Ethics in Business (and Life)

by Mr. Cheap

I was surprised that the part of my post about negotiation on Tuesday that drew the greatest number of comments was “It’s a really scummy thing when people do this to you, and it’s just as scummy if you do it to them” in relation to dirty tricks pulled by car dealers (and my advocating that you shouldn’t try to pull dirty tricks back on them).  It was especially surprising, as I’d put a teaser in the post that I expected to get SOMEONE to ask for details about:  “There are ethical ways that you can get a fair deal from a car dealership which are far more likely to work.”  Commenters seemed to be more interested in pulling a dirty trick on a car dealer than on getting a better deal!

Rather than turning the comment section into a back and forth where people repeatedly assert what they feel is “right”, in this post I’m hoping to outline the reasons why I made that statement, and the limitations of the other perspectives offered. I’ll be using this definition of values, morals and ethics in this post.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” Robert Pirsig makes the assertion that ethical codes are used to judge and attack OTHER people, and aren’t used to guide the behaviours of the group itself (as it’s a codification of things all members of the group already understand).  Whether it’s hippies (calling other people “squares”) or Victorians the code’s purpose is to attack.  Hopefully I’ll avoid doing that here.

I find the golden rule (“Do onto others as you would have them do onto you“) to be a fairly good guiding principle that fits well with my values.  I’m a fairly empathic person, and can usually see things from other people’s perspective, such that if I treat someone badly it really makes ME feel like crap.

I’ve jokingly suggested to friends a modification to this rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.  And assume other people follow the same rule.”  What this twist lets us do is assume that how people treat us is how they WANT to be treated, and allows us to take revenge as long as it’s poetic justice:  we wrong them in the same way they wrong us, but with the deliberate misunderstanding that they desire for this to happen.

A number of comments seemed to base their perspective on similar ideas.  “Car dealers try to pull dirty tricks on customers, so its OK for us to do the same thing to them.”  I think this is the wrong way to approach the situation for a number of reasons.

  1. This is how feuds start.  You retaliate against them, car dealers (and their salesmen) justify their actions as saying “see, the customers are doing the same thing to us!” and they start using even dirtier, more unethical approaches.  Eventually the entire marketplace becomes so disreputable that it collapses.  As has been written about before, I think this change is happening for real estate agents, and I suspect car dealerships will increasingly adopt a “no haggle” policy (as Saturn has done) as the Internet allows sale prices to become increasingly easy to determine.
  2. This can bleed over into other negotiations you enter where the other person *IS* behaving honourably.  Once you’ve seen that you can use the dirty trick to get a good deal, the temptation will be there to use it more often.  As my friend got used to doing it in real estate deals, and eventually attacked me with the same trick.  “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…
  3. It harms YOU when you behave badly.  There’s a group of Internet videos which are of people torturing Tickle Me Elmos (such as dowsing him in gasoline and burning him while he dances and sings).  This doesn’t hurt the doll in any way (it’s not alive), however it DOES harm the torturer.  “The point isn’t whether it’s an issue for the creature. It’s what does it do to us.”  Serial killers usually get started torturing animals, in situations like this I think the toy is clearly a proxy for an animal or something that COULD experience pain.  Whether torturing animals contributes to eventual criminal behaviour or is an early sign of underlying issues is a debatable point, but I think it’s fair to say bad behaviour often leads to more bad behaviour.

jesse made the comment “So what is negotiation but extracting more money from the naive?” which I HOPE implies a misunderstanding on one of our parts.  My view of negotiation is it’s a “dialogue to resolve disputes“.  We’re negotiating with our partner when we argue about who should wash the dishes or change the baby’s diaper, and we’re negotiating with a car dealer when we disagree about the price.  To view negotiation as a method for preying on the “naive” and making their (probably already pretty bad) lives worse to benefit ourselves is a remarkably callous approach to life.  This attitude could result from someone who has been forced into a job that requires them to prey on unsophisticated buyers (and they adopt this attitude so they can live with themselves).  In such a case I think they should immediately quit and find a new way to earn a living as their current profession is causing them significant harm.  If they’ve come to this belief on their own, sadly I think they’re defective as human beings, and I can just about guarantee that there will be unhappiness that results from this in their future.

Be Sociable, Share!