The Covid-19 pandemic is a major challenge for humanity. Consequently, it is also a major challenge for business, and thus a major ethical challenge for business. What are the implications of this terrible situation for business ethics?
An ethical approach always starts by the effort to face problem in a right way. A misplaced, misinformed, misunderstood situation will never have a moral solution. The initial step towards ethics is always a search for truth. Of course, in a dramatic phenomenon like this pandemic, this is a particularly hard task, as there are lots of doubts, confusions and myths surrounding the intense suffering. Nevertheless, precisely for this reason, the need for a serene and thoughtful approach is more necessary than ever.
A realistic approach implies, first of all, accepting this is a very real catastrophe, against the “negationist” stance, but also that it is not the end of the world, not even the start of a new world. We live in a time where every turn of the way announces epoch-changing events, allegedly invalidating everything we know. Many of the foulest ethical abuses of our epoch come from this arrogant attitude of throwing away the old rules with the supposedly obsolete order. A pandemic of this size, even if it has drastic effects on life and society, will keep us in the same world we know.
Besides, one of the most concealed, but also obvious aspects of the epidemics is the wedge between the private and common interest, paralyzing Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Potentially infected persons downplay the impact of their actions over the others, particularly because of the high costs of their own confinement. Consequently, a painful but indispensable attitude for ethics in this drama is strict obedience to the severe limitations impose by the authorities. Business life is undoubtedly one of the main victims of these impositions; but accepting them is a crucial, even if excruciating, aspect of today’s ethics.
The second step for an ethical approach is to take a positive outlook of the situation. This element is even harder than the search for truth, because the disease and the consequences it has on society are undeniably bad. However, the main force for positivity is never reality, but the way we look at reality. Just like love, it is in the eyes of the beholder.
Of course, like all ethical bearings, this requires great effort, as present circumstances represent properly the opposite of management. In the coronavirus whirlwind what dominates is a generalized lack of control. Events follow each other in a startling sequence, challenging human ability to access, understand, regulate, and even perceive them. Nobody knows what tomorrow brings.
Nevertheless, in settings as these, one must always remember the rational inexistence of the negative; the negative is simply the corrosion of the positive. Only good exists; evil is just the destruction of good, just as death is the lack of life, dark the absence of light, cold the privation of heat, etc. This logical principle, when applied to economic life, has an additional element. Production units never have problems, only business opportunities; opportunities that they can solve and prosper, or others will solve and prosper. Companies, in their nature, exist to solve difficulties. All the sectors of the economy derive from the main problems of humanity. If, by miracle, humans will one day achieve photosynthesis, most of agriculture and all food sector would vanish; if tomorrow we awoke with wings on our backs, the transportation sector would be in dire difficulties.
Covid-19 is a huge problem for the world, and thus the origin of lots of worthy business opportunities, by helping people cope with the many dimensions of suffering. All that is necessary is for managers to be able to find new ways of being useful. This requires, as we all know, the need for intense adaptation, imagination, creativity and foresight, the human characteristics in greater demand in periods of disaster. Each company, in its own environment, must adopt a positive view of the situation and make the most of the circumstances. The old principles that great businesses are born in recession times show this is possible.
Finally, in order to be ethical, one need not only to be just and useful, but also to be good. The terrible human and social consequences of the pandemic provide many occasions for assistance, support and solidarity. Besides, the virus is very unfair. It is true it infects all equally; but the economic impacts fall disproportionately on the poorer. Thus, the third step for a moral approach has to be mercy.
One may ask what the relation between mercy and business is. However, one needs only to face the reality of companies, avoiding abstract managerial and ideological models, to see that life on firms and markets is impossible without mercy. The heart of enterprise is, not greed, but collaboration and service.
Have a great and impactful week!

João Cesar das Neves
Full Professor
Católica Lisbon School of Business and Economics

This article refers to edition #71 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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