Blog author: kschmiesing
by on Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Profit is a valid motivation for business and, generally speaking, a company that pursues profits within the bounds of law and morality will be fulfilling its purpose admirably.

But profit is an instrumental good rather than a final good, and so there are sometimes extraordinary circumstances that place additional moral obligations on business.

For an edifying story about a company that responded well to such circumstances, see US News & World Report on the financial firm Keefe, Bruyette, and Woods in its 9/11 issue.

For a less heartening story about businesses whose fulfilment of such obligations is at least doubtful, see Business Week‘s exposé of American tech companies’ dealings with the Chinese government.

Admitteldy, the issues in the latter story aren’t cut and dried. Companies can’t possibly be expected to control the uses to which their products are put. The defense offered by Thomas Lam of Cisco is compelling: “The networking hardware and software products that Cisco sells in China are exactly the same as we sell in every market in the world. It is our users, not Cisco, that determine the applications they deploy.”

But when a company is dealing with a government that has as spotty a human rights record as China’s, it should be especially circumspect, I think. To the contrary, Cisco and others have apparently catered to the country’s oppressive system, marketing their goods as “strengthening police control” and “increasing social stability.”

That seems not quite right.