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Posts Tagged ‘Ethical Decision Making and Behavior’

A Social ‘Theft’work?

The Winklevoss twins represent two enemies that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made in the process of designing The Social Network (2010). Did Zuckerberg steal the inspiration for Facebook from the brothers’ idea for their website? The answer may hinge on the divisive issue of intellectual property.

The debate centers around the intrinsic right to own non-tangible, creative ideas. According to traditional patent, trademark, and copyright laws, intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets. Dissidents like Richard Stallman−a software freedom activist−argue that intellectual property creates a ‘bias’ toward property rights by confusing non-physical monopolies with ownership of physical things.

Regarding the creation of Facebook, courtroom and journalistic evidence shows no formal contract between Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses . . . only interesting and entertaining “dorm-room chit-chat.” A mere week after beginning what Zuckerberg referred to as ‘the dating site,’ he started working on a separate ‘Facebook’ project. Zuckerberg appears to have considered the two as competing for the same users’ attention, but also seems to have regarded them as different in key ways. While Zuckerberg does appear to have intentionally strung along the twins with the goal of making his own project the more successful launch, the Winklevosses $65 million lawsuit settlement seems more than fair−especially considering that the entire dispute took place over two months in 2004 and that in the years since, Zuckerberg has built Facebook into a massive global enterprise.

The Winklevoss twins are demanding that the case be reopened not for money but for honor. If there is no such thing as intellectual property rights, then there was nothing to steal and additional demands represent mere ego and greed. If intellectual property represents real ownership of intangible assets, then the battle between information highway robbery and issues of gentlemanly agreement should return to the top of Facebook’s News Feed.

Update: the Winklevoss suit against Facebook was thrown out by a federal judge in Boston as reported on July 22, 2011.

The ‘Customer’-Physician Relationship

Medicine is subtly shifting from an emphasis on what is ideally best for the patient to an environment where hospitals are marketed from survey results and physicians are instructed on how to encourage customers to check the ‘Excellent’ box when rating their care. The danger in primarily viewing a patient as a consumer is that well known adages like ‘the customer knows best’ can gravitate toward motivations based primarily on the profit motive rather than the apparent benefits of collaboration, patient voice, and better service.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us to ask whether we are treating persons (customers) as a means to some end (profits) or as ends themselves (patients). When push comes to shove at medicine’s financial margins, decisions tend to lean toward monetary gain. Efficiency and profits are needed components of every venture (even Kant says not to use people as a means only but as a means as well as an end). Yet this move from taking care of patients to customers—while promoting friendlier hospital environments—may be damaging to the health care system in the long run.

The Hippocratic Oath has been condemned for promoting a ‘guild-like’ environment and its ancient author set aside in the hope of adopting the examples of other tightly managed industries (ironically, some business academics call for managers to take on the guild-like professionalism of the medical field). While some combination of treating patients as a means and as an end is probably acceptable, it seems that the customer/consumer metaphor is being adopted wholesale.

To Hippocrates, a physician’s first consideration was to use his/her art for the patient’s well-being—a re-emphasis that can benefit all stakeholders. Otherwise, this move to make the medical environment more patient-friendly has the potential to make it ultimately more vulnerable.

Written in conversation with Cory Wilson, M.D.

The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

Does BP = Beyond the Pale?

The Center for Public Integrity reported that two refineries owned by BP accounted for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified most of BP’s citations as “egregious willful” reflecting rule violations designed to prevent catastrophic refinery events.

Consider the 582-page application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well that never once discusses how to stop a blowout. Granted, the Minerals Management Service does not require a plan. Instead, amid lax regulation and/or a sloppy corporate cut and paste job, BP pledged that cold water mammals including sea otters, walruses, and sea lions would be protected in the Mexican Gulf. They also provided a Japanese home-shopping network Web address for its primary spill response provider. Not to be outdone, BP attempted to contain the public’s outrage by paying big bucks to fill top search items like “oil spill” with their own video material.

As a practical outlet for the philosophy of morality, ethics gives structure and boundaries. BP’s actions could be considered beyond the pale (unacceptable) for its loss of human life, underestimating the environmental impact, or social gaffes from its CEO. Some counter these unfortunate occurrences with the corporate behemoth as a victim of bad moral luck, regulators unable to keep up with complex rig technology, or managers pressured by the continued drive to hold down costs and make money for shareholders. Do these nuanced qualifications deserve further consideration before making final judgment or does BP’s systematic stench of unethical behavior run outside agreed standards of decency?

Elementary, My Dear Daughter

Our daughter’s summer birthdate forced us to choose whether to begin her educational career (kindergarten) a year earlier or later. I often lamented the ‘early entry’ decision over the years against my child’s objections that any delay would have given her a different set of unknown friends. I argued the extra year would have been better for her physical and emotional maturity.

Through much reflection and ribbing from my spouse, I now realize that the primary reason for waiting was so that I could have our daughter home with us one more year. While there is nothing wrong with this wish, it shows that the entire decision-making process needs more attention.

I wanted to delay the inevitable for these precious elementary school moments of time feel like sand slipping through my fingers.

The days are long but the years go by too fast.

Alex Kettles (former CRU Director, Oregon State University)

MTV’s Rev Run and Justine Simmons have encouraged families to save time by running their household like a business. Organizing the family according to a corporate model would pit our daughter as a stakeholder/employee having a compelling interest in the outcome and her parents as corporate executives. The kindergarten teacher acts as a mid-level manager as we concurrently are tax-paying shareholders of the public school system.

Current stakeholder theory holds that we have a morally significant non-fiduciary relationship with our daughter and that we should consider her needs (e.g. personality type, educational style, teacher qualifications, institutional quality, etc.) as well as our own. Our fiduciary interest demands proper consideration but pales in comparison. Holding my daughter back a year may make her more competitive in the marketplace or as a prospective college student in 12 years but the shareholder thesis that our primary social responsibility in our ‘familial’ corporation is to increase profits (à la an academic scholarship) seems relatively shortsighted.

As a parent or any leader in an organization, some decisions cater to other’s needs; many revolve around our own interests. Surfacing the multiple motivations behind a decision requires time. Despite the inevitable conflict, life often demands an immediate response and does not wait for an all-things-considered thoughtful reply. Fortunately, these crucial relationships are not about getting the correct answers but of managing the competing interests of all parties by asking the right questions about our motivations. Achieving this balance is not simple and may not be possible. Yet considering the various needs of stakeholders ultimately represents a fundamental elementary starting point in organizational management.

Film Recommendations: College Road Trip (2008); Father of the Bride (1991)

Should Shopping Carts Stay or Should They Go?

Is it wrong to take shopping carts from parking lots?

These neighborhood eyesores elicit either the typical exasperated brush off or disappointed shoulder shrug. They inspire the creation of local field guides to identify strays and blogs preventing their abuse. Yet what is at stake in this particular transfer? Is the act illegal, or does taking a shopping cart away from its natural premises represent a moral violation? Are we going too far with calling the act unethical as it simply is an unaesthetic eyesore? Does it rather only represent a frustrating financial and time-consuming clean-up venture for the ownership and/or municipality?

What kind of individual or joint transgression if any is committed by this action? Moral and legal boundaries or aesthetic and pragmatic ideals aside, nobody connects that tomorrow’s grocery and electronic prices are higher because of the current massive cart movement on city streets−costs that are invariably passed onto other consumers (cf. litter as a classic example of what economists term a ‘negative externality.’)

Some cities have chosen to lay the burden on the victims and fine the store owners for the return of their carts. However, most municipalities combine punishment of the presumed thief/litterbug (often a fine) and encourage some type of responsibility from the store owner (e.g., walking customers out to their cars and bringing back the carts, anti-theft devices which lock the wheels, and charging security deposits on carts).

While empathizing with those without the financial means of transporting their goods and identifying with the plight of the homeless, a person’s financial status cannot decide the morality of an act.Some stores try to hire cart retrievers to take care of the immediate problem. But the long-term prospective moral concern affecting our groceries and outdoor strip malls remains.