Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reading #18: Consumer Health and Safety

We already discussed Employee Safety in the workplace. What do business ethicists have to say about Consumer Health and Safety? Again, the two basic philosophical issues are: How healthy is a healthy product or service? And, how safe is a safe product or service. In short, what are the moral/legal standards?

First, let's admit that there are no products and services that are 100% healthy and/or safe. That's because, both health and safety are subject to both short-term and long-term utility. Eat a steak for dinner tonight, will certainly be a highly pleasurable experience; especially if it's accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine. There are also health benefits associated with eating red meat. Problems arise when consumers eat steak at every meal over a period of many years. Obviously, there is a financial cost associated with eating steak every day. But there are also health risks associated with eating large quantities of red meat over a  long period including: cancer risks and heart disease risks. As for safety, eating steak carries with it a risk of choking, therefore, it is advisable that you chew your steak thoroughly before you swallow it.

There are also short-term and long-term benefits and risks associated with drinking wine. Over the short run, wine will aid in the pleasure digestion of food, but it can also be financially risky. If you drink more than 2-3 drinks, you are liable to get intoxicated, or at least intoxicated enough to crash your car and/or get a ticket for DUI. If you are pregnant, drinking alcohol poses a risk to developing fetuses. Over the long run you can also become an alcoholic, end up in prison, and ruin your family life.

So the basic issue remains: what are the moral/legal duties that accompany selling various products and services? Traditionally, most sellers willingly "warn" buyers of the most serious harms. Most alcoholic beverages are legally required to post a warning label that informs pregnant women that alcohol consumption might harm their fetus. Tobacco products are legally required have a warning label stating the risks of cancer and heart disease. Again, for business ethics, the main issue here is whether the government ought to force sellers to disclose all known harms or whether the free market will adequately inspire sellers to expose risks to buyers.

Stockholder Theorists argue that it's probably in the interest of sellers to share information about the health and safety of products and services. If they don't other third parties will do it, especially consumer groups and the media. However, labels are designed, primarily to attract buyers, therefore labels that are excessively complex, loaded down with minimum risks, are counter-productive: buyers are less likely to read a long diatribe. Once, buyers are warned of risks, the Liberty Principle guarantees that consumers have a right to take risks; and that State Paternalism violates the Liberty Principle.

Stakeholder Theorists are Kantians, and therefore argue all products and services ought to be as healthy and safe as possible, and that government ought to set those standards, monitor and enforce those standards. Some unhealthy and unsafe products and services are deemed illegal for everyone, others are illegal only for certain groups. When health or safety standards are violated, government punish sellers with fines and/or other legal sanctions. Stakeholder theorists tend to expand State Paternalism, by regulating what can be sold to whom. State paternalism is especially evident in laws that forbid and/or regulate: prostitution, gambling, and selling pot. Most Stockholder theorists argue that the more states regulate buying and selling, the fewer the buying opportunities, and the less happy we all are. In short, there is an inevitable tradeoff between legally imposed health and safety standards, the cost of products and services, and the happiness of consumers. I'll have another serving of steak and another glass of cheap wine. But I'll pass on the heroin and the prostitute. I don't need any advice or protection from government. 

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