Good post from The Business Ethics Blog on the difference between law, medicine and business in their aims to serve society directly or indirectly.
The NYT notes that “student advocates contend [the Code] is the first step in trying to develop a professional code not unlike the Hippocratic Oath for physicians or the pledge taken by lawyers to uphold the law and Constitution.” The analogy with physicians and lawyers is instructive. The codes of ethics of most — probably all — true professions include a promise of some sort to promote the public good. But the means by which professionals such as physicians and lawyers aspire to promote the public good is indirect. When lawyers know their clients are guilty, they don’t promote the public good by telling the cops. Their code of ethics forbids that. They play a role in a system of justice, and that role involves defending vigorously even guilty clients. Likewise, physicians are expected to contribute to the public good by advocating for their patients. They’re not supposed to abandon their patients, even if they think it would be socially best to do so. In such cases, there are of course limits on what professionals may do to help their clients or patients. Lawyers can’t suborn perjury, and physicians can’t steal drugs for their patients. But those are side-constraints on what is unquestionably their primary obligation. So if managers aspire to professionalism, that doesn’t, on its own, imply that they should adopt the public good as their first-order goal. What they need to do is to figure out how best to play a role in the larger institution that promotes the public good.
Chris MacDonald makes an interesting point here. And I think it is an important argument. The contention of many over the past decades has been that “the business of business is business” and that businesses can best serve society by doing so indirectly – as a byproduct of pursuing profits. The past 12 months call that approach into question. Perhaps it should be the other way around. Perhaps profit should be a means to an end rather than the sole end in itself. Business needs profits, and should pursue profits, absolutely. But business probably ought to do so with a higher end in mind.