A question of life and death

When teaching business ethics to managers and MBA students most of the topics and cases we discuss are serious issues. We even often discuss dilemmas that (potentially) have heavy consequences for involved parties. When talking about damages to the environment, the effects of poverty and inequality or the potentially damaging side effects of products on consumers and others (e.g. tabacco), we even occasionally touch questions of health and life.

However in most settings, managers don’t have to decide about life and death directly and personally. Usually there are intermediate actors that seemingly reduce the individual responsibility. And this is a certain contrast to many of the most famous dilemmas (such as the trolley car dilemma) that are discussed in the ethical literature for decades and centuries.

But right now there is such an issue of life and death in a business setting. It is going on for more than three months now and was brought back to our attention today:

According to news reports, TEPCO, the Japanese company operating the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, made public that a melt-down did not only occur in reactor 1 but also in 2 and 3. And as the situation is still very serious, we have to ask about the moral implication of having employees work in an environment that violates the normal thresholds for nuclear contamination.

Most of us will highly appreciate the fact that several workers fight hard to limit the disastrous effects of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent melt down. But they are at the same time employees of TEPCO. Is is / can it be legitimate for a company to asks its employees to risk their lives? Can managers be justified to send employees into contaminated workplaces – even if the employees agree to do so on a voluntary basis? Is this only justified when the employees try to prevent bigger harm to society or can companies also look for volunteers that risk their lives/health just for the commercial success of the company?

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