Personal Morals and Business Ethics

A few weeks ago, I posted a column on employee empowerment that used the example of a Girl Scout selling cookies outside a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco. It generated vehement response in some forums, many excoriating the parents of the girl for exposing her to immoral activities.

Why? Use of marijuana for physical and behavioral issues requires a prescription, and is an accepted therapy in California. In Colorado, where recreational use is permitted, Girl Scouts are forbidden to sell in front of pot shops, just as they are from selling in front of bars, night clubs, adult video stores, or any other business whose patrons must be 21 or older. That makes sense, and is consistent. No scouting council (as far as I know) forbids them from selling in front of physician offices or hospitals, both of which dispense powerful, and legal, drugs.

Morality differs from place to place, and shifts over time. Smokable intoxicants have been legal in Holland for decades, just as nude bathing is in Germany. I don’t hear claims that the Dutch or Germans are immoral as nations.

On the other hand, few of us would defend stoning or amputation, forced marriage of pre-teen girls or honor rape as moral acts, yet they are legal and considered righteous in parts of the world. Some business owners claim a moral right to refuse service to gays and lesbians, but I’m personally not clear on how that differs from the not-so-far-gone practice of denying service based on skin color, when some people claimed that allowing races to fraternize was immoral. We can agree to disagree.

Business ethics, on the other hand, are pretty close to universal (although perhaps not universally observed). I know of no jurisdictions where it is permissible to sell poisonous or dangerous products labeled as safe. Nowhere can you legally contract for goods and services with no intention of paying, or collect payment with no intention of delivering. Honesty and integrity are the underlying assumptions in every business transaction, from the smallest to the biggest.

The dictionary says that ethics are the application of moral principals. That is true, but in business, my moral compass doesn’t have to agree with yours as long as my ethics do.


 Hunting in a Farmer’s World: Celebrating the Mind of an  Entrepreneur, is an ownership book, not a management book. “John Dini’s writing is crisp, peppered with good data and concise, pointed stories, revealing how deeply he knows the head, heart and guts of entrepreneurs.” (Read more reviews)

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One Response to Personal Morals and Business Ethics

  1. Peter Hirst says:

    I agree, morals are personal and ethics a code of behaviour and both require defending.

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