Blogs & Comment

Big questions about ice cream, OxyContin, and ethics

Business ethics may be complex, but it all boils down to just three key questions.

(Photo: Jack Hollingsworth)

Sometimes it takes a really minor story to illuminate the basic issues at stake in business ethics. Like, for instance, a recent story about a guy selling both ice cream and serious street drugs out of his New York city ice cream truck.

That story highlights one of three fundamental questions that must be asked by anyone interested in business ethics. Those three questions are:

1. What may I do, and what may I not do, in attempting to make a living?
2. In what ways do my obligations change when I act on behalf of others, including employers, shareholders, etc.?
3. What should I do when I see inappropriate business practices that don’t directly affect me?

Each of these “big” questions can of course be subdivided into an entire category of questions. Question 1, for instance, implies a whole range of more specific questions—not just questions about the basic ethics of commerce (Can I lie, cheat or steal? No. Can I exaggerate, or put important details in fine print? Not so clear!) but also questions about corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy. The second question covers all the issues that crop up once businesses are staffed by more than a single individual. And the third concerns third-party critique, the work of consumer advocates, and government regulation.

The news story cited above illustrates beautifully Question 1—what you can and cannot do to make a dollar. Louis Scala was, after all, just trying to make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The catch was the method he chose.

Scala chose to sell two products. One was soft-serve ice cream, a dessert treat sold primarily to kids, who just can’t get enough of the stuff. The other was OxyContin, a highly-addictive narcotic, sold primarily to adults who just can’t get enough of the stuff. Selling the former is considered a reputable way to make a living. Selling the latter (out of the back of a truck!) is what earned Mr. Scala three-and-a-half years in jail. But then, neither of those products is uncontroversial. Ice cream isn’t exactly health food, and child obesity rates are on the rise. But on the other hand, it’s a harmless treat when consumed in moderation. But on the other hand, it’s not always consumed in moderation. But on the other hand … you get the point.

Figuring out what constitutes a legitimate way to make a living—taking into consideration all reasonable details—is far from straightforward. But realizing that the questions we want to ask about business ethics all fall under one or another of the fundamental headings listed above is, I think, a useful bit of mental bookkeeping, which is increasingly important in a world where criticisms, and defences, of business practices are becoming more and more diverse.