On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will take the oath of office as our country’s 45th president. His campaign and victory are unique for many reasons, among them is that his credentials exist entirely in the private sector as a businessman. A graduate of the Wharton Business School, he has been working for his family’s business interests for nearly 50 years. He is that rare businessman who has achieved celebrity status, which was instrumental to his winning the presidency.
When he transitions from the private to the public sector, his beliefs and practices will have far greater resonance and influence as president than they ever had as a private businessman. As commander in chief, Trump will help set the tone of how the country conducts its affairs, especially in the business arena where he has the most experience and notoriety. For this reason, it is fair to ask, “What will business ethics look like in the Trump era?” The following are some observations on Trump’s campaign and transition in the context of ethical concepts, and some predictions on how businesses might interpret Trump’s behaviors as they decipher what’s acceptable from an ethical perspective.
From classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, ethics is truth that comes from wisdom and knowledge. Unfortunately, Trump has repeatedly played fast and loose with the truth. Politifact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization, maintains a scorecard in which it claims Trump was “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire” 69 percent of the time, based on over 300 of his recent public statements. These statements range on topics from Russian computer hacking to voter fraud. The site claims his statements are either “true” or “mostly true” only 15 percent of the time.
Climate change is one area in which his beliefs are at odds with the best available knowledge. He has steadfastly denied climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. More problematic, he is doubling down on his denial of climate change by appointing like-minded individuals to key positions. Each of his appointees to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy and Department of State have either questioned the validity of climate change research or have advocated for the fossil fuel industry.
A concept that safeguards ethical behavior is transparency, the state of being visible to external observers. Transparency keeps companies honest, and the greater the transparency, the more ethical a company is perceived. It’s worth noting that as a privately held corporation, the Trump Organization has no obligation to make public its financial statements. However, as a candidate and president-elect, Trump has been anything but transparent in how he has handled his private business affairs. Throughout the campaign he refused to share his tax records, a longstanding tradition for presidential candidates. Additionally, he has yet to share how he will address potential conflict of interest issues.
Trump’s lack of truth and transparency doesn’t necessarily suggest he has no ethical standard. In fact, he’s exemplifying the “conventionalist ethics” of business popularized by Albert Carr in his 1968 book, “Business as a Game.” To Carr, business is a competition with its own set of rules that are not synonymous with society’s broader ethical standards. He equates business to a poker game in which it’s acceptable to bluff an opponent in order to win. Since everyone is aware of this, deceitful business practices become the norm, or the convention; thus the name “conventionalist ethics.” In this scenario, someone who conducts their business at a higher ethical standard will risk being undercut by a less-ethical competitor. Business is too cutthroat to take the moral high road. Conventionalist ethics doesn’t encourage illegal activity, but business people should do whatever they can get away with to beat the competition. Not getting caught is more important than being ethical.
The conventionalist ethic brilliantly describes Trump’s campaign and transition. His lack of truth and transparency helped him win the White House. Apparently to Trump, politics is only a game as well. There’s no reason to suggest he’ll change after the election. One of his campaign platforms was to remove unnecessary business regulation. Undeniably, there is some wasteful regulation, but we need to remember that business regulation comes as a reaction to unscrupulous business practices. Removing regulation will encourage businesses to practice at standards lower than before.
The major flaw of the conventionalist ethic is the perspective that the business arena is apart from society, so that business ethics should be separate from personal ethics. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. Business practices affect society at all levels locally, nationally and globally. Society has too much at stake with what happens in the business world. Trump needs to realize that business—and indeed, politics—is not a game. His decisions and behaviors will become examples others will follow. So far, his examples during the campaign and transition and have set a miserably low bar for ethical practices. A business enterprise, when ethical and successful, should elevate all its stakeholders, from its owners to the communities in which it does business—society benefits. On the other hand, we suffer when companies act unethically. Just think of the customers of Wells Fargo, the consumers of Volkswagen or the “graduates” of Trump University.
John Keiser Ph.D. is associate professor in the School of Business Administration & Economics at SUNY College at Brockport.
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