2 years ago
I’ve just finished reading two books which I can heartily recommend. This is surprising for two reasons. The first is that I rarely manage to get to the end of one book, let alone two in a row. And the second is that they’re both written by columnists for The Guardian, a newspaper with which I struggle to find common ground in a number of areas.
Anyway, the first book is called ‘Bad Science’ and is written by Dr Ben Goldacre. Essentially it’s an expose of how science is misused and manipulated to sell products and ideas to the public. The second is ‘The Pig Who Wants To Be Eaten’, by Julian Baggini. This is a series of 100 thought experiments exploring moral and philosophical problems. It’s designed to make you think. And by heck, it does.
Businesses and lone entrepreneurs face moral and ethical dilemmas on an almost daily basis. But doing ‘the right thing’ isn’t always as obvious or clear cut as you might first think it is. With apologies to Mr Baggini for nicking his format, let me give you a fictitious example of what I’m talking about, inspired by some of the material in Ben Goldacres book. I know this has parallels in many fields.
“Rupert is a businessman. He runs a company which develops and markets alternative health therapies. One of his products is a battery operated, electrical device which fits on the wrist and is designed to lower blood pressure by emitting a mysterious force field which widens the blood vessels. Rupert has a very persuasive information package which explains the ‘science’ of how and why it works.
The device is a huge success, generating massive profits for Rupert’s company. Over 80% of people who use it report a significant fall in measured blood pressure.
Everyone seems happy until Dr Johnson comes on the scene. He’s a medical expert and debunker of charlatans, and he’s not impressed with the device at all. He claims that Rupert’s explanation for how it works has no scientific basis. He asks Rupert to show him the proper controlled scientific trial data for the product.
Rupert concedes that he has done no scientific trials on the device. All the evidence he needs for its effectiveness comes from his customers who are delighted with it and report medically measurable drops in blood pressure. Dr Johnson counters that this is almost certainly due to a placebo effect and the device is doing nothing at all.
Rupert is unmoved. His argument is that he doesn’t care how the device is having the desired effect. The important point is that it is. To succumb to scientific trials may possibly show that the device alone doesn’t work, and that as a result, his customers would be robbed of the medical benefits. And of course, he would be robbed of his profits.
So there’s the ethical dilemma. Is Rupert right to continue marketing a product that he probably knows in his heart of hearts, doesn’t work in the way he’s claiming? Or should he remove it from the market, subject it to strict scientific tests, and in all likelihood, destroy all the benefits which he and his customers are getting from it?”
I think for some people, at first glance, this is a pretty straightforward question. You should never lie, mislead or deceive people, no matter what. It’s a golden rule. But it just isn’t as simple as that is it? Anyone who’s ever been asked by their child whether their painting is good, or by their wife whether a dress makes them look fat, will testify to that! We all lie and deceive from time to time. The question is to what extent and to what ends, if at all, can it be morally justified. Indeed, can it be argued that to stop deceiving people would be morally wrong in certain circumstances?
But in this case, what Rupert is offering is beneficial. It may not be working in the way that people think, or Rupert describes, but it’s improving his customer’s health. One of the big misunderstandings about the placebo effect is the belief that it’s an exclusively psychological phenomenon. It just makes you feel better. But read Ben Goldacres book, and you’ll see that this is far from the extent of it. The effects can often be very real, tangible and scientifically measurable.
Rupert might argue that the physical product is only a small part of what he’s offering. The whole package also encompasses the expectation he creates around his product through his clever marketing, and that it is this whole package which should be looked at when judging the effectiveness of what he’s doing.
But then this marketing may be based on something that probably isn’t true... an untruth which once accepted has a beneficial effect on the customer.
Does any of this matter though – if the marketing and product combination has the desired effect? Should Rupert submit his product to scientific trials and almost certainly rob it of the psychological benefits which are enabling its users to walk around at less risk of a heart attack or stroke?
And then, if this deception is somehow acceptable, doesn’t it open up a whole new ‘can of worms’ because there may be other instances in which a deception is perpetuated which isn’t in the customers interest, purely because a principle has been broken for a product that is.
To add to the dilemma, Rupert’s main motivation in doing this is profit. Does that make a difference? To answer that, imagine how you might feel differently about this whole thing if Rupert was operating from a non-profit organisation, or even giving all his profits to charity. Would that change how you feel about the deception?
So when is it acceptable to deceive people in this way? You may answer:
When it’s to their benefit?
When it’s to their benefit and there’s no benefit for the deceiver?
When it’s to their benefit and also that of a third party, but the deceiver doesn't benefit?
If you answer “never”, then you clearly have a strong black and white moral code. But there are consequences to that, and they’re not all necessarily good ones. You have to consider that in this case you could be robbing someone of life saving benefits, and perhaps a charity of much needed funds. Isn’t that hard to justify, morally?
If you answer “when it’s to their benefit”, then you’re entering a whole world of complex ad hoc case-by-case judgements which will never be straight forward. You’re moving away from fundamental principles towards something quite fluid, woolly and subjective.
And if you give either of the other two answers, then perhaps you have cause to question whether you have an objection to deception at all, or whether you merely have an objection to someone making a profit from a deception. The sin is to make money from deceiving or misleading people, not from the deception itself. The upshot of this position is that it’s preferable to put someone’s life at risk than have someone else make a profit from helping them. Now that’s an interesting moral position, isn’t it?
And what if all those previously earned profits were ploughed into developing something with ‘real’ scientific benefits? How would that change your current stance?
I find all of this quite fascinating, and I hope you do too. I think a lot of us go through life thinking about issues in very black and white terms. Dilemmas like this demonstrate that issues are rarely so easy to pin down, once you start to really think about them.
It may seem strange to be talking about morality in a blog post from a business owner, because many people seem to assume that business is an immoral activity anyway. I don’t believe that at all. I think most of us (although by no means all) have an underlying desire and aim to do ‘the right thing’. The purpose of this posting is to alert you to the possibility that the ‘right thing’ may not always be as obvious and clear cut as it appears at first sight. Sometimes you have to dig well below the surface to decide for yourself what the right thing really is. And those taking the moral high ground are often on a very unstable perch.
I’d love to know what you think.
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