The Ethics of Business

After reading the passage below in The Meaning of Stoicism, I needed to learn more.

“It goes without saying that such a professional ethics is not restricted to craftsmen and artisans and members of a profession. In the Stoic’s opinion, business too has an ethics of its own. To make as much money as one needs is fair but to steal it from another what is his is against the human law, said Chrysippus (one of the main Stoics); and in the famous debate between Antipater and Diogenes the rights of the seller and the buyer are scrutinized: must the seller point out all of the faults of his wares? Is he obliged to live up only to the laws of the country in which he happens to do business or must he always be mindful of the common nature of man and the common natural law that protects all?

The source for that was Cicero’s De Officiis III, and the questions are fascinating because they call into question our role … as an individual and as a member of society. What do the Stoics feel we should do when the useful conflicts with the honorable?

Here are Cicero’s words on the relevant passage.

“As an example of situations of this kind, let us assume that a good man has shipped a large cargo of corn from Alexandria to Rhodes at a time when the Rhodians were suffering shortage and hunger, and grain was extremely expensive. Assume too that he knew that several merchants had put out from Alexandria, and that he saw their ships laden with corn on course making for Rhodes. Should he report this to the Rhodians, or without divulging the fact, sell his own cargo at the highest possible price? I am assuming that he is wise and honest; the question I pose concerns the debate and discussion he has with himself, for he would not conceal the news from the Rhodians if he thought this dishonest, but he would be uncertain whether it was dishonest or not.

In such cases as this Diogenes of Babylonia, the eminent and austere Stoic, takes a different line from that of his pupil Antipater, a most incisive thinker. Antipater believes that all the facts should be divulged, so that the buyer is kept unaware of absolutely nothing which is known to the seller. Diogenes on the other hand believes that the seller is obliged to report any defects in his goods, in so far as the civil law prescribes, and to conduct the transaction otherwise without chicanery, but since he has goods to sell, he should sell them at the best possible price.

“I have shipped them, and I have set out my stall; I charge no more for my goods than anyone else does.” My price may even be lower when stocks are more plentiful. Who is getting a bad deal?”

Antipater mounts the opposing argument. “Are you serious? Your duty is to have the interest of men at heart, and to promote human fellowship. From birth you were bound by the law of nature and you inherit her principles which you are to obey and observe. They prescribe that your interest is the interest of the community, and conversely, the interest of the community is yours. So will you conceal from your fellow men the availability and abundance which they have at hand?”

Diogenes will perhaps respond: “Concealment is one thing, and silence is another. At this moment I do not conceal anything from you by failing to inform you of the nature of the gods or the highest good, knowledge of which would be of greater value to you than wheat at a low price. I am under no obligation to tell you what it is in your interest to hear.”

“On the contrary,” Antipater, will say, “you are under an obligation, for you recall that nature has joined all men in alliance.”

“I do recall that,” Diogenes will reply, “but the alliance you mention is surely not the kind that forbids a man to possess anything of his own If it does so forbid, then nothing should be put up for sale at all; everything should be given away.”

In this whole discussion, you see, no one says, “Though this is dishonorable, I will do it because it is in my interest.” Rather, the one side argues that the action is advantageous without being dishonorable, and the other argues that it should not be performed because it is dishonorable.

The answer, then seems to be that … concealment is not just reticence, for by it you seek to further your own interests by ensuring that your knowledge remains hidden from those who would benefit from it. Is there anyone who does not see the nature of this kind of concealment, and the sort of man who practices it? He is certainly not an open or straightforward person, decent, or just, or honest; on the contrary, he is crafty, devious, sharp, deceitful, malicious, cunning, wily, and artful.

Technology is starting to make this sort of information asymmetry harder. Today, the Rhodians would know there were more ships on the way, how much grain they held, and when they’d arrive. This, argues Daniel Pink, changes how we sell.