Sweet ethics

Suppose you are a senior executive of a company selling sugary drinks. Your company’s profits depend on successfully selling more and more of them into both new and old markets. Your shareholders, your peers, your bosses, your workers and your own livelihood depend on this outcome, on which therefore you quite naturally focus all your efforts.

But then people start saying that sugary drinks are bad for children. You can see around you the evidence of child obesity as a growing problem and the statistics back this up. Of course, the causes of the problem are complex and the links are hard to prove. The responsibility is even harder to pin down – it’s not as if you are forcibly funnelling the drinks into captive children, choices are being made by both children and their parents. So what do you do? The first step is surely to try and find out for yourself. You commission some research into what is going on and whether your product really is causing or contributing to obesity. If it turns out that there is no link, you obviously trumpet this as loudly as possible. But what if the evidence points the other way?

There will still be some ambiguity. In the first place, obesity is not a disease as such. It is a cause of ill health, not an illness in itself. It’s not as if the drinks were dissolving children’s bones, to create a macabre example. In the second place, obesity is about excess so it is possible in principle for dietary adjustments to be made, including of course drinking in moderation although that won’t help your sales figures. But other foods – chips, burgers, donuts – are likely to be contributors. It’s not all down to the fizzy drinks.

But this story cannot be dismissed without confronting the obvious ethical dilemma. Not pushing the drinks means the end of your company and long before that the end of your career. Pushing the drinks means contributing to the ill health of children – not causing, but contributing. It’s not quite like the tobacco industry – we are here assuming there is nothing harmful about the drinks as such, just harm from drinking too many, which could perhaps be said of any food. But of course, even if you stop selling the drinks, who’s to say your competitors will? So there might be no benefit at all to children from you stopping.

So on one side there is profit, the health of a major company and the jobs of many people. On the other there are fat, unhealthy children, partly though not directly or uniquely your responsibility. What should you do? It’s a classic dilemma of our time, almost a defining ethical issue of modern capitalism.

Your first instinct as an executive will almost certainly be to defend your product. It is not harmful in moderation and no doubt you offer sugar free alternatives anyway. You hate to give ground to your competitors and you are willing to comply with any new legal restrictions, even if you consider them unnecessary and ill judged. Does that not exhaust your ethical responsibility?

Not necessarily. It is the difficult kind of question which the ancients called sorites. A man with no hair is clearly bald, as is a man with one, two, three hairs and so on. At some point however there are sufficient hairs and the man is not bald. But there is no clear transition point, no threshold. Not everything has a tipping point. Many ethical dilemmas take this form and this is one.

When does the aggressive marketing of a product which is not harmful in itself or when consumed in moderation become unethical? The bar is surely lower if the consumers are likely to be children, certainly lower if there are any signs that people can become addicted, but still, there is no obvious tipping point. That does not mean however that the point of transition is never reached. Not all men are bald. At some point it must be said that the scale of marketing and sales, if not the product itself, is just wrong because it contributes to harm. There are externalities (hidden costs which others bear) in the form of illnesses which someone has to deal with and pay for, so the company’s profits are based to some extent on exploiting these externalities. The company is not wholly innocent.

But if we accept that healthier children are a good idea, we must accept also that in a case like this the market will not produce this result unaided. If we depend on the conscience of the senior executive (you, remember, in our little fantasy), the decision will be delayed long past the point where outsiders might consider any ethical line to have been crossed. You are after all conflicted by your responsibilities to colleagues and shareholders, not to mention self interest. Worse, in the end the least sensitive and responsible company will enjoy a monopoly as others drop out. So the market fails, or rather, the market does a limited job perfectly well and returns a profit out of externalities and doubtful practices. Probably government has to step in, by a sugar tax or regulation or advertising restrictions or whatever, so that the decision balances the various interests in the interests of the community as a whole.

Not for the first time in our history, sugar may thus again test our understanding of ethical and political issues which pit wealth against human well-being.

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