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?