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Doing Ethics: Rational and Creative Thinking
Rick Garlikov

One of the characteristics of many, perhaps even most, math and logic problems -- often called "word problems" -- where the calculation or formula is not simply given to you, is that answers are much easier to verify (or disconfirm) than they are to discover in the first place.  Sometimes the same is true of mechanical and scientific problems, where a solution is difficult to discover, but one can tell fairly readily whether a proposed solution works or not, at least as far as the problem is defined.  (It is not always possible to test for or to immediately recognize unknown or unanticipated harmful side-effects of any solution, but one can tell whether the proposed solution will have the sought effect.)  The same sort of phenomenon often occurs in trying to solve ethical dilemmas or problems in real life.  It is often far easier to recognize a proposed solution to a particular problem as being satisfactory or not (apart from, at the time unrecognized, side-effects) than it is to discover or invent a likely solution.  Having ethical principles does not mean one can automatically or mechanically generate solutions to ethical problems, even when those principles can be applied fairly easily to see whether a proposed solution is satisfactory or not. 

Suppose, for example, that one has an ethical principle which, in a particular conflict between two people, implies that if there is an act which would accommodate the interests of both in this particular case, it would be morally more preferable than any act which only accommodates one person at the expense of the other.  It might be extremely difficult to think of an act that would accommodate both parties' interests or needs, but if a possible candidate arises, it is usually fairly easy to see whether it will, at least theoretically, serve that purpose.  Rational thinking and creative thinking are not necessarily the same thing.  The purpose of developing rational principles in ethics is to help one seek answers in the right places, and to recognize them when they are found.  But rational ethical principles may not necessarily be helpful for logically, mechanically, or automatically inventing or discovering feasible solutions in the first place.  Consider the following case, for example.

In a (fictional?) case study, reprinted in Donaldson, Werhane, and Cording's Ethical Issues in Business: A Philosophical Approach (seventh edition), Hans Wolf describes a situation in which a pharmaceutical company CEO, under pressure to increase profits, must decide, from among numerous other options open to him, whether or not (also) to sell a treatment for serious viral infections to the Philippine government, primarily for treatment of serious measles cases.  The dilemma is that the U.S. FDA has rejected the drug for the U.S. market because, though it passed the old standard, it does not pass a brand new standard the FDA uses.  It is not clear whether the batch available is therefore in some way dangerous or not.  It was not previously considered dangerous.  Currently the Philippine government uses the old standard.  Moreover last year, half the children in the Philippines who got measles died from them.  There is no batch of the drug available to sell to the Philippines that would meet the FDA's new standards, because the drug is difficult to make and is in short supply.

The vice president in charge of exports for the pharmaceutical company has told the CEO "It's not our job to over-protect other countries. The health authorities in the Philippines know what they're doing. Our FDA always takes an extreme position.  Measles is a serious illness. Last year over half the kids in the Philippines who had measles died. It's not only good business but good ethics to send them the only batch ... we have available."

Should the CEO sell the batch of this drug to the Philippine government or not, is the implied question.

It seems to me there is only one thing that makes this seem like a difficult decision for the CEO (or the company) to have to make, something that is left out of the above facts.  Once that consideration is entered into the equation there is no ethical dilemma for the company at all.  There seems to be the implicit assumption above not to tell the Philippine government about the new FDA test and their subsequent rejection of this drug. The dilemma seems to be whether not to sell the drug to the Philippines or to sell it under some sort of false pretenses in order to deceive or "pull a fast one" on the Philippines. This is a false dichotomy because there is another option -- telling the Philippine government the whole situation about the new test and the rejection by the U.S. government and then letting them decide for themselves whether to buy the drug or not.

From the information given about the need in the Philippines for some sort of effective treatment, it seems to me quite clear that the government would want the drug anyway.  They should have the opportunity to accept or reject the sale, as long as they have the honest information from the company.  I think it would be wrong to sell the drug by trying to act as though nothing happened to make the drug unmarketable in the U.S. and just rely on the health officials in the Philippines to know about it on their own.  But there is every reason to believe, from the above, that whatever the risk might be to Philippino children, the risk of not using the drug seems far greater.  I see selling them the drug with full disclosure as being no different from a scratch and dent sale or a discontinued model clearance sale that has full disclosure. 

Selling them the drug without full disclosure would be dishonest even if legal.  It would be like marketing a drug with side-effects that only the company knew about and were able to sneak past the FDA.  Theoretically, FDA testing should be about catching problems a company does not detect or know about, not about catching problems a company knows about and is trying to hide.  Morality is not some sort of game where subterfuge or cheating others is okay if one does not get caught ahead of time.

Finally, it may be that the vice president in charge of exports, quoted above, meant that full disclosure was unnecessary because the Philippine health authorities know about the new FDA tests and will not care, given their needs for the treatment.  But the way the statement reads, it is more likely that, regardless of what he meant, the CEO would take his statement as implying or saying it is ok to keep the medical authorities in the Philippines in the dark about the existence of the new test and the failure of the company's drug to pass it because they ought to be competent enough to know about the test, whether they do know or not -- that it ought to be their responsibility to know.  Had the vice president said more clearly that the pharamaceutical company should inform the Philippine officials of the test and the drug's failure of it and then let them decide whether the need justifies the risk because they are competent to make that decision, I think there would have been no moral dilemma for the CEO about this particular issue.  I think the apparent moral dilemma only shows up if the vice president's comments are meant to advise or condone deceit or lack of any kind of disclosure about the new FDA test and its results.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.