I teach business ethics. No, that’s not an oxymoron. Yes, it really exists. I’ve been asking my undergraduate students about Mary and her bonus for ten years. I started noticing a trend about year 4, so I started collecting data on their responses. Without fail 86% of students would buy the bonus. Slightly less so after we discuss, but it’s always overwhelmingly because of a win-win-win reason. As some of you know, my kids are freakishly smart. Yes, I’m slightly exaggerating, but not much. I asked my 8-year old about Mary and her bonus and I’m here to report her response. In ten years, I’ve never heard this line of reasoning, so I offer it for your consideration today. Here’s the case:

Should Mary Buy Her Bonus?by Shel Horowitz

Mary Kantarian was achingly close to making her million-dollar sales goal — only $1,000 short. If she made the goal by the end of the year, it would mean a fat $10,000 bonus check, and a happy trip to the bank to finance a dream home she’d recently found. Other sales reps also were close, and one had already made the bonus. The books would close in just a few days, but at the end of the year her clients weren’t in a buying mood.Still, Mary had one hope: inner-city Lincoln High School. Its students, who often had to share textbooks, could really use her company’s multimedia educational aids, but Lincoln had no discretionary budget for new teaching materials. What if Mary donated the money to this needy school for the purchase, and put herself over the magic quota?Or perhaps she could offer partial “donations” to close sales at several schools. She would then surpass her quota goal with room to spare. The Lincoln school or other needy schools would gain immensely valuable educational programs that would help them serve their students, her company would pick up sales revenue, and she would meet her sales quota. Even better, she would earn a cool $10,000 on an investment of $1,000.At first thought, this seemed like a win-win solution. But the idea needled Mary’s conscience. The more she thought about it, the more something about it bothered her. Yet if she didn’t close this “sale” — one which would help out disadvantaged students — she wouldn’t make that bonus, and her dream house would remain out of reach. She found herself wondering, What should she do?Maddy’s response:

  • Is Mary rich or poor?
    • If she’s rich, she shouldn’t have to do it because she doesn’t need the money.
    • If she’s poor, she should do it because she needs the money.
  • Did her boss say she could?
    • Yes, then ok.
    • Even if her boss said no, she should do it if she needs the money.

I’d never heard the aspect of need as a rationalization prior to this conversation. This smart 8-year old caused me to realize she was using the concept of Moral Intensity in her argument. Consider this slight edit in the case. What if, instead of using the money for her “dream house”, she needed it for her Mother’s cancer treatment? Does that change things? Maddy’s concept of moral intensity is clear here. The more we need the money and can justify our actions, the less wrong it seems. Or, at least, the better we can justify. After my students are convinced they are sticking with the win-win-win argument (Mary wins, school wins, business wins) I ask them to apply the front of the newspaper test. Really, it’s a thing. If people knew the details, would they accept it as ethical? Imagine this newspaper headline:Local book representative profits from donation to high school; buys dream home with proceeds
What would happen if Telsa Rodriquez of the Winona Daily News got hold of this news?  (Full disclosure: former student of mine, fabulous Tesla. Yes, named after the 80’s hair band. I asked the first time I had her in class. Thanks, mom and dad, she said.) She’d absolutely eviscerate Mary in the press (and, yes, I’d be proud).

Incredibly, students don’t seem phased by this realization. Rather, it’s the WWJD argument that stops them cold. Instead of What Would Jesus Do, they would reconsider if Grandma found out. Not mom. Not dad. Not best friend. Not boss. Grandma! Why? Because Grandma thinks the best of you and you don’t want to disappoint. Not so with parents, friends and siblings.

I can’t wait to publish this data.

I went on to ask Maddy about the ethics of stealing from the rich to feed the poor.

Stealing a little from the rich to feed the poor is ok, but if they don’t need it, they should just work harder.

I asked a follow up question: At what amount of food does it become wrong, if any?
<whole minutes of silent thought occur>

They can steal one cereal box, not two. Because they don’t need two, just one. If people notice, they will get in trouble, so only take as many as you need.

Isn’t stealing a sin?, I asked.

A sin is a sin, but you can ask God for forgiveness.
Then get to work.

I love this girl.