Richard Spinello and Business Ethics textbook

“We cannot approach the vexing moral dilemmas that arise in business without some fixed principles, a set of transcultural standards of right and wrong,” writes Professor of the Practice Richard Spinello in Business Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Cases.

Published by SAGE this year, Business Ethics is a textbook that explores quandaries in corporate purpose and decision-making through more than 40 case studies. Very much a believer in the free market, Spinello—who is also assistant chairperson of the Management and Organization department—examines real-world scenarios in which ethically challenged corporate executives in finance, pharmaceuticals, tobacco, and other industries have failed in their moral obligations to consumers, shareholders, and the public.

“The cases are timely and relevant examples of the new frontiers in the field,” writes one academic reviewer, “and the emphasis on a rights-based personal ethics approach is fresh and unique.”

Indeed, beyond the number, breadth, and depth of the case studies he has marshalled, Spinello makes an important contribution to management studies by framing so many an ethical issue as a matter of natural rights. The professor draws upon centuries of philosophy—referencing Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and more—to argue for a set of natural rights, which are “not subjective,” he writes.

The basic rights Spinello enumerates are the right to freedom or political liberty; to be free from slavery or servitude; to ownership of property; to freedom from torture; to not be subject to arbitrary arrest, and to a fair trial; to not be knowingly condemned on false charges; to nondiscriminatory treatment; to life, health, bodily integrity, and security of person; to freedom of speech and association; to political participation; to minimal education; to subsistence (a standard of living adequate for health and well-being); to privacy; and to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

In one chapter, Spinello focuses on the right to privacy. In an age when the clicks and data of millions power an industry that has become integral to society, some wonder whether it’s feasible or even desirable to maintain our privacy. Spinello argues that it is, for philosophically complex reasons. In the excerpt below, he explains why privacy should be protected. 

The Right to Privacy

… Privacy is an instrumental good. Life, health, and bodily integrity (including physical and psychological security) along with friendship and marriage are intrinsic goods; they are ends in themselves and sought for their own sake because they are fundamental aspects of our human flourishing. We form close bonds with others not just for instrumental purposes but because of the fulfillment provided by joining together in a wide arrangement of close associations and communities. Knowledge is another intrinsic good we value and seek out for its own sake, because it too directly contributes to our well-being. When one acts in order to know something, that action is immediately intelligible. As Martha Nussbaum observed, Aristotle’s proposition that all humans desire to know is verified by “the most refined anthropological analysis.”

… Privacy is always an instrumental means to some further end, such as security or friendship. Consider some of the reasons why a person desires privacy. First, we require privacy to ensure that certain personal relationships will adequately conserve a proper level of intimacy. The intrinsic goods in jeopardy by the erosion of privacy are intimate friendships and marriage. But privacy allows us to participate in these goods without self-consciousness and without the inhibition that comes from worrying about the prying eyes of others. According to [Judith Wagner] DeCew, “The desire to protect a sanctuary for ourselves, a refuge within which we can shape and carry out our lives and relationships with others—intimacies as well as other activities—without the threat of scrutiny, embarrassment, judgement and the deleterious consequences they might bring, is a major underlying reason for providing information control” or privacy protection.

People also desire privacy to preserve their security and safety, which is an integral aspect of the fundamental good of life, physical integrity, and health. In the information age, informational privacy is essential for our security. As we pointed out, without privacy (understood as the condition of restricted access), we might be subject to various harms such as the misuse of our credit card data when our credit card company gets hacked. Our Google search records might be used against us by a legal adversary, or they might find their way into a report to our supervisor, who fires us for looking for a new job. Invalid access to our social media or Facebook account can lead to online stalking or cyberbullying.

Privacy’s status as an instrumental good does not devalue its importance. Since privacy supports intrinsic objective goods such as friendship and security, it is a critically important instrumental good. And since privacy is necessary to secure the benefits of these intrinsic goods, a strong case can be made for a right to privacy in order to ensure justice or fairness. According to H. L. A. Hart, “The core of the notion of rights is neither individual choice nor individual benefit but basic or fundamental individual needs.” Rights are based on need and necessity. As we discussed in Chapter 3, rights protect something of great value and neutralize substantive and recurrent threats. Individuals require the strong and stable protection provided by privacy rights in order to be free from harm and from interference with the pursuit of intrinsic goods that can occur in real space or cyberspace when a person cannot safeguard his or her personal data. A claim right and its correlative duties, which require identified parties to respond in certain ways to rights holders, are the best form of protection against the specified threats.

Thus, our basic argument is that in the various situations where normative protection of information is necessary and reasonably expected, a person has a right to the condition of restricted access to his or her information. Individuals and organizations have a correlative duty to uphold and protect this right in these circumstances by respecting this person’s desire to restrict access to his or her personal information and by giving that person the means to exercise limited control over that information. Like most rights, this right to privacy is not absolute. Privacy rights must be limited by the comparable rights of others along with morally justified exceptions for the sake of the common good.

Business Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Cases, by Richard Spinello, is available from SAGE Publishing.

Excerpt selection and introduction by Michael Doyle ’20 and Patrick L. Kennedy ’99.