Some say business ethics is an oxymoron. It ought not to be. As the American Law Institute states, “Corporate officials are not less morally obliged than any citizens to take ethical considerations into account.[1] The contemporary business world, in fact, takes ethics seriously. Nike employs a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) whose main job is to address sweatshop issues. Google consults its ethics advisory board. Apple teaches ethics in its in-house employee university. Facebook is considering hiring a Chief Ethics Officer. With continued attention to the roles and responsibilities of business in society, managers face challenging decisions about how to prioritize demands made upon them. In my research, I develop an account of the roles and responsibilities of business that can guide managers in responding to ethical demands. In this respect, my research fits squarely within the field of business ethics. It also speaks to relevant issues in management research, human-computer interaction, and algorithmic accountability. Three main themes of my research are: (1) The future of the workplace; (2) symbiotic links between business ethics and social sciences; and (3) Cross-cultural business ethics.

I. The Future of the Workplace

1. Is gamification of HRM just a game?

How can one person get another person to do what she wants her to do? Employers seek a good answer. An up-and-coming answer that many companies (e.g., Microsoft) have increasingly turned to is “gamification,” which refers to a motivation technique using video/app game elements in non-game contexts.[2] These systems build on the tremendous popularity of video games and the capacity of connected digital platforms to support interactivity and feedback. Gamification merges the playful world of games into the serious world of business, generating various tension points. In particular, the introduction of gamification to human resources management (HRM) has become embroiled in serious moral debates. Most notable is the accusation that by using gamification, employers exploit workers, because they do not pay for the increased outcomes that workers produce through gamified labor. I investigated this charge.[3] I explain why the three most widely accepted theories of exploitation (Kantian, libertarian, and Marxian) do not define typical practices of gamification as exploitative. To further help practitioners develop a balanced view on gamification, I—together with Kevin Werbach, who has popularized gamification as a business strategy[4]—coauthored a paper that develops a comprehensive framework for gamification ethics. The framework suggests that practitioners and designers should be especially cautious about (primarily but not limited to) whether their use of gamification practices: (1) takes unfair advantage of workers (e.g., exploitation); (2) infringes any involved workers’ or customers’ autonomy (e.g., manipulation); (3) intentionally or unintentionally harms workers and other involved parties; or (4) has a negative effect on the moral character of involved parties.

2. What if Uber’s driverless cars face the trolley dilemma?

In Pittsburgh, you can often see Uber’s driverless Volvo SUVs. As the number of autonomous vehicles increases, ethical questions arise. One question that has been paid much public attention is the inevitable crash dilemma—Between a Volvo SUV and a Mini Cooper, which one should the autonomous car crash into?[5] My coauthor and I answer this question, defending the random choice for a paradigmatic case.[6] Our crash story is a variant of Philippa Foot’s trolley problem introduced in 1967.[7] Philosophers have regarded the trolley case as a dilemma (a technical term for cases in which an agent is required to do two actions but cannot do both, so is condemned to moral failure) like Goldbach’s Conjecture in mathematics. Thus, we as a society have a duty not to create such a railroad system. Even so, a driverless car can face such a dilemma, and the car cannot but make a choice. We offer a rational decision-making framework for such dilemma situations. From an expected moral value approach (or “moral hedging”), like Pascal’s wager, we show why the random choice is rational, whether we take as our metric Consequentialism (utility) or Non-consequentialism (fairness).

3. What role and responsibilities should business take in the coming machine age?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes conjectured that in one hundred years, society would face “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses of labour.”[8] Lately, a growing number of reports assert that Keynes’ prediction will be true.[9] I, along with a coauthor, offer a precautionary account of why business managers should proactively rethink about what kinds of automation firms ought to implement, by exploring two challenges that automation will potentially pose.[10] We engage the current debate concerning whether life without work opportunities will incur a meaning crisis, offering an argument in favor of the position that if technological unemployment occurs, the machine age may be a structurally limited condition for many without work opportunities to have or add meaning to their lives. We term this the axiological challenge. This challenge, if it turns out to be persuasive, leads to a second challenge, to which managers should pay special attention: the teleological challenge, a topic especially relevant to the broad literature about corporate purpose and governance. More specifically, we argue that the best way to predict the future is to make it, and that society’s choice of model of corporate purpose in the coming decades can have a significant impact on the meaning crisis. We show that both the shareholder profit-maximization model and its major alternative, stakeholder theory, are insufficient to address the meaning crisis. Unless rebutted, the two challenges compel business leaders to proactively rethink the purpose of business for future society. Otherwise, businesses will be contributors to a major ethical crisis and societal externality in the coming society.

4. Should Google respect users’ ‘right to explanation’?

A growing number of computer scientists and governmental bodies have called for “algorithmic accountability.”[11] In particular, in 2016, the European Parliament adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to regulate automated algorithmic decision systems. Researchers debate whether the GDPR, in addition to “a right to be forgotten,” grants data subjects another novel kind of protection, a so-called “right to explanation.”[12] If the GDPR grants such a right, companies (e.g., Facebook) that process the personal data of EU residents have a duty to provide a meaningful explanation to involved parties (e.g., users, customers, or employees) about how their automated algorithmic systems reach decisions. The debate itself assumes that there ought to be such a right, but the justification for this right is underexplored. I, along with my coauthor, search for the ethical foundations of the right.[13] We contend that the ethical foundation of informed consent justifies a right to explanation. Our strategy is to show that properly understanding the ethical importance of informed consent (especially its role as assurance of placing trust[14] as well as protection of individual autonomy) affirms that the rationale of informed consent itself entails the importance of ex post explanation. We also maintain that in order for consenters to be justified in placing trust upon a data processing company, the assurance must involve the company’s readiness to respect a right to an ex post explanation. We are currently conceptually exploring possible models of an explanation.

II. Symbiotic Links Between Business Ethics and Social Sciences

5. Is implicit bias an excuse to lower ethical standards in business?

Business ethics research often begins from problems in the business world, and social sciences have rich resources to help business ethicists accurately understand the nature of these problems. Behavioral sciences for the last decade have shown that the human capacity to act on ethical values is often significantly limited due to a variety of intrusive psychological factors, including implicit biases that subconsciously impede good ethical decision-making. For instance, employers who believe that they are committed to racial and gender equality still implicitly discriminate in promotion or hiring processes, if they have implicit biases. As a group, these tendencies are often referred to as “bounded ethicality.”[15] One particularly well-researched implicit bias is “motivation blindness,” which causes good-intentioned auditors in an auditor-client relationship to fail to respect their duty of independence.[16] Then, it is psychologically very difficult for auditors in an auditor-client relationship to fulfill the very purpose of accounting—accountability.[17] Thus, we as society should reform the current auditor-client relationship. Some people argue, though, that until we reform the institution, auditors should not be expected to have a duty of independence, based on the meta-ethical formula that “ought” implies “can” (OIC: One can be under a certain obligation only if she can perform it). I reject the claim, showing with my coauthors that upon close examination, the claim relies on an inappropriate interpretation of OIC, which is vulnerable to numerous counter-examples.[18] We correct the misunderstanding of OIC and show why people in business settings have high ethical duties even under the threat of implicit biases. Our work has practical implications for issues of glass ceilings, board diversity, and workplace inclusion.

6. What contributions can business ethics make to management research?

An empirical researcher, when listening to a normative researcher (e.g., an ethics researcher), often says, “Your claim has many empirical assumptions.” Likewise, when ethics researchers read management papers, they often see ethical value assumptions. As clarifying and validating empirical assumptions strengthen the rigor of normative research, clarifying and justifying normative assumptions can strengthen the rigor of management research. As William H. Starbuck and Paul C. Nystrom wrote, “social scientists cannot speak without expressing their values…social scientists should be self-aware: one can compensate for the biases one acknowledges but not for the biases one denies.”[19] For instance, some behavioral scientists identify factors that correlate with a behavior that they regard as “unethical.”[20] Yet, at no point do they offer why the behavior qualifies as “unethical.” This omission can expose an experiment’s operational constructs, as well as their prescriptive power, to challenges about accuracy and relevance. If a certain behavior (e.g., deception in negotiation) that social scientists assumed as “unethical” turned out to be not unethical,[21] the epistemic rigor and prescriptive power of their work would become damaged. An often-raised question, for instance, is “No harm occurred. Why is that behavior in the experiment unethical?” Behavioral scientists can address this challenge by drawing upon the ethics literature that explores under what circumstances harmless wrongdoings occur.[22] My coauthor and I submit that ethical notions/claims are sometimes used in organizational research without acknowledgements. In such cases, opportunities to utilize moral objectivity are lost because of a research trend not to acknowledge normative assumptions.[23] We offer a typology of how recognizing the potential objectivity of ethical claims can sometimes expand the reach and relevance of management research.

7. How can companies respectfully lay-off workers?

Lay-offs are an inevitable part of a growing economy.[24] It has been and will be true in the coming age of automation. A distinctive characteristic of lay-offs, described by social sciences, is that they are a “necessary evil.”[25] In many cases, lay-offs are neither the worker’s fault, nor the employer’s. “That’s bad luck,” one might say. Philosophers and legal scholars have studied duties in cases of bad luck. In particular, Bernard Williams’ example of the lorry driver has been studied to understand tort and strict liability.[26] I have further developed the logic to show that severance pay in the context of lay-offs can play an important ethical role to preserve the dignity of departing workers.[27] In the original lorry driver case, the driver who faultlessly harms the child is under an obligation to express some appropriate symbolic gesture to the child and the family. I make a casuistry (parallel) argument that employers who faultlessly lay off workers are likewise under an obligation to express some reparative gesture—and, given the circumstances of our society, in most cases severance pay uniquely well expresses this kind of special commitment in the context of lay-offs.

III. Confucian Cross-cultural Business Ethics

8. Is it really western imperialism to say that Foxconn should respect human rights and dignity?

Saying that business is global today is like saying that arithmetic is mathematical. The field of business has paid special attention to cross-cultural issues (e.g., sweatshops in developing countries). And the field has made substantive progress—in particular, further developing John Rawls’s hypothetical social contract method for the context of the global economy wherein hypothetical contractors from varied cultural backgrounds meet; the Integrative Social Contracts Theory (ISCT) persuasively confirmed the importance of minimum core human values, called “hypernorms,” which any business person should respect as a global citizen.[28] And yet, hypernorms are still conceptualized mainly through western concepts (e.g., individual rights), so they are still practically less persuasive to, for instance, Chinese and East Asian businesses. For instance, consider the controversy about the precarious working conditions of Foxconn iPhone factories (e.g., compulsory overtime, lack of breaks, and opaque grievance procedures) in China, which has caused numerous suicides of workers, resulting in the installation of steel mesh to the windows of dormitories. In response to activists’ requests for the factories to respect basic human rights, managers and local officials have repeatedly argued that individual rights offend the distinctive Confucian/Chinese clan-like life and, thus, that labor and human rights must not be permitted in Chinese workplaces. This has some justification—unlike in the West, the concept of humans as “rights-bearers” is unfamiliar to Chinese moral logic, which primarily understands humans as “rites-bearers” who observe social rituals together and in so doing cultivate role-obligations. Therefore, in my research, I translate global social contracts into Chinese moral logic. Drawing upon the Chinese classical texts and contemporary interpretations, I develop an internal criticism that explains why Chinese managers and officials have Confucian reason to admit the value of individual rights.[29] I show how the notion of workplace rights, obviously of Western origin, can be useful to promote the Confucian ideal of family-like intimate and affective ties (“human rites”), once they are adapted to the needs of Confucian moral culture. Furthermore, I, along with coauthors, wrote another paper that develops a Confucian logic that shows why Confucian managers should consistently commit themselves to promoting workers’ dignified life or wellbeing.[30] Firms are hierarchies, and Confucianism—i.e., a philosophy of hierarchy—has rich resources for the legitimacy of hierarchy. According to Confucianism, the authority in a hierarchy cannot be legitimate unless it is committed to promoting members’ wellbeing. Throughout our exploration, we showed that unlike the Western view on dignity as a threshold notion (e.g., minimum respect), in Confucian moral tradition, dignity is best understood as a perfectionist ideal for wellbeing. The practical implication of my work is that it may enable Western managers in multinational enterprises (MNEs) to better persuade Chinese managers and officials by placing discourses on human rights and dignity within a Confucian context.

9. Does Confucianism have resources to solve problems in the Western business world?

In addition to developing Confucian perspectives for Confucianism-influenced countries, I also have explored the value of Confucianism for the Western business world. Surveys show that incivility pervades not just in politics but also at the workplace. Many people intuitively worry about growing incivility, but it is difficult to show why incivility is unethical through ethical theory: Uncivil behaviors often measure up well in traditional substantive dimensions of autonomy, fairness, and utility. Drawing upon a Confucian idea about humans as ceremonial beings, I developed, with a coauthor, a comparative argument by which Westerners can reinterpret (or recall) the ethical value of civility.[31] Through a series of examples we explain that in our moral life, appearance or the expressive dimension of an act is an inescapable aspect of respect, which existing ethical theory has difficulty capturing. The practical implication is that managers have an ethical obligation to cultivate a work environment in which rules of expressions (e.g., manners) are properly honored. In addition, my coauthor and I develop a Confucian approach to the so-called team production problem to further develop the team production literature,[32] but with a twist. In team production, “it is difficult, solely by observing total output, to either define or determine each individual’s contribution to this output of the cooperating outputs.”[33] An ex ante contract causes opportunism and an ex post negotiation causes wasteful rent-seeking. Various researchers suggest authority as a solution to the problem.[34] The existing theories commonly use a market-based understanding of authority, but the model has limitations in understanding the nature of authority in team contexts. We develop a Confucian role-obligation-based model of authority, submitting that authority in a firm is legitimate, all other things equal, to the extent that what we call the “we”-mode shared reality, in which team production members realize that they as team members have role-obligations, is recognized.[35] In short, we argue for a team production theory of the firm to be more deeply team-based.

III. Future Plans

1o. Automation, the future of the workplace, and algorithmic accountability

In the immediate future, I aim to complete research on the question of what role and responsibilities business enterprises should take facing the coming machine age and how they should face the question of algorithmic transparency with respect to the importance of “a right to explanation.”

11. East meets West

As for the Confucian cross-cultural perspective, I aim to complete research on the question of under what conditions the legitimacy of authority should be expected to emerge and how a Confucian model of authority can help to address the team production problem (problems of opportunism, and governance).

12. Can ethics be taught to machines?

Simultaneously, I aim to explore the possibility of machine business ethics (i.e., teaching ethics to artificial intelligence for business settings). How can businesses that use autonomous artificial agents effectively prevent the agents from incurring losses to humans? One way is to teach ethics to machines. The computer scientist Stuart Russell expects that in the near future ethics will be a lucrative business in tech industries because robot companies will probably collaborate with “values companies” that provide ethics algorithms to autonomous robots.[36] A dominant model in machine ethics is a prima facie duty approach computerized through an inductive logic programming.[37] But this approach relies on human moral intuition too much. I plan to develop a non-human moral intuition-based model of machine ethics. For this project, I am currently collaborating with John Hooker.

13. A moral case for explainable AIs

When some kind of AI gives a response to a medical doctor (“Cancer”), a lawyer (“Guilty”), or an investment banker (“Buy”), the machine gives the professional the most likely answer, but it does not provide a rationale. There is a fundamental mismatch between the ways some kinds of machine learning algorithms (e.g., neural networks) and humans think.[38] The mismatch challenges some aspect of autonomy—i.e., “reasons-responsiveness.” One’s reasons-responsiveness is respected only if she is in a condition in which she is capable of acting for reasons that she endorses.[39] The mismatch challenges humanity, given that autonomy is a central aspect of humanity. I aim to develop this argument to support the idea of explainable/interpretable AIs.

14. Ethics and evidence-based management

Concerning symbiotic links between business ethics and social sciences, I plan to write on the place of ethical values in evidence-based management (EBM).[40]

[1] The American Law Institute, Principles of the law: Principles of corporate governance (St. Paul, MN: American Law Institute Publishers, 1994), Section 2.01. 

[2] Sebastian Deterding, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khale and Lennart Nacke, “From game design elements to gamefulness: Defining ‘gamification,’” Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTreck Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, pp. 9-15.

[3] Tae Wan Kim, “Gamification of labor and the charge of exploitation,” Journal of Business Ethics (Online First); Tae Wan Kim, “Gamification ethics: Exploitation and manipulation,” Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Gamifying Research Workshop Position Papers (2015).

[4] Kevin Werbach and Dan Hunter, For the win: How game thinking can revolutionize your business (Philadelphia, Wharton Digital Press, 2012); Kevin Werbach teaches gamification at the Wharton School and served on the Obama Administration Presidential Transition Team to review the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

[5] Larry Greenmeier, “Driverless cars will face moral dilemmas,” Scientific American (June 23, 2016).

[6] Vikram Bhargava and Tae Wan Kim, “Autonomous vehicles and moral uncertainty,” in Robots Ethics 2.0, Patrick Lin, Keith Abney and Ryan Jenkins (eds.) (Cambridge, MIT Press, Forthcoming).

[7] Philippa Foot, “The problem of abortion and the doctrine of the double effect,” Oxford Review 5 (1967), pp. 1-7.

[8] John Maynard Keynes, “Economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” In his Essays in persuasion (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1963), pp. 358-373, p. 364.

[9] Economic history reveals that the dynamic nature of capitalism through technological innovation creates new jobs. Such a view won’t necessarily be compelling in the coming age of advanced robots, a growing number of researchers maintain. See W. Brian Arthur, “The second economy,” McKinsey Quarterly (October, 2011); Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization?” The Oxford Martin Program on the Impacts of Future Technology (University of Oxford); Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The second machine age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technology (Norton, 2014).

[10] Tae Wan Kim & Alan Scheller-Wolf, “Technological unemployment, meaning in life, purpose of business and the future of stakeholders” (completed working paper).

[11] See, for instance, ACM US Public Policy Council, “Statement on algorithmic transparency and accountability” (January 12, 2017); Executive Office of the President and National Science and Technology Council, “Preparing for the future of artificial intelligence” (October 2016).

[12] See, for instance, Bryce Goodman and Seth Flexman, “EU regulations on algorithmic decision-making and a ‘right to explanation,’” arXiv:1606.08813v3 [stat.ML] (August 31, 2016).

[13] Tae Wan Kim and Bryan Routledge, “Algorithmic transparency, a right to explanation and placing trust” (working paper).

[14] Onora O’Neil, Autonomy and trust in bioethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[15] See, for instance, Max H. Bazerman and Anne E. Tennbrunsel, Blind spots: Why we fail to do what’s right and what to do about it (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[16] Max H. Bazerman, Kimberly P. Morgan and George F Loewenstein, “The impossibility of auditor independence,” MIT Sloan Management Review 38 (1997), pp. 89-94; Don A Moore, Lloyd Tanlu and Max H. Bazerman, “Conflict of interest and the intrusion of bias,” Judgment and Decision Making 5 (2010), pp. 37-53.

[17] Yuji Ijiri, “On the accountability-based conceptual framework of accounting,” Journal of Accounting and Public Policy 2 (1983), pp. 75-81.

[18] Tae Wan Kim, Rosemarie Monge, and Alan Strudler, “Bounded ethicality and the principle that ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’” Business Ethics Quarterly 25 (2015), pp. 341-361.

[19] William H. Starbuck and Paul C. Nystrom, “Designing and understanding organizations,” in Handbook of organizational design, William H. Starbuck and Paul C. Nystrom (Eds.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. xii.

[20] See, for instance, Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely, “The dark side of creativity: Original thinkers can be more dishonest,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (2012), pp. 285-292.

[21] Deception in negotiation sometimes does not violate ethical principles. See, for instance, Alan Strudler, “On the ethics of deception in negotiation,” Business Ethics Quarterly 5 (1995), pp. 805-822.

[22] See, for instance, Joel Feinberg, The moral limits of the criminal law: Harmless wrongdoing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[23] Tae Wan Kim and Thomas Donaldson, “Rethinking right: Moral epistemology in management research,” Journal of Business Ethics (Online First).

[24] Robert Holzmann and Milan Vodopivec, Reforming severance pay: An international perspective (World Bank, 2012).

[25] Andrew Molinsky and Joshua Margolis, “Necessary evils and interpersonal sensitivity in organizations,” Academy of Management Review 30 (2005), pp. 245-268.

[26] See, for example, Gregory C. Keating, “The idea of fairness in the law of enterprise liability,” Michigan Law Review; Joseph Raz, “Responsibility and the negligence standard,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 30 (2010), pp. 1-18.

[27] Tae Wan Kim, “Decent termination: A moral case for severance pay,” Business Ethics Quarterly 24 (2014), pp. 203-227.

[28] Thomas Donaldson and Thomas W. Dunfee, Ties that bind: A social contracts approach to business ethics (Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 1999).

[29] Tae Wan Kim, “Confucian ethics and labor rights,” Business Ethics Quarterly 24 (2014), pp. 565-594.

[30] Jessica Kennedy, Tae Wan Kim, and Alan Strudler, “Hierarchies and dignity: A Confucian communitarian approach,” Business Ethics Quarterly 26 (2016), pp. 479-502.

[31] Tae Wan Kim and Alan Strudler, “Workplace civility: A Confucian approach,” Business Ethics Quarterly 22 (2012), pp. 557-577.

[32] See Margaret M. Blair and Lynn Stout, “A team production theory of corporate law,” Virginia Law Review 85 (1999), pp. 247-328.

[33] Armen A. Alchian and Harol Demsetz, “Production, information costs, and economic organization,” The American Economic Review 62 (1972), pp. 777-795, 779.

[34] See Blair and Stout.

[35] Tae Wan Kim and Alan Strudler, “Team production, opportunism, and governance: A Confucian approach” (completed working paper).

[36] Stuart Russell, “Big think: Moral philosophy will be a big in tech,” The California Report (October 25, 2015).

[37] Michael Anderson, Susan L. Anderson, & Vincent Brenz, “A value-driven agent: Instantiation of a case-supported principle-based behavior paradigm,” Proceedings of the AAAI Workshop on AI, Ethics, and Society (2017), pp. 72-80.

[38] Jenna Burrell, “How the machine ‘thinks’: Understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms,” Big Data & Society (2016, January-June), pp. 1-12.

[39] Elizabeth Anderson, “Practical reason and incommensurable goods,” in Incommensurability, incomparability and practical reasons, Ruth Chand (ed.) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

[40] Denis M. Rousseau, “Is there such a thing as ‘evidence-based management?” Academy of Management Review (2006), pp. 256-269.