According to De George, the “Do Not harm” principle is one of the essential elements of ethical performance within organizations (272). Certainly, it is usually implied that organizations and individual entrepreneurs should avoid any harm while pursuing their business objectives. At the same time, not all organizations and individual businessmen realize the complexity and importance of that obligation. One of the most common mistakes is when they limit the “Do no harm” principle to humans.
To put it simply, many people believe the “Do no harm” principle is related to humans. In reality, “although the harm to be avoided is most clearly harm to people, the injunction is sometimes applied as well as to preclude harm to animals and the environment” (De George 272). At the same time, organizations cannot secure themselves from all possible types of harm, and they must be ready to weigh the benefits and potential risks of all business operations.
The “Do no harm” principle is closely related to the notions of safety and acceptable risk. On the one hand, in both worker safety and environmental protection, people are expected to accept reasonable harm for the sake of achieving better goals (De George 273). On the other hand, such risks can only be justified when organizations perform a thorough analysis of the harm and benefits involved in their decisions and operations.
Corporations must evaluate the moral dimensions of risk acceptance against the financial and business goals they pursue (De George 273). Consequently, it is extremely difficult for businesses to follow any standardized recipes or establish some clear boundaries of ethical and unethical behaviors. Every situation requires an individual solution to ensure that it is ethical and moral.
Whenever the need to establish an acceptable level of risk becomes urgent, managers must be ready to meet four essential conditions. First, all people must know that they are exposed to certain risks and harm (De George, 274). It is similar to informing customers of the health risks they are facing when they buy and consume alcohol or tobacco products. Second, every person must have full information to make rational decisions.
Corporations must inform their stakeholders of the nature and severity of the risks involved in their business operations, thus empowering every individual to make a rational ethical decision (De George 274). Third, corporations must provide recommendations to help their stakeholders deal with the most common risks (De George 274).
Fourth, rational risk assessment is impossible in the absence of alternatives (De George 274). Eventually, informed individuals are the ones to decide if the risk is acceptable (De George 275). These decisions will have to be made about every ethically or morally problematic situation, including the construction of nuclear plants.
The concept of corporate liability should be distinguished from strict liability. The former implies the level of risk the society can reasonably accept when using a particular product (De George 276). The level of risk is set informally, and only in certain cases by the government (De George 276).
By contrast, strict liability entails the level of risk prescribed by federal or state law, which allows consumers to make legitimate claims in case of product failure (De George 277). However, even the highest levels of legal compliance do not save corporations from the moral obligation to do no harm to the environment.
The “Do no harm” principle can be used in the ethical amelioration of pollution. Questions of acceptable risk have nothing to do with the standards of product safety and established pollution limits (De George 287). Rather, these are value-based questions, which require the active engagement of the target population in a political process (De George 287).
Historically, the public was passive in everything related to environmental pollution on the basis that the government was entitled to set pollution limits (De George 287). At the same time, most harm caused to the environment is not intentional. It is simply a logical by-product of many business operations (De George, 288).
Moreover, the concept of pollution is highly relative to itself (De George 289). In many instances, it is a purely moral issue that cannot be resolved without the active involvement of the affected community. “A moral audit – or a social audit, of which a moral audit is a clear part – can be constructed to include an evaluation of corporate actions concerning pollution” (De George 294).
Whistle Blowing – Morally Permissible or Not?
In light of the various ethical dilemmas facing corporations, whistle blowing remains one of the most challenging aspects of ethics in organizational performance. As mentioned earlier, all corporations are ethically obliged to avoid any environmental or human harm (De George 299). The question is whether corporations and the people working in them have any ethical obligation to prevent harm and what methods they can use to achieve these ethical goals.
Whistle blowing emerges as a convenient but ethically controversial approach to organizational performance. It is a term “used for a wide range of activities that are dissimilar from a moral point of view” (De George 300). These activities can be divided into several different categories, which make it easier to determine their place in ethical decision making.
De George speaks about the so-called “internal whistle blowing” when disclosure of unethical conduct takes place within the same organization (300). In other words, a person who discloses information about somebody’s inappropriate conduct chooses another person within the same organization for such disclosures (De George 300). Internal disclosures can be the result of an organizational offense, a threat of offense, or an offense against a particular employee.
De George describes “personal whistle blowing” as a disclosure of information about an offense made against a specific personality (300). Such whistle blowing can be moral when the case poses similar dangers to others (De George 300). Then there is “governmental whistle blowing” that is applied to the workers in governments and governmental bureaus (De George 300).
Nevertheless, for De George, the ethical discussion is limited to one specific type of whistle blowing, which is impersonal, non-governmental, and external (301). In other words, the whistle blowing dilemmas discussed by De George takes place in for-profit commercial organizations that disclose information to the public, when the risks to cause harm to workers, environment, or the whole community become particularly high (301).
Whistle blowing can be regarded as being morally permissible in all situations because it is always intended to prevent safety failures and public harm. Because all corporations are morally obliged to do no harm to their workers, the environment, consumers and the entire community, whistle blowing can provide the public with the information they need to make rational decisions about acceptable risks.
However, those who believe in the morally permissible nature of whistle blowing often compare it with the importance of free speech (De George 305). Even free speech has its limits (De George, 305). A person is prohibited by law and constitution to provide false information. One is prohibited from yelling “fire” in a crowd of people when there is no such fire (De George 305). Therefore, whistleblowing cannot be morally permissible in all cases. It can only be considered as morally permissible in the following situations.
First, the firm should be guilty of causing significant harm to its workers or the community (De George 306). Second, the fact of harm or its possible risks should be first reported to the worker’s immediate supervisor (De George 306). External whistle blowing should be considered as a measure of last resort.
Third, when one’s immediate supervisor remains inactive, the employee must exploit the existing procedures within the firm to protect the rights of workers and the public (De George 309). Only when these actions do not bring any effects, the employee can use his/her position to justify the morality of external whistle blowing.
Whistle blowing is morally required in two situations. First, the employee has well-documented, accessible, and reliable evidence that the company products, services, or operations pose a serious threat to workers or the public (De George 310).
Second, the employee has enough reasons to believe that his/her decision to go public and disclose important information is the only way to prevent harm (De George 311). In any case, the benefits of going public must overweigh its possibly undesirable consequences, and the chance to cause a positive change must be worth the risks are taken by the employee in his ethical strivings (De George 311).
The property, Patents, and the Age of Information Technologies
The notion of the property changes rapidly against the emergence of new technologies and systems. Today, intellectual property represents one of the most valued organizational resources due to its uniqueness and inimitability. However, with new ethical dilemmas comes the realization that technology creates new forms of property. Therefore, contemporary managers must be aware of the four different types of property listed by De George (431).
First, the tangible property covers all physical items, which can be touched (De George 431). To own tangible property means to have certain rights about these physical items (De George 431). Second, real property includes land and the buildings on it (De George 431). A person may have the right to real property, but it can be used only within limits prescribed by law (De George 431). Third, the intangible property includes financial securities, money, bonds, stocks, and other instruments (De George 431).
It is intangible because it does not have any physical form and no one can touch it. Depending on the nature of the intangible property, it can be a promise, an oral guarantee, or an obligation to provide a certain sum of money, when a particular set of conditions is met.
Fourth, intellectual property “is constituted by a bundle of rights governing products of the mind or intellect” (De George 431). The latter type of property is probably one of the most controversial ones. As a result, new laws and regulatory norms are implemented to ensure that the rights of owners are not violated.
Certainly, owning intellectual property is a task close to impossible because no one can ever own ideas (De George 437). For that reason, patents and copyrights provide intellectual property holders with several rights about their products and their legitimate use (De George 437).
Copyrights are designed to protect ideas in their written form, whereas patents cover not the expression but machines, inventions, compositions, or processes (De George 438). Copyrights are based on the principles of justice, whereas patents pursue the utilitarian logic (De George 438). Both provide sufficient legal and ethical protection to motivate society to be creative and innovative and make its inventions public.
Computer programs should be understood as a copyrightable property because they function as an idea presented in written form. The company or individual who has created the program also has the exclusive right to sell this program and benefit from it (De George 438). Even though software programs are purchased on physical carriers, such as CDs, it is the contents that matter. At times, computer programs are written in ways that do not allow copying them even for personal use (De George 438).
The legal owner of a computer program written on a work computer during the work hours will vary, depending on the situation. If the company can attribute the origins and creation of a specific computer program to one individual, then this individual should be treated as its legal owner.
However, if a team of specialists works on a computer program based on the task provided by the company, then the company owns the right to sell and benefit from the final product.
De George, Richard T. Business Ethics. Prentice Hall, NJ: Pearson Education, 2010. Print.