When Ethics Clash with Expediency: A Case of Corporate Responsibility


Added on  2019-09-16

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The Parable of the Sadhu1by Bowen H. McCoy On a mountain climbing expedition to the Himalayas, Bowen McCoy, a managing director of the Morgan Stanley Company, and his party found a pilgrim, or Sadhu, dying of cold. Althoughthe climbers helped the holy man, Mr. McCoy and his team ultimately pressed on with their trek, determined to reach the summit. This unexpected ethical dilemma left them questioning their values--and the values of business, which often places goal achievement ahead of other considerations. In this moving article, which received the Harvard Business Review’s Ethics Prize in 1983, Mr. McCoy relates his experience in the distant mountain of Nepal to the short and long-term goals of American business. Last year, as the first participant of in the new six-month sabbatical program that Morgan Stanley has adopted, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to collect my thoughts as well as do some traveling. I spent the first three months in Nepal, walking 600 miles through 200 villages in the Himalayas and climbing some 120,000 vertical feet. On the trip my sole Western companion was an anthropologistwho shed light on the cultural patterns of the villages we passed through. During the Nepal hike, something occurred that has had a powerful impact on my thinking about corporate ethics. Although some might argue that the experience has no relevance to business, it was a situation in which a basic ethical dilemma suddenly intruded into the lives of a group of individuals. How the group responded I think holds a lesson for all organizations no matter how defined. 1. This article was originally published in the September-October 1983 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR). For its repoublicxation as a HBR Classic McCoy has written the commentary, “When Do We Take a Stand?” to update his observations.Bowen McCoyPhotos by Mike Brozda1
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The Nepal experience was more rugged and adventuresome than I had anticipated. Most commercial treks last two or three weeks and cover a quarter of the distance we traveled. My friend Stephen, the anthropologist,and I were halfway through the 60-day Himalayan part of the trip when we reached the high point, an 18,000-foot pass over a crest that we'd have to traverse to reach the village of Muktinath, an ancient holy place for pilgrims.The SadhuSadhus, or holy men, roam the countryside of India and Nepal, begging for food. Six years earlier I had suffered pulmonary edema, an acute form of altitude sickness, at 16,500 feet in the vicinity of Everest base camp, so we were understandably concerned about what would happen at 18,000 feet. Moreover, the Himalayas were having their wettest spring in 20 years; hip-deep powder and ice had already driven us off one ridge. If we failed to cross the pass, I feared that the last half of our "once in a lifetime" trip would be ruined. During the late afternoon, four backpackers from New Zealand joined us, and wespent most of the night awake anticipating the climb. Below we could see the fires oftwo other parties, which turned out to be two Swiss couples and a Japanese hiking club. To get over the steep part of the climb before the sun melted the steps cut in the ice, we departed at 3:30 a.m. The New Zealanders left first, followed by Stephen and myself, our ports and Sherpas, and then the Swiss. The Japanese lingered in their camp. The sky was clear, and we were confident that no spring storm would erupt the day to close the pass. At 15,500 feet, it looked to me as if Stephen were shuffling and staggering a bit, which are symptoms of altitude sickness. (The initial stage of altitude sickness 2
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