Disruptive technology can ruin careers, even whole industries. Here’s why that’s OK

Behaving ethically in business isn’t about being a saint

 
Tim Cook on stage at the September 9, 2014 Apple keynote, with a backdrop reading “One more thing...”
(Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Ok, pop quiz. How many people did Apple put out of work this week, when the tech giant announced the Apple Watch and the Apple Pay point-of-sale technology built into the new iPhone 6? How many hopes and dreams were dashed?

How many would-be smart-watch entrepreneurs are saying to themselves, “oh, well, maybe I won’t go ahead with that Kickstarter campaign after all”? How many credit card company employees are now contemplating other lines of work? How many people at Samsung and BlackBerry and Pebble and Sony are going to be out of work, as the relevant corporate divisions get downsized as those companies lose market share to Apple’s new products?

The exact number is hard to guess, but it’s certainly not zero.

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To lose one’s job, even temporarily, is generally a very bad thing. It jeopardizes one’s ability to house and feed oneself and one’s family. Causing such an outcome would, in most circumstances, be a bad thing to do.

But for all the cynicism about the launch event and the products it featured, no one criticized Apple for having made life hard for executives and employees at other companies. No one is blaming Apple for the fact that its nifty new products are going to put people out of work.

Why? Because that sort of disruption is what capitalism thrives on. Capitalism is, and must be, subject to ethical constraints, but those are effectively just the rules of the game, not a denial of the nature of the game itself, and not an attempt to render it impossible to play the game.

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Just imagine what it would look like if companies really were expected never to hurt anyone. That would mean never putting anyone out of work, which means never inventing anything new and never improving one’s own products and processes in a way that might risk putting a competitor, no matter how poorly run, out of business. Such a standard is simply not plausible, not a reasonable limit on doing business.

The point here is a simple but deep one. Business ethics isn’t about being a saint, or an angel, or about trying to make everyone happy. At heart, it’s about finding reasonable limits on the pursuit of profit, or, more personally, on how we go about making a living.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

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