Every profession can have bad seeds

By Tibor Machan: Syndicated columnist

As I was channel surfing the other night, I went past one broadcast channel on which I saw and heard the following sentence uttered by a young woman: “He was a businessman so he would do anything to turn a profit.” I caught a glimpse of the name and it was “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit.” Then I moved on.

But I could not shake the experience, so I stopped searching for something to watch and began to reflect on what I just saw and heard. The sentence in question was extremely revealing. It gave a rather unambiguous characterization of how many in the entertainment industry understand business professionals.

Imagine if someone said on a program, “He was an artist so he would do anything to create something aesthetically worthwhile,” or “She was a farmer so she would do anything to harvest her crop,” or, yet again, “He was a professor so he would do anything to get his students to understand what they needed to know.” By “anything” what is meant here, given the context, is even a heinous crime.

It is imaginable, of course, that an artist kidnaps some model so as to capture his or her image on canvas given that model’s refusal to cooperate voluntarily. Or that a farmer might enslave a number of farm hands so as to get a crop harvested, given that he or she is short of funds to pay for their work. Or again that a professor would make use of something illicit, like the torture of some animal or even student, in order to teach a lesson.

Yet characters who are artists, farmers or professors in television shows, movies or other fictional fares are rarely portrayed that way. Rarely is it said of them that they would resort to anything to accomplish their professional objectives. It is well understood they would instead adhere to ethical and legal standards.

When it comes to how many in the entertainment industry conceive of people in business, there’s a dramatic difference. Those who conduct business “would do anything to turn a profit.” It is taken to be their nature to have no ethical or legal restraints.

As a professor of business ethics this brings to mind the sadly but frequently heard notion that the very subject I teach is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. People in business simply cannot act ethically — business itself, like cheating at cards, is unethical. This notion is in part promulgated by those who produce entertainment fare around the country, even the world — screenwriters, novelists, dramatists, lyricists and so forth. And yet nothing can be further from the truth.

It is just as much of a false generalization about business that those working in the field will do anything to turn a profit as all those other generalizations I imagined before. Some, of course, will. But some health-care professionals will do anything to accomplish their objectives; we have been made aware of this recently from news reports about how some hospitals have sold body parts without the authority to do so.

And there are professors who will utilize corrupt means by which to convey their message to their students, as we know from all the reports about biased instructions, the exploitation of research assistants, and so on and so forth.

In every profession there is the potential, and there are some actual instances, of unethical and illegal conduct. This is, of course, true of business. But what seems undeniable is that those screenwriters, dramatists, novelist and lyricists who churn out all the entertainment products that we see and read have it in mainly against people in business.

Why? Not because there is evidence of disproportionate instances of unethical and illegal conduct by people in the profession.

There is, rather, a prejudice about business. There is a predisposition on the part of too many people among those giving us movies, television programs, pulp fiction and drama to denigrate business. Even though these same folks are ever so eager to get their agents to make good deals for them, they regard deal-making detestable, dirty.

The ultimate reason for this, I submit, is that when it comes to business, no one can deny that most people act in a self-interested fashion — they want to come out of a deal better off than they have gone in; they want to prosper from deals, not lose. They are not doing charity. And that means they cannot pretend to be altruistic as they carry on, not like farmers, artists or educators who can all make it seem they aren’t in it to pursue some personal ambition but rather to serve some supposedly higher good or the public interest.

Which is, of course, bunk.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: Machan@chapman.edu