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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Managing Moral Responsibility for Product Use

Does a company bear responsibility for the use to which customers put its products? Gene chip manufacturer Affymetrix faces that question as it considers requests from a variety of companies that may use its micro arrays inappropriately.

SCU Professor of Management Manuel Velasquez worked with Affymetrix Senior Manager of Corporate Affairs Katie Buck to outline the ethical issues the company should consider. Velasquez presented their findings at a recent meeting of the Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership.

Velasquez pointed out that asking if a company is morally responsible is not the same as asking if its actions are right or wrong. Responsibility focuses, instead, on who is to blame, or who should be held accountable, for wrongdoing. The particular focus of the work with Affymetrix is on what a company's moral responsibility is when it knows a customer has used or will use its products to wrongly injure a third party. Is the company responsible for the injuries its customer wrongly inflicts on the third party?

He gave two examples from recent history: I.G. Farben, whose managers knew their product, Zyclon B, was being used in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other concentration camps; and IBM, whose wholly owned subsidiary, Dehomag, provided the data cards and sorting machines the Nazis used to identify Jews in Germany and occupied countries.

Affymetrix potential clients are not proposing such obviously heinous uses, but customers can use its chips to identify disorders that are racially or ethnically linked or to identify people by race for tracing criminals. Critics argue that such race-based genetics will encourage racism or lead to discrimination by insurers or employers.

Other potential Affymetrix customers want to use the chips for screening that has no scientific validity. For example, some companies purport to analyze people's genetic makeup to offer them personalized diets or supplements whose efficacy is not proven.

In analyzing the ethical issues, Velasquez recommended three basic questions:

  1. Is there a known likelihood that your customer will use your product in a manner the company believes is wrong?
  2. Can you prevent the wrongful use by negotiating or imposing conditions on how the customer uses the product?
  3. Does your product play a critical or essential role in the unethical or immoral use to which it might be put?


Nov 1, 2007