Is it possible to make money in an ethical way all round?


Hello. I would like to start a business that Is ethical in terms of not having any negative consequences for animals, people and the environment. A business that does not have to be of destructive nature in order to make a profit. I know this is possible but I'm still worried that by taking money from customers that work in non ethical industries/businesses I would be actually supporting these industries, making my business nor ethical after all. Shortly said, is it possible to make money in an ethical way all round? Thus in a way that I'm not contributing at all to any practices of destructive nature? Thanx!


Your question is nearly as much philosophical as economic in nature.  Philosophy is definitely outside my comfort zone, but, fortunately, I was able to confer with a philosopher.  So let me start by addressing that part of your question and then turn to the economics.

Dr. Savannah Pearlman (Howard University) offers observed that your questions reflects a concern with “….consequentialism, which says that an action is right or wrong solely based on the consequences of our actions.” She adds that an alternative, and possibly more helpful, way of looking at this is from a Kantian perspective.  As she goes on to explain: “Kant asked us to consider what duties we have, and to be attentive to those obligations. We have duties to respect the dignity of workers, to treat them as ends in themselves and not as mere means to produce consequences we desire (perhaps for your business, profit). An ethical business on this view, then, would treat workers very well (respecting their own desires, goals and motivations by paying them appropriately for their labor and providing them good health benefits, for example). An ethical business would also avoid deception with customers by embracing transparency (for example, about one's sourcing, or possible negative effects, assuming there eventually will be some... and allowing the customer to make their own decision about whether or not they decide to purchase, rather than manipulating them into purchasing via obfuscation and deception).”

As you can see, then, the ethical considerations here are not necessarily cut and dried.  And you might want to give some more thought to what criterion you want to apply to assessing your choices.

Now let me turn to the economic considerations.  First, I am not sure that your premise that your business will have “no negative consequences…” is entirely plausible.  In general, your business’s production of goods or services or actions will use some scarce resources (if nothing else, your time) that are then unavailable to others.  This will, in the big picture have some impact. 

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that you are able to largely deliver on this objective.  You ask whether providing the goods or services that your business will produce to other industries that are non-ethical in their actions would make your business non-ethical as well?

There are two situations that are worth considering.  First, if you are the only (monopoly) supplier of the goods and services in question, then denying these to the imagined non-ethical businesses might cause them to reduce their destructive activities since they will have to substitute other goods or services that are less well suited to their needs.  However, the inefficiency that you introduce in their activities might have larger negative consequences than their original actions using your goods and services.  For example, suppose you operate the only nearby bridge over a river that they need to cross.  If you deny the non-ethical business access to your bridge, they might have to drive further to deliver their product, hence causing more environmental damage, though reducing the non-ethical business’s profits

The second, more likely, situation, however, is that there are other competing suppliers who will sell to these businesses and your choice to not serve them will have no impact on their activities.  Not selling to them would, perhaps, leave you feeling better about yourself.  But if it didn’t alter the state of the world, your choice would not in fact have had any effect in encouraging a more ethical outcome.

One real world example that seems related to your question is the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights.  In this instance, the owners of Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to provide a custom wedding cake to a same sex couple because same-sex marriage conflicted with their religious beliefs.  The legal issues raised by this refusal wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  And the arguments in this case illustrate the conflicting ethical and legal issues.  It seems unlikely that Masterpiece’s actions had any effect on the number of same-sex marriages.  But it may have made their owners happier and may have made the couple seeking a wedding cake have to work a little harder to celebrate their marriage. 

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Last updated on
November 2, 2023

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