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I already have the guilty conscience, I may as well have the money too!
Legendary U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, on his decision to leave law enforcement and enter business
Once mentioned only in the context of comedic oxymorons, issues in business ethics have become the stuff of popular lore. A plethora of Hollywood movie releases in the last decade has forever lodged scenarios in which profit competes with morality into the consciousness of contemporary culture. Films such as Wall Street, The Firm, Quiz Show, The Pelican Brief, and Tucker portray key decision makers within corporations as scheming characters who will stop at nothing--not even murder in some cases--to line their pockets. Even action-film star Steven Seagal has gotten into the act. The recent film On Deadly Ground pits Seagal against the financial interests of a seedy oil company in a violent battle of good versus evil. While it has yet to eclipse the CIA (a.k.a. "The Company") as the most often portrayed omnipresent evil force behind all social ills, the business world is increasingly characterized in movies as a dark, lurking shadow whose pursuit of profit is inherently at odds with society's well-being.
Since the film industry is itself a big business whose profits depend upon entertainment value rather than truthfulness, one must ask whether these story lines aren't a case of the pot calling the kettle black. In fact, Hollywood is merely picking up on themes that have historically been discussed in churches, academia, and political circles. The pursuit of wealth and its influence on society have long been subjects for cautionary sermons, literature, and philosophical debate. Thus, it should come as no surprise that ethical issues in business are receiving prominent attention in other popular media forums. After the revelations of criminal wrongdoings on Wall Street in the late 1980s, frequent television and newspaper stories have appeared to describe the latest scandals in business. In one week alone recently, three of the one-hour news format shows on the major networks broadcast investigative reports relating to business ethics. ABC's 20/20 ran a story on the sales tactics of used-car dealers while its Prime Time Live investigated an in-home health-care company alleged to have paid large kickbacks to doctors for prescribing over-priced services to unwitting patients. NBC's Dateline revealed allegations of deceptive practices in the airline industry with respect to prices in ticket advertisements. Major newspapers run similar stories at least several times a week.
The moral climate of the world of business is so often called into question in the popular culture that it is not uncommon to observe Christian business people taking an apologetic stance for engaging in "worldly" rather than "spiritual" career pursuits.
Fortunately, these popular portrayals only show one side of the story. There are many corporations and proprietorships whose stated missions and actions resemble those of the most praiseworthy citizens. For example, a recent event that made national headlines involved the moral heroism of Aaron Feuerstein, the owner of a textile mill in New England that manufactures Polartec, a lightweight fabric used to provide warmth in winter clothing. Two weeks before Christmas 1995, the people of the town of Methuen, Massachusetts, watched Malden Mills--one of the last remaining large-scale textile mills in the region and the town's employment and economic lifeline--burn to the ground on a windy night. The fire injured 24 people, left 1, 400 workers unemployed, and confirmed fears that the town would be destroyed economically--the plight suffered by many New England towns as other mills were shut down and relocated in search of lower wage scales.
Taking everyone by surprise, the seventy-year-old Feuerstein, who could have simply retired on the insurance money, immediately announced plans to rebuild, with the goal of having his workers back in the mill within a few months. Furthermore, Feuerstein gave every employee a Christmas bonus of $275 and a coupon for food worth $20 at a local supermarket. Amid cheers from his employees, he then announced that for at least the next thirty days he would pay every worker's salary in full and continue their health insurance for the next ninety days. Citing his faith and his belief that difficult circumstances provide the real test of moral convictions, Feuerstein stated that collecting the insurance money and retiring was never a thought that crossed his mind. "My commitment is to Massachusetts and New England. It's where I live, where I play, where I worship. Malden Mills will rebuild right here," he said.
A well-publicized decision by a leading pharmaceutical company, Merck & Co., offers an equally outstanding example of a publicly held (shareholder-owned) corporation's going against the common image of corporations as "profit at all costs" entities. A number of years ago, a Merck scientist discovered that an adaptation of one of the company's drugs could be used to kill the parasite that causes a disease called river blindness. The disease starts with a seemingly innocuous insect bite that allows the parasites to lay the larvae of worms--which eventually grow to two feet in length--in the body. Over time, these worms produce thousands of microscopic worms. Victims can experience suffering so severe that some elect suicide rather than endure the pain. A common result of the disease is a scarring of the eye that produces blindness.
While the discovery of the cure was cause for celebration, Merck soon found itself in a dilemma: none of the "customers" who needed the drug could afford to pay for it. The disease afflicts mainly people in the Third World, particularly parts of Africa and Central and South America. Merck tried in vain to obtain financial support to help offset the costs of developing the drug and getting it where it was needed.
In the end, Merck stayed true to a key element of its company philosophy: "We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we remember that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been." Merck promised to give the drug away and pay to transport it (at a cost of $20 million per year) to any country that requested it, forever.