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Commercial airlines negotiating the ethics of flying in, and over, conflict zones

Tel Aviv is not a place for the faint of heart to fly into, these days. Should Canadian and American and European airlines go back to avoiding the place, or should they bravely continue flying there? The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians along the Gaza-Israel border is, tragically, showing no signs of letting up, and the result is real risk to commercial aircraft.

Back on July 22, Air Canada briefly cancelled flights betweenTel Aviv and Toronto, and in the US the Federal Aviation Administration issued an order banning U.S. carriers from flying in and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. The European Aviation Safety Agency, on the other hand, merely issued an advisory recommending caution.

Then, after a few days, the FAA lifted its ban on flights, but the trouble is far from over. There was news in late July that rockets had been fired at the Tel Aviv airport as an Air Canada jet was preparing to land. Flight AC85 was forced to abandon its initial attempt to land, and to circle the airport while waiting for confirmation that landing was (reasonably) safe. Reports suggest that the airline is nonetheless going to continue flying to Israel.

Is that the right thing to do? How much risk is too much? With regard to the company’s own calculations, a spokesman for American Airways was quoted as saying “Nothing matters more than keeping our crews and customers safe.” OK, fair enough. But how safe is “safe”? No one in the post-9/11 world thinks air travel is perfectly safe, although it is still in general the safest way to travel. But is flying into Tel Aviv sufficiently dangerous (beyond the minimal dangers of “normal” air travel) to make it unethical for airlines to fly there?

One way out would be for airlines to defer to the relevant federal regulations and edicts. But laws and regulations only sets the minimum standard. Airlines are free to opt not to fly into Tel Aviv, even when legally allowed to do so, so they still have a decision to make.

Some people will immediately say that yes, of course, airlines should avoid taking the risk. After all, every life is precious — you can’t put a price on a human life. Except, of course, you can, and we do it all the time. If every life was literally priceless, we would spend even more on air safety (not to mention auto safety) than we already do.

Another option would be to say, hey, it’s a matter of “buyer beware.” Airlines can fly into Tel Aviv, ethically, as long as their customers know how dangerous it is. And what passenger contemplating flying into Tel Aviv these days wouldn’t know about the dangers? But then, being aware of the conflict there doesn’t imply having a good understanding of the precise risk involved in flying there. Recall that just about everyone was surprised when a Malaysian passenger plane was shot down over the Ukraine back in July, killing nearly 300 people. Everyone knew about the armed conflict going on there, but no one apparently thought that it constituted a serious risk to air travel. So it is unrealistic to expect the average passenger — one without a fine appreciation of the precise geographical location of the latest round of skirmishes and not tutored in the capacities of the latest ground-to-air rocket technology — to make this call. Passengers rely on airlines to engage in reasoned risk assessment, and to keep them reasonably safe.

In the end, commercial airlines should err on the side of safety. After all, even if (let us suppose) all the passengers on a given flight into Tel Aviv are Israelis returning home, ones who are happy to thumb their noses at Palestinian rockets, the airlines still have a duty to their employees — in particular to the pilots and flight attendants who make up their flight crews. Those flight crews accept, as do passengers, that flying implies certain risks. But no one on the plane, whether passenger or pilot or flight attendant, has the information required to make a rational decision about flying into Tel Aviv, and so they shouldn’t be expected to do so.


    
 


Continental presents Sustainability FactSheet

Sustainable management and corporate social responsibility are among Continental’s fundamental values. Both reinforce the culture of solidarity while simultaneously contributing to forward-looking and values-based corporate management. As a signatory of the Global Compact of the United Nations, we support its ten principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption. Click here for the Sustainability FactSheet. … [visit site to read more]

    
 


Facebook’s Study Did No Wrong

It came to light recently that Facebook, in collaboration with some researchers at Cornell University, had conducted a research study on some of its users, manipulating what users saw in their news feeds in order to see if there was an appreciable impact on what those users themselves then posted. Would people who saw happy news then post happy stuff themselves? Or what? Outrage ensued. After all, Facebook had intentionally made (some) people feel (a little) sadder. And they did so without users’ express consent. The study had, in other words, violated two basic rules of ethics.

But I’m not so sure there was anything wrong with Facebook’s little experiment.

Two separate questions arise, here. One has to do with the ethics of the Cornell researchers, and whether Cornell’s ethics board should have been asked to approve the study and whether, in turn, they should have approved it. The other has to do with the ethics of Facebook as a company. But this is a blog about business ethics, so I’ll stick primarily to the question about Facebook. Was it wrong for Facebook to conduct this study?

With regard to Facebook’s conducting this study, two substantive ethical questions must be dealt with. One has to do with risk of harm. The other has to do with consent.

Let’s begin with the question of harm. The amount of harm done per person in this study was clearly trivial, perhaps literally negligible. Under most human-subjects research rules, studies that involve “minimal” risk (roughly: risks comparable to the risks of everyday life) are subject to only minimal review. Some scholars, however, have suggested a category of risk even lower than “minimal,” namely “de minimis” risk, which includes risks that are literally negligible and that hence don’t even require informed consent. This is a controversial proposal, and not all scholars will agree with it. Some will suggest that, even if the risk of harm is truly tiny, respect for human dignity requires that people be offered the opportunity to consent — or to decline to consent — to be part of the study.

So, what about the question of consent? It is a fundamental principle of research ethics that participants (“human subjects”) must consent to participate or to decline to participate, and their decision must be free and well-informed. But that norm was established to protect the interests of human volunteers (as well as paid research subjects). People in both of those categories are, by signing up to participate in a study, engaging in an activity that they would otherwise have no interest in participating in. Having someone shove a needle in your arm to test a cancer drug (or even having someone interview you about your sexual habits) is not something people normally do. We don’t normally have needles stuck in our arms unless we see some benefit for us (e.g., to prevent or cure some illness in ourselves). Research subjects are doing something out of the ordinary — subjecting themselves to some level of risk, just so that others may benefit from the knowledge generated — and so the idea is that they have a strong right to know what they’re getting themselves into. But the users of commercial products — such as Facebook — are in a different situation. They want to experience Facebook (with all its ups and downs), because they see it as bringing them benefits, benefits that outweigh whatever downsides come with the experience. Facebook, all jokes aside, is precisely unlike having an experimental drug injected into your arm.

Now think back, if you will, to the last time Facebook engaged in action that it knew, with a high level of certainty, would make some of its users sad. When was that? It was the last time Facebook engaged in one of its infamous rejiggings of its layout and/or news feed. As any Facebook user knows, these changes happen alarmingly often, and almost never seem to do anything positive in terms of user experience. Every time one of those changes is made (and made, it is worth nothing, for reasons entirely opaque to users), the internet lights up with the bitter comments of millions of Facebook users who wish the company would just leave well enough alone. (This point was also made by a group of bioethicists who pointed out that if Facebook has messed with people’s minds, here, they have done so no more than usual.)

The more general point is this: it is perfectly acceptable for a company to change its services in ways that might make people unhappy, or even in ways that is bound to make at least some of its users unhappy. And in fact Facebook would have never suffered criticism for doing so if it had simply never published the result. But the point here is not just that they could have got away with it if they had kept quiet. The point is that if they hadn’t published, there literally would have been no objection to make. Why, you ask?

If Facebook had simply manipulated users news feeds and kept the results to themselves, this process would likely have fallen under the heading of what is known, in research ethics circles, as “program evaluation.” Program evaluation is, roughly speaking, anything an organization does to gather data on its own activities, with an eye to understanding how well it is doing and how to improve its own workings. If, for example, a university professor like me alters some minor aspect of his course in order to determine whether it affected student happiness (perhaps as reflected in standard course evaluations), that would be just fine. It would be considered program evaluation and hence utterly exempt from the rules governing research ethics. But if that professor were to collect the data and analyze it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, it would then be called “research” and hence subject to those stricter rules, including review by an independent ethics board. But that’s because publication is the coin of the realm in the publish-or-perish world of academia. In academia, the drive to publish is so strong that — so the worry goes, and it is not an unsubstantiated worry — professors will expose unwitting research subjects to unreasonable risks, in pursuit of the all-important publication. That’s why the standard is higher for academic work that counts as research.

None of this — the fact that Facebook isn’t an academic entity, and that it was arguably conducting something like program evaluation — none of this implies that ethical standards don’t apply. No company has the right to subject people to serious unanticipated risks. But Facebook wasn’t doing that. The risks were small, and well within the range of ‘risks’ (can you even call them that?) experienced by Facebook’s users on a regular basis. This example illustrates nicely why there is a field called “business ethics” (and “research ethics” and “medical ethics,” and so on). While ethics is essential to the conduct of business, there’s no particular reason to think that ethics in business must be exactly the same as ethics in other realms. And the behaviour of Facebook in this case was entirely consistent with the demands of business ethics.


    
 


A true leader would rename the Washington R*dskins right away

A leader has to be able to do hard things, including, perhaps especially, leading his or her organization through difficult changes. Indeed, many leadership scholars regard that as the key difference between the science of managing and the art of leading. Lots of people may be able to manage an organization competently in pursuit of well-established goals. Fewer can lead an organization when hard changes need to be made. And in the case of Daniel Snyder, the owner of a certain football team whose home base is Washington, DC, one of those hard changes should be to get on with it and change his team’s name.

Snyder has faced a groundswell of criticism over his team’s continued use of the “R*dskins” moniker. There have been vows to boycott the team and its paraphernalia. A growing list of media outlets have even vowed no longer to use the team’s current name in their coverage of the team. There’s even a Wikipedia page detailing the ethical debate over what many take to be an offensive, even racist name.

And if Snyder is going to change the team’s name (something he’s given no indication he is inclined to do), it needn’t be just because he’s worried about offending people. Two professors from Emory University have argued that there’s a good business argument for changing the team’s name. In particular, their analysis suggests that the name is bad for brand equity. “Elementary principles of brand management,” they state, “suggest dropping the team name.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has even entered the fray by canceling the team’s trademark registration. The PTO has rules, it seems, against trademarking racial slurs. This doesn’t mean that the team has to change its name, but it surely helps to devalue the brand and promises to reduce income from merchandising.

The whole sorry mess has the feeling of inevitability about it. The name can’t stay forever. The tide of history—and sound ethical reasoning—is against Snyder on this one. Snyder is an employer, most of whose employees are members of a historically-disadvantaged group. It is unseemly at best to resist so adamantly the pleas of members of another historically-disadvantaged group that he stop making money from a brand that adds insult to injury.

It is time for Daniel Snyder to act like a leader, to do the hard thing—the honourable thing—and change that name.


    
 


A true leader would rename the Washington R*dskins right away

A leader has to be able to do hard things, including, perhaps especially, leading his or her organization through difficult changes. Indeed, many leadership scholars regard that as the key difference between the science of managing and the art of leading. Lots of people may be able to manage an organization competently in pursuit of well-established goals. Fewer can lead an organization when hard changes need to be made. And in the case of Daniel Snyder, the owner of a certain football team whose home base is Washington, DC, one of those hard changes should be to get on with it and change his team’s name.

Snyder has faced a groundswell of criticism over his team’s continued use of the “R*dskins” moniker. There have been vows to boycott the team and its paraphernalia. A growing list of media outlets have even vowed no longer to use the team’s current name in their coverage of the team. There’s even a Wikipedia page detailing the ethical debate over what many take to be an offensive, even racist name.

And if Snyder is going to change the team’s name (something he’s given no indication he is inclined to do), it needn’t be just because he’s worried about offending people. Two professors from Emory University have argued that there’s a good business argument for changing the team’s name. In particular, their analysis suggests that the name is bad for brand equity. “Elementary principles of brand management,” they state, “suggest dropping the team name.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has even entered the fray by canceling the team’s trademark registration. The PTO has rules, it seems, against trademarking racial slurs. This doesn’t mean that the team has to change its name, but it surely helps to devalue the brand and promises to reduce income from merchandising.

The whole sorry mess has the feeling of inevitability about it. The name can’t stay forever. The tide of history—and sound ethical reasoning—is against Snyder on this one. Snyder is an employer, most of whose employees are members of a historically-disadvantaged group. It is unseemly at best to resist so adamantly the pleas of members of another historically-disadvantaged group that he stop making money from a brand that adds insult to injury.

It is time for Daniel Snyder to act like a leader, to do the hard thing—the honourable thing—and change that name.


    
 


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