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5 Big Moments that Tested Business Ethics this Decade

dryer vent cleaning . / Credit: Gary Bass |

Since Jan. 1, 2001, we’ve lived through countless events in which businesses’ ethics were tested.

Diane Swanson, chairwoman of Kansas State University’s business ethics education initiative, trimmed the long list of events to what she thinks were five of the most influential ethical moments within the business sector this decade, which ends when 2011 begins:

Corporate philanthropy and price gouging after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: “This really stood out to me as an ethics moment because at the same time some businesses were hiking up the price of fuel, others were making unprecedented donations to the recovery effort and telling workers to go home and be with their families.”

Enron’s collapse in 2001: “(The accounting) profession really lost its time-honored ability to self-regulate. It embodied a real shift that such a large profession charged with important oversight duties can no longer be counted on to police itself.”

BP oil-rig accident and ensuing environmental disaster 2010: “The theory is that we allow corporations to be chartered and to become as large as they are for the social good. However, there's a point when it can no longer be said that self-regulation is going to serve that goal in certain industries.”

Subprime-mortgage crisis and foreclosures: “In moral reasoning, evidence indicates that most people reason on a conventional level. They look to a rule or law for a boundary for their peer group. That’s where most people reason. But if you take out the rules and the peer group believes everybody else is doing what they are, that creates a real moral hazard. We saw the effects of that hazard in the asymmetrical bailouts that rescued big banks but failed to provide such assistance to most homeowners.”

Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010: “A powerful playing field has been created where corporations have undue influence and/or conflicts of interest. Whenever there are conflicts of interest and power imbalance, ethical dilemmas are like bombs waiting to be ignited.”

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