Blogs & Comment

Ethics of profit, Part 2: Profits unjustly gained

The second installment in a three-part series on the ethics of profit.

This is the second in a 3-part series on the ethics of profit.

As I noted in the first in this series, profit is often subject to ethical criticism. But the reasons for that are not clear. To begin our analysis, we need to distinguish between the ethical evaluation of profit itself, and the ethical evaluation of the profit motive. The first 2 parts in this series are focused on profits per se. The next one will focus on the profit motive.

Our focus last day was on unjustly large profits. Today’s focus is on profits that are gained unjustly, regardless of the size of those profits.

There are several distinct circumstances in which profits might be said (by at least some people) to have been unjustly gained.

  1. Profits gained through exploitation. Under this heading, we might include the profits earned by drug companies that jack up the prices for life-saving drugs, or profits earned by tow-truck operators who cruise the highways during snowstorms, offering to rescue stranded motorists at exaggerated prices. I’ve blogged before about exploitation, and in particular about how hard it is to define. The big problem is that, generally, situations that get called “exploitative” involve none of the usual factors that make transactions unethical, factors like force, fraud, or deception. When we say that profits have been gained through “exploitation,” we typically mean that the situation in which such profits were earned were — in some vague way — unfair, but it is notoriously difficult to say just what is unfair about them.
  2. Profiting from vice. Under this heading, we might include profiting from legal sale of tobacco, alcohol, pornography, and sexual services. Many people think one or more of these ways of making a living are morally suspect. We might want to distinguish among different cases, however, including based on factors such as choice and information and power. The janitor at a cigarett company, for example, might be held less blameworthy than the company’s lawyers and advertising executives.. We might also include, under the general heading “profiting from vice,” things like doing business with bloodthirsty dictators.
  3. Profits from financial speculation. This one may strike some as odd. But there is a long history of suspicion with regard to those who engage in financial speculation, including especially things like short selling (which involves betting that the price of a stock will fall). After all, the speculator is essentially a gambler, and the sense that many people have is that such gambling is of no social value: speculators don’t build things, after all. And there are worries that speculators contribute to the growth of dangerous market bubbles. But defenders of speculation argue that speculators, unlike gamblers, do have beneficial effects. They add liquidity to markets, and their speculation, made visible by their investments, adds valuable information to the market.
  4. Unethical business practices. Here we have what is potentially an enormous grab-bag of business practices that constitute legal, but unethical, ways to make a profit. I tend to agree with Joseph Heath’s view*, that we should delineate the boundaries of this category in terms of what Heath calls (socially) “non-preferred competitive strategies”. Heath’s idea is basically that agressive competitive behaviour on the part of companies is generally a good thing (when, e.g., they compete by innovating and by seeking efficiencies), but their behaviour becomes fundamentally anti-social when they compete by using strategies that tend to make markets work worse overall (i.e., make markets less able to perform their social function of increasing social well-being). So the “forbidden” strategies here would include any attempt to profit from information asymmetries (e.g., by misleading customers), externalities (e.g., pollution) or monopoly. Profits gained in those ways may rightly be criticized.

We might add to this list the gaining of profit by individuals or institutions that we think ought, for various reasons, not make profits at all. For some people, at least, that includes government agencies and public universities.

Are there other ways in which profits (even small profits) can be unethical, ways that don’t fit into one of the categories above?

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*Heath’s argument about non-preferred competitive strategies can be found in his paper, “Business Ethics Without Stakeholders,” Business Ethics Quarterly, 2006 (Vol. 16, No.3).