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Greed: The Wild Card variable in Business Ethics

By : Dr. Duane Scott

In all of my Business Ethics classes my students are always reminded of Enron. The curious case of Enron Corporation is a case like no other. If you were a historian this case would be like the statement “Remember the Alamo”. In business the Enron Case was a case in deregulation, greed, and a twisted relationship between the dirty underbelly of business and high minded politics. In hindsight the Enron debacle was an exercise in greed and not asking why there was so much money being handed out to Merrill Lynch, Arthur Andersen, Citibank and others. No one asked why until it was too late.

Now in 2008/2009 we are in a midst of another crisis so much larger than Enron encompassing so many of the same players. This time these players like Merrill Lynch and Citibank are not so lucky to get away unscathed. When the Reagan and Republican revolution took control in both the 80's and 90's deregulation and a smaller government stake was pushed, all of business applauded the idea and for the most part we prospered. Yet that wild card kept getting in the way of true prosperity. During the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and W. Bush era's greed did rear its ugly head in the form of the Savings and Loan crisis, The Enron crisis, and now the Sub-prime mortgage and mortgage backed securities crisis. Why is it that we still have not learned the lessons of the past that greed always destroys (in the end) that of which it built.

The problem is that we never know when this wild card variable (greed) will take root. We cannot account for it in all of our statistical analyses and because of this humanity gets burned by it time and time again. Business in its present form knows it exists but at times wants to pretend it is not there this pretense seems to always happen every ten years, curious! Nevertheless, we know that greed is the root of all evil but it is also one of the root causes of progress. The idea that we all want to come up with the next best and biggest idea is in a lot of ways rooted in greed. It is a part of who we are as a species so we tend to expect greed to surface in all of our lives and especially in business.

One of my favorite movies, “Wall Street” starring Michael Douglas has a fantastic line where he says, “greed for a lack of a better word is good”, I believe he utters those very words or something close to it but his words still ring true today. Yet, the character played by Michael Douglas misses the point or fails to understand something very basic and that is greed also consumes everything in its path look at the fragile planet we live on its resources are being strained and it is being polluted beyond recognition by the time our children's children will take custody. Will it be too late for my darling 2 year old daughter that I so cherish; I am not willing to find out that answer. What I am willing to do is believe in fairness in business, integrity in business, honesty in business, and justice in business. All of these watch words contribute to sustainability in business that can be shared by all; both business owners and consumers alike.

Greed to me is this: you work all day to try and keep up with your neighbor, your neighbor is trying to keep with your boss' neighbor and that neighbor is living well beyond his means in order to impress his latest girlfriend on the side. While you are doing this you are stressed out, you cannot pay your bills, and you are worried about losing your job or your business. While this is all happening your children are out of control because they are mimicking you in pursuit of something that will never give you happiness. Sure you think that million dollars or more you are in pursuit of is going to give you happiness but you better think again, ask that billionaire that just committed suicide because he lost all his billions. Greed has a funny way of doing things like that. My advice to you is to enjoy life and help others to do the same; money is not always the answer to that happiness. Family, friends, and your spiritual relationship with your God is what will make you happy. Money, which we tend to think will make us happy is only one of those tools that we use to facilitate our relationships with those who are important in our life, cherish them not money and I'll bet greed won't take root in your life. Happy living!

About the Author:
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