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Section 2: Ethics Today
Ethics is a hot topic in business today, particularly in relation to issues of compliance, electronic storage, e-mail, and new technologies that are quickly integrated into corporate life. Furthermore, ethics is no longer just a community or national issue, as we have become a global society doing business with corporations headquartered around the world. As individuals attempt to do business in this larger community, personal ethics also comes into play. The resulting interplay between personal and global standards for appropriate behavior leads to the need for a discussion of ethics in workrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms, and living rooms as we attempt to reach a workable consensus on "right" and "wrong."
Ethics can be divided into two main schools, absolutism and relativism. Absolutists believe that ethical rules are fixed standards—for example, stealing is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. Relativists, on the other hand, believe that all ethics are subject to context—for example, stealing may be wrong in certain circumstances but not in others. Take this brief ethical relativism survey and compare your answers to the overall responses. Sometimes a cross-over occurs between the two schools of thought as new technology leapfrogs over accepted standards and anticipated solutions.
Acting in Accordance with a Corporate or Professional Code
Students are no doubt familiar with a doctor's Hippocratic Oath, which includes the injunction, "First, do no harm." They may not be aware, however, that oaths and pledges exist for practitioners of other professions. There's even a suggestion for an oath for computer scientists, as espoused by virtual reality pioneer Jared Lanier in an interview with Salon: “As a physician it would be wrong to choose furthering your agenda of future medicine at the expense of a patient. And yet computer science thinks it's perfectly fine to further its agenda of trying to make computers autonomous, at the expense of everyday users.”
In response to the call for codes of professional conduct and business ethics, many corporations develop guiding principles that undergird their operations. An example is Johnson & Johnson's Credo, developed in 1943 by company founder Robert Wood Johnson to express his belief in a new industrial philosophy—one that included responsibility not only to stockholders but also to customers, employees, and the community. In 1982, the company put their credo into action as they responded to a product tampering incident that killed 7 people. Johnson & Johnson responded by pulling all Tylenol from the shelves, working publicly with the media and law enforcement, and pioneering the safety seal on over-the-counter drugs in response to this incident. (Remember that many of your students may have been born before the Tylenol scare. They have always had safety seals. Now, they will know their origin!)
Upholding or Updating Institutional Policies
Take a moment to share the mission statement for your own educational institution with your students. This mission statement serves as the guiding principle for your institution.
Do you know what your acceptable use policy (AUP) for computers says? (Compare it to this example.) Is your institution's AUP consistent with its mission statement?
The University of Colorado at Boulder had to reconsider its policy, not because of students, but because of faculty.
Ward Churchill , the ethnic studies department chairman at CU-Boulder, made controversial comments about 9/11 in January of 2005. One of the results was an increased number of visits/hits at the University of Colorado website. The increase in traffic made it difficult for normal business to be conducted.
Another example of a policy evolving over time is the USA PATRIOT Act. Under the auspices of this Act, the Justice Department was granted permission to monitor cell phone use and tracking without first having to prove that criminal activity was suspected. (Read more about the technology behind this capability.) With greater media attention to this policy, regional magistrates have begun scrutinizing the requests for cell phone monitoring more carefully and on occasion, refusing them. There is ongoing community discussion and debate over the provisions of the Act and our "ethical comfort level" with its use in our society.