Divided America: Do We Need a Hippocratic Oath for Business?

Is political division one of the unintended consequences of business activity?

Posted Dec 14, 2018

Hippocrates, used with permission
Source: Hippocrates, used with permission

How can we make our country less divided?

The big division in our country right now is in politics and culture — right versus left, red state versus blue state, conservative versus liberal. It is in this politico-cultural divide that our national conflict is being played out.

But the conflict is occurring in a larger national context.

Politics and culture take place in the larger world dominated by business and the economy. Everything costs money, and businesses are the great engines that generate that money.

Businesses affect our lives constantly, and they affect our lives far beyond the stated goals of their corporate business models. They have a powerful effect on “non-business” parts of our lives.

Consider the following businesses:

Purdue Pharma

The New York Times has reported that, ”In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to a felony charge of 'misbranding' (its product) OxyContin, while marketing the drug, by misrepresenting, among other things, its risk of addiction and potential to be abused.”

The New York Times has further noted that, “Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids”

Facebook

In mid-March, both The Guardian and The New York Times reported that 87 million Facebook profiles were harvested for the company Cambridge Analytica in a major data scandal, where personal information was taken and compromised without users' knowledge or permission.

Oil Companies and Fracking

Fracking is a drilling process that blasts huge amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart shale deposits and extract gas and oil from the rocks' pores. The process has spread across the country,

“Toxic air pollution from fracking causes a wide spectrum of health problems for Americans across the country,” an environmental group charged in a report released recently.

"The health risks from fracking are not limited to what's in our drinking water — oil and gas operations are also poisoning the air we breathe," said senior scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which produced the report.

The NRDC said the pollution causes at least five serious types of health problems, including respiratory problems, birth defects, blood disorders, cancer, and nervous system impacts. About one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well.

Why did these three businesses do such terrible and harmful things?

The big reason is narrowness of focus. Businesses are overwhelmingly focused on profitability and their price per share on the stock exchange. But the narrow pursuit of those goals can result in unintended consequences. Unintended consequences like opioid addiction, loss of personal data privacy, and catastrophic illnesses.

Businesses are hugely powerful, and they dramatically affect the people and environments they operate in. So, at a time when our society is weakened and in turmoil because of political division, businesses, by their sheer power, can further add to that social weakness and political division. If we’re not careful, one of the unintended consequences of our business activity could be a further deepening of our political divide.

For this reason, I recommend that businesses take the Hippocratic Oath.

The Hippocratic Oath

Hippocrates, 460–370 BC, is the “father of medicine.” He brought together several different healing traditions and codified the early practice of medicine. Recognizing that doctors, by their knowledge, were in possession of a great power, he urged them to use their knowledge responsibly. He wrote out a pledge that he urged all doctors to take.

Today we call that pledge the Hippocratic Oath, and it begins with the following admonition: “First, do no harm….”

If businesses could incorporate the Hippocratic Oath into their mindset and practice, it could help lessen the chance of creating situations like the unintended consequences mentioned earlier. And at a time of such deep political division in our country, the Hippocratic Oath could help businesses keep from falling into attitudes or practices that further deepen our political divisions. 

Business needs to be about more than just business. Business should also be about helping to keep our society strong. 

The Hippocratic Oath for business could help.

“First, do no harm…” 

David Evans

© 2018 David Evans