, but the curiousity comes from a neighboring field.
Many people think that it’s more praiseworthy to help someone you don’t know than someone you do. Think about helping your next door neighbor versus helping some “faceless” Nigerian.
What do you think? And what does this mean for the ideas in this post?
My first thought is that it’s “more praiseworthy” to help the person you know rather than the person you don’t simply because you should not ignore the need in front of you in order to serve a need that might be in front of someone else.
It seems like it comes down to personal responsibility: WHO are we responsible for? Our neighbors, yes. But since we live in a global environment as well as a local one, ‘neighbor’ encompasses more than the people who live on my street, or that I come in contact with in the grocery store.
I truly believe that in order to be good at what we do, we need to find out who those people are that we feel responsible toward; I feel that I need to help any person who has an ittybiz, for example. All those small business people are my neighbors.
Hope that makes some kind of sense – thank you for the questions, Charlie! 🙂
.-= Rachael´s last blog ..What To Do When You Just Don’t Feel Inspired =-.
I never thought I’d be having a conversation on the finer points of ethical theory outside the university- but what fun!
So here’s my take- in each of your three cases, the agents are acting in morally permissible ways. There’s nothing in the situations as you’ve described them to suggest that the dinner maker, the shopkeeper or the you of case 3 are doing anything wrong.
I would say that there is no moral obligation on the part of any of these agents to perform the actions you describe- hence they might be considered supererogatory (above and beyond the call of strict duty).
There does, however seem to be a subtle difference between the agent’s motives in case 1 and the agents’ motives cases 2 and 3 having to do with the object of the agent’s action.
In case 1, Angela’s happiness is the primary objective and you benefit because you share a common preference for what to eat. It’s conceivable that you might do something that she would really enjoy- but wouldn’t be your first choice. For example, you might bump her chick flick to the top of the netflix queue. Her pleasure is what really matters, and even if you didn’t benefit (or didn’t benefit much), you’d still perform the action.
In case 2, it seems that the agent is motivated by her own interests and her customers are benefiting as a side effect. If the shop owner gave away the candy and her customers enjoyed it, but they didn’t buy any candy (either the awesome new candy or anything else) chances are she’d quit offering the free samples pretty quickly. If there is no benefit to her, it’s hard to see why she would keep performing this action. Since she has no obligation to provide the free samples, she wouldn’t be violating any moral norms if she stopped.
Case 3 is the fuzziest- since it’s not clear exactly what benefit you receive (or hope to receive) from giving away the planners. (You say it ‘could’ serve a business motive…) In this case, it seems that the benefit to those who use the planners is more immediate and direct than the benefit to you at this point. But I’m guessing that if there were no benefit to you and no reasonable expectation of some future benefit, you would stop making them available (or stop giving them away.)
Looking forward to the dirty hands post!
This is interesting – my third idea for this series was actually on supererogation and entrepreneurship. And I’m with you: who knew we’d be talking about ethical theory on a blog?
I find it interesting that you think the motives are different for #1 or #2 – more specifically, I find it interesting that you didn’t make the same changes to motives between the cases. Normally what we’d try to do is make a motive change and translate them across all the cases.
I think that what’s at play is that people think that entrepreneurs are solely self-interested more than others, so when we make generous translations regarding self-interest, we don’t make them for entrepreneurs. In other words, why couldn’t the entrepreneur’s real motive be the pleasure of others just the same as mine in #1? Or, in #3, why couldn’t my real motive be helping people, with business interests being a side-benefit?
This seems morally relevant to me: which of those actions would you be willing to perform if you didn’t get the benefit?
I actually think all three cases are fine, but I don’t think they’re exactly the same for most people. (I do think some businesspeople will give things away simply because they want them to be out there, much like I would cook a dinner a friend would enjoy even if it weren’t my favorite meal. Only you know which is you!)
.-= Sarah´s last blog ..Warm chickpea and butternut squash salad =-.
I’m not sure I can add much to the discussion on a philosophical level (many people here are smarter than I ), but I think Liz’s point is something I’ve seen quite often in everyday life.
Liz mentions that in case #2, it appears that the agent is motivated by her own interests. I know that in this particular case she is speaking only to the example, but I think that this assumed motivation is something we all do when dealing with the multitude of strangers we interact with on a day to day basis.
To use your examples in case 1 and 3, we know and like Charlie. We assume his motivations are, if not pure, than at least good. However, how much would change if we found out that the real motivation behind Charlie cooking dinner was because he was about to admit an affair and wanted to soften the blow? What if we discovered that the free planners had a trojan horse installed in them that allowed Charlie to track the websites you visit and see what purchases you made?
To the shopkeeper in case 2, we assume that her motivation for giving away candy is to increase her sales. Liz quite reasonably points out that if her sales did not increase she would most likely stop giving the candy away. But is that her true motivation? What if she had a banner year and felt that she should give something back? Why are we so quick to assume we know or understand someone else’s motivations?
Perhaps we assume the worst about people we don’t know because it allows us to protect ourselves from disappointment. Or, more cynically, perhaps we assume the worst because we are playing the averages. But I see this a lot in blog comments on various blogs – people outright accusing others of a hidden agenda they have absolutely no way of knowing the person has. They have automatically assumed the worst of motivations.
Thanks for letting me rant, sorry this was so long. And for clarification, Charlie is not (to my knowledge) having an affair or sneaking trojan horses into his downloads. Not that we thought he was. 🙂
.-= Jamie´s last blog ..Everything You Need To Know About SEO. Or Not. =-.
I agree with what you’re saying here, Jamie; my reply to Liz goes a bit more into this, as well.
As Duff pointed out in Naomi’s similar post, the challenge is that we can never really know someone else’s motives. What’s even more disturbing is that we sometimes don’t know our own motives. But this doesn’t mean that asking questions about motives is useless.
One of the things I hope to bring to light in this series is the bias that we have against entrepreneurs. Many of us assume that most people are legit until they prove otherwise, but entrepreneurs have to prove their trustworthy first. It’s fascinating when you think about it…
Ali Hale says
I think my gut feeling is also that Case #1 is slightly different from the others – perhaps, like Rachael says, because it involves just one known individual. Also, it doesn’t matter what Angela’s response is (in terms of the case), because even if she doesn’t eat the meal, you can still eat and enjoy yours.
In the other cases, some action beyond mere acceptance of the “goodie” is assumed.
I suppose for me, Case #1 would seem more analagous if you cooked dinner for Angela because you love her (and because it’s a meal you enjoy too), but you’re hoping she’ll do something for you in return…
The *moral* situation to me seems fine in each of them. There is no trickery involved; a free gift (dinner, sweets, planners) is offered, and the recipient can accept or not.
I totally agree with you that business ethics are not a morally special category. One of the reasons why I freelance is so that my own values can be congruent with the way that I conduct business.
Thanks for starting this series; you write in a very clear and non-patronising style! I’ve had very little philosophy education, and didn’t study anything ethics-related beyond Kant vs utilitarianism. Looking forward to reading and learning more…
.-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Review of Marketing School (from IttyBiz/Naomi Dunford) =-.
I really appreciate this, Ali. I was really worried about this post because I’m really passionate about it, but it requires a bit of background and prefacing to get into – I didn’t want to leave anyone out of the conversation, but I didn’t want it to come across as “talking down” to anybody, as well. I’d also like to show people what the draw to philosophy is, as well; it’s not just a bunch of abstractions, but instead deals with the very real issues we face in a considered, reasoned way.
So, again, thanks for the encouragement.