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Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage

Contributing Author – Monday Morning Business Ethicist

Can Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) find honor and redemption as an industrial infiltrator? In the 11th chapter of a newly published book, Inception and Philosophy, I argue that he can . . . though only in his dreams.

Perhaps Dom has no choice in being a corporate spy and is not responsible for his actions. He may be considered honorable because of his professional expertise, or admirable devotion to family. I root for the “hero” too, but find Dom both unethically and recklessly irresponsible for violating principles of freedom.

Are we not all morally flawed and in need of redemption?

If you enjoy thinking about Inception, you’ll like this collection of 22 edited essays covering the various ethical, metaphysical, and religious themes of the film.  You can find Inception and Philosophy at Barnes and Noble, and sneak a peak at Amazon.com.

Inception and the Unpopularity of Big Business

In Inception (2010) the audience ends up rooting for Cobb, the industrial spy, versus empathizing with Fischer, the undeserved mark of an “anti-heist.” It is one part contemporary worship of the movie star (DiCaprio) and another part distrust of big business. In today’s economic climate, the thief/deceiver garners more sympathy than a corporate CEO. Add in a tortured protagonist who wants to leave his job, clear his name, and return to his family, and you have a recipe for what philosopher David Hume described as an unfair battle between emotions and logic. The end justifies the means, the movie audience embraces a prospective con−and in a short skirmish, the passions win every time.

In the context of our global economy, the film brings up a question of whether certain lines of work are inherently unethical. Are there honorable ways of conducting oneself as a member of the mafia, a prostitute, or a corporate spy? Is redemption possible within these professions or only upon its departure?

Some argue that levels of corporate espionage could be ethical according to extensions of game theory. Entire branches of the electronics and computer industry provide equipment for industrial spies. Despite legal prohibitions, businesses using secret agents and technology seem to bear no more shame than nation-states. The relative lack of prosecution under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and Economic Espionage Act (1996) disguises the widespread prevalence of underground activity.

Others believe that companies walk a fine line between more socially acceptable forms of competitive intelligence and corporate espionage. From this vantage point, a vocational catharsis may result from realizing that the possibility of ethical espionage only exists in dreams.

For an expanded version of this post, see my chapter on “Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage” found in Wiley-Blackwell’s book Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream (November 15, 2011).