“The Rules of Acquistion Can’t Save You Now”: What Can the Ferengi Teach Us About Business Ethics?

The next essay in “Star Trek and Philosophy” is ‘”The Rules of Acquistion Can’t Save You Now”: What Can the Ferengi Teach Us About Business Ethics?’ by Jacob M. Held.  Here, the main thrust is to discuss the idea that business and ethics are opposing forces, an idea that the Ferengi exemplify.  In general, the Ferengi eschew ethics in favour of pure profit, and are contrasted with the Federation who eschew profit in favour of pure ethics, which led to many conflicts between Quark and Ben Sisko on “Deep Space Nine” (although Picard would certainly have more issues with Quark than Sisko did).  But this perceived innate conflict between business and ethics makes doing business ethics very difficult to do, because ethics is seen as an intrusion into business, and so what we end up doing is trying to make business as ethical as we can without impeding the primary purpose of business overmuch.

Held traces through the current debates in business ethics looking for a way to bridge the gap between the two, a way of thinking about it so that they don’t seem so paradoxical.  Most of the attempts try to find a way to argue that what is considered properly ethical for a business is that which ends up providing benefits to the right people in the right sort of way, so defining whose interests a business is required to consider and then arguing that ethics will be the best way to serve those interests.  However, it seems to me that the perception — as Held does note — that the two conflict is that we see the main purpose of business as being to provide profit and wealth to the relevant people and we don’t think that is compatible with ethics.  In general, we think that ethics should be explicitly considering others and not just the interests of a specific in-group, and business is all about providing profit to a specific in-group.  Thus, I see the attempted compromises in business ethics as being less about business ethics and more reflecting a shift in attitudes towards ethics.  The Utilitarian arguments that Held offers to defend certain business practices — like thinking about stakeholders in addition to shareholders — are arguments that I have constantly seen people make in general about ethics.  Many modern arguments about ethics rely on an argument that we should act ethical because it works out better in general for most people if we do, but also that it works out better for us if we do.  So it’s not hard to see how that attitude could permeate discussions of business ethics as well, where we try to justify a business acting ethically on the grounds that ultimately, in the long-run, it will be better for the business as a business to do so.  It’s a reasoning that I reject, but it is common in ethical discussions in general, not just in business ethics.

Still, I do think that Held captures a key issue where he talks about business, wealth and profit as being seen as an end in itself instead of as a means to an end.  The Ferengi again embody this, as their entire society is based on profit for profit’s sake, and as Held notes most of the conflicts that Quark suffers are conflicts between his desire for profit and the fact that attaining profit will cost him other things that he seems to value more.  So we can see that the issues above come from not seeing ethics as something that has inherent value and instead trying to justify acting ethically by appealing to something that we actually value, which is our own benefit.  When it comes to wealth and profit, however, that doesn’t really work.  We know — or at least ought to know — that we only desire wealth and profit in order to get other things.  Even if we think at the level of the business, wealth and profit are means to other things, not the entire purpose of the business.  Yes, those means are at a minimum expanding the business and providing wealth to the owners, but a business that was producing profit but was costing the owners and everyone involved all the things in life that mattered wouldn’t be successful, and no one rational would want to keep that sort of business going.  So it’s only our distorted view of capitalism that says that profit, in and of itself, is an end and even the end that we should be striving for.

I think Held is right that we need to figure out what the real purpose of a business is and what we really should value, and that determining what should be the primary value is the first step is settling the perceived conflict.  However, as we’ve been trying to do this for thousands of years, it’s not going to be something that’s easy to do.


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