In rapid succession, articles about sports coaches rehired, even after ethical lapses, and hedge funds that keep going, regardless of insider trading allegations and abusive work environments, remind us that there are precious few sanctions for bad behavior. It’s all about the money—the money the sports programs bring in, the money the hedge funds make, the money that retailers like Wal-Mart (WMT) save by purchasing clothes manufactured overseas in dangerous conditions, the size of the fines that banks such as HSBC (HBC) pay for money laundering and that others like Bank of America (BAC) pay for mortgage abuses, compared to their income and assets.
These are all calculations in which ethics and responsibility play an apparently small role. As the late New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses is reported to have asked, “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” But a world in which it is all about the ends—and the only outcome that matters is money—is a spiritually and morally impoverished place.
It would be nice in 2013 to have human values and well-being play more of a role in decisions about business practices, including the choice of suppliers and how far companies will go in their decisions and management practices to save or make money. There must be some limits, some sanctions, some consequences for bad behavior—even if it is profitable behavior.
It would be wonderful if human well-being, including life span, became a focus of both governmental and company decisions—and if it weren’t just about the money. Access to Medicare and Medicaid is about more than budgets—ample research demonstrates that access to health care saves lives. Companies that lay people off affect those individuals’ lifespans and their likelihood of suffering ill health: Suicide, depression, and unhealthy behavior such as smoking and alcohol abuse have been linked to job loss and economic insecurity. Long work hours increase blood pressure. Unemployment and economic insecurity are not just issues of dollars and sense; they profoundly affect physical and mental health and mortality chances.
When and how did human well-being, and indeed human life, come to play such small roles in judgments about how to organize work arrangements and social policies?
If human life is indeed sacred, if we care about people and not just polar bears and endangered species, then we need to “score” governmental and company decisions not just by their monetary effects, but also on their implications for people. If in 2013 we move people more to the center of attention and—for a minute or two de-emphasize the dollars—we will be on our way to creating a more humane and morally enriched world.
(This post was originally published in BloombergBusinessweek on January 2, 2013)