Annual Student Ethics Essay Competition Yields Impressive Results

Again this fall, the Arrupe Center sponsored an ethics paper competition open to all graduate students in the Haub School of Business. Quite a number of submissions were received from the full range of HSB Masters programs, including the Executive MBA in Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing, the Executive Masters in Food Marketing and the Professional MBA. Students entering the competition were eligible for monetary prizes of $2000 for the first place winner, $1500 for second place and $1000 for third place.

Students could base their submissions on papers done as part of course work but must extend the analysis beyond a course paper and must satisfy competition guidelines that require the integration of theory with practice. Papers must present a business case where a management decision is needed and where there are clearly identified ethical issues. Students must also identify possible alternative decision choices and then evaluate those choices through the lenses of traditional ethical theories. The most successful submissions are able to take the conceptual tools gleaned from those theories and effectively apply them to the concrete facts of a live business case. Judges, drawn from Arrupe Center staff and HSB faculty, are always impressed with the range of cases the students address and with the sophistication of the analysis in the winning papers.

Interestingly, although submitted by students in multiple graduate programs, each of this year’s winning papers happened to address questions surrounding drugs or health supplements. It seems that ethical questions about the impact of pharmaceuticals and health products are universal concerns.

Marc Cooley’s first place paper, “Only Vaccinated Children Allowed,” considered the practice of denying children without documented vaccinations access to public facilities such as schools, daycare sites and venues for extracurricular activities. Recent years have seen trends where more parents are skeptical of vaccines, believing that their potential negative effects outweigh the benefits to their children. Since the protective benefits of vaccines occur when a threshold level of vaccination is achieved in a population, such parents might be accused of “free riding” on the vaccinations of others. Marc evaluated the ethics of institutions (e.g., schools, daycare, pediatricians’ offices) responding to this trend by limiting access to unvaccinated children. After subjecting such exclusionary policies to both a utilitarian common good test and a fairness test, he concludes that “parents who decide not to vaccinate their children need to understand the implications that has to both their family and others within their community. Free choice comes with the responsibility of taking the time to understand the implications of such.”

The MBA team of Bob Meller, Madeline Pinault, Nick Viscount and Toni Zheng submitted a paper on the marketing practices of the supplement industry. Currently, nutritional supplements are not strongly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The team believes, however, that supplements ought to be certified by the agency as safe and efficacious before they can be marketed. Their argument is that while such regulation may constrain the profits of the industry and may deprive some consumers of products to which they have become accustomed, the rights of the public to be assured of the safety of the products they purchase trump those negative impacts of regulation.

Ashley Wahl’s paper provided a careful evaluation of the practices of pharmaceutical giant Merck in the Vioxx case. Vioxx, a medication for pain and inflammation, was eventually pulled from the market after reports of adverse events, including heart attacks in high-risk patients. Merck initially resisted the recall and argued that its drug was safe and effective. Wahl suggests that “the Vioxx case study is one that I think accurately identifies the everyday challenges that Brand Managers face throughout product lifecycle management. This analysis marries the objectives of the pharmaceutical manufacturing company with the FDA regulations, creating a very delicate ethical balance between the key stakeholders.  Cases like this can be used to help set precedent for what is morally acceptable within the healthcare industry.”

All the winning authors saw their business ethics classes as providing a valuable perspective to their educational experience. Nick Viscount said "Our class research project gave us the chance to dive deeper into the theories and principles we learned in Stakeholder Theory and Social Responsibility, not only as they relate to the supplement industry, but to all aspects of every business. The Utilitarian and Deontological approaches to decision-making that we developed in class and refined through our research provides a framework to evaluate ethical decisions as we advance in our careers both academically and professionally." Marc Cooley echoed that thought in saying that “the Business Ethics course is unique in that it goes far beyond operational skill but also requires one to be firmly grounded in understanding all of the consequences of one’s actions.”

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