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Case Study Of Zuckerberg’s Actions From An Ethical Perspective Using Utilitarian, Kant And Virtue Ethic Frameworks

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Introduction

Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of Facebook, the largest social media platform with over two billion active users. The social network is free for users, with the main source of revenue for the company generated from advertising on the site. Without external parties seeking to advertise on Facebook, the value of the company declines.

As CEO of the company, Zuckerberg receives a portion of the profits generated by advertising. He knows that the company can become even more profitable if he acquires third-party advertisers such as Cambridge Analytica. As they would own a large portion of advertising rights on the site, Facebook would significantly increase in value but, in exchange, private user data would be leaked to external companies without initial public knowledge. This case study examines Zuckerberg’s actions from an ethical perspective using the Utilitarian, Kant and Virtue Ethic frameworks.

Utilitarian Framework

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist approach to ethics that aims to maximise the overall good by identifying the action that results in the greatest net happiness. It is determined by predicting and analysing the consequences of different possible actions on stakeholders. If a proposed action will result in more positive consequences overall than the alternatives, then this action is the morally correct choice based on the teleological approach.

In this situation, a deal was created between Facebook and third-party companies for an exchange of private client data for money. The primary impacted stakeholders were Zuckerberg, Facebook shareholders, Facebook users and third-party advertisers.

The primary stakeholder, Mark Zuckerberg, would have a resultant increase in happiness due to the direct financial gain both he and his company would receive. In contrast, if users find out that their confidential information has been sold to external parties, then it is highly probable a large number of users would terminate their use of Facebook and associated programs, leading to an eventual loss of revenue for the company. This would ultimately result in decreased personal financial gain for Zuckerberg, accompanied by a tarnished public reputation, thus lowering his overall happiness, making it morally unethical under the Utilitarian framework.

The shareholders of Facebook would benefit from the deal resulting in increased economic gain, thus maximizing their overall happiness. But, similar to Zuckerberg, if the deal was exposed then they would experience a substantial decline in net happiness because of the financial loss but would not be subject to the same degree of public scrutiny as the CEO.

The third stakeholder is Facebook users. Different reactions will arise if the deal is exposed. Initially, most users would experience shock and disappointment at the company’s actions but is it likely their secondary reactions would differ. Some users may delete their accounts due to the unethical actions of the company breaching the privacy of its users, whereas others may not feel the issue directly impacts them negatively as the company was just using the advertisements to create revenue. Despite this, the breach of data and privacy would inevitably upset a large portion of Facebook users, thus making it a morally incorrect option.

The final stakeholder is the third-party companies that advertise on Facebook. Whilst they will experience a short-term increase in happiness from gaining and using private information for their own benefit, the longer term would see a decline in their overall happiness because their public reputation would be tarnished, and they would most likely suffer significant financial loss from being banned from advertising on other sites.

Utilizing Bentham’s approach in a hedonistic calculus, the above impacts are considered to help quantify whether the overall happiness increases or decreases. A summary can be seen below:

If Breach is Secret If Breach Becomes Public Stakeholder Number Unit of Happiness Gain Result

Unit of Happiness Gain Result

Mark 1 8 8 Increase -8 -8 Decrease

Shareholders 1000 6 6000 Increase -4 -4000 Decrease

Users 2 B — — — -5 -10 B Decrease

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Third-Parties 10 7 70 Increase -6 -60 Decrease

Net Happiness 6078 Increase -10,000,004,068 Decrease

Note: Net unit of happiness is measured on a scale of -10 to 10. -10 indicating complete unhappiness, and 10 indicating maximum happiness per unit.

Based on the analysis in the above table, there would be greater net unhappiness if the deal to share information in exchange for money was agreed. Hence, a utilitarian approach to ethics demonstrates that Zuckerman’s actions to pursue the deal are morally wrong and unethical. Kantian Framework

The deontological approach to ethics follows Kant’s categorial imperative, a rule which dictates the truth for all circumstances. Kantian ethics assess the two formulations of universal acceptability and respect to create a maxim to determine the categorial imperative, which all are obliged to follow. An action becomes morally acceptable if it does not oppose the two formulations. The first formulation of the categorical imperative states that people should, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 2019). Applying this formulation creates a maxim that outlines the possible actions, which for Zuckerberg would be, “I will breach the company contract and sell private data if it results in an increase in profits.” This maxim is then universalised to determine whether it is morally acceptable, resulting in the approach of, “Everyone will breach company contracts and sell private data if it results in an increase in profits.” This universalized maxim is invalid as it results in a contradiction of conception meaning that the notion of company protocol becomes pointless, as no one would be following the rules and privacy would become non-existent. This maxim also becomes a contradiction in will because no one would want their private information shared. Therefore, the maxim does not pass the first formulation, thus eliminating the ability for individuals to rationalize according to Kant’s ethics.

Kant’s second formulation of respect states people should, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, 2019). Exploiting users by distributing confidential information for financial gain disobeys the second formulation because the user’s rationality is not respected by the platform. By having their confidentiality and privacy breached for profit, users are not respected and lose trust, therefore the maxim fails.

Based upon a Kantian approach, Zuckerberg’s actions disobey the first and second formulations, meaning that selling user data for profits is morally wrong.

Virtue Ethics Framework

The Aristotelian approach of virtue ethics focusses on the moral character of a person rather than the rules or consequences of actions. Through this framework, an ethical person is one who acts virtuously. This framework considers three main elements of function, flourishing and virtues. As the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is expected to behave in a virtuous capacity of being intellectual and moral. To be able to flourish in his role, he needs to be aligned with these values. However, the decision to sell data and divulge personal information shows a lack of responsibility on his behalf.

For Zuckerberg to be a moral CEO, it is important for him to demonstrate the virtues of prudence, knowledge and organisation. Prudence of being cautious when discussing the issue to a broader audience so as to not further tarnish the reputation of himself of the company; knowledge of the market and consumer behaviours so as to be aware of the situation and provide the best service; and organisation to instruct, prioritise and lead.

Justice is a pivotal virtue for Zuckerberg as it requires him to be fair whilst still increasing profist for the company, shareholders and himself. This means that Facebook would be in a difficult situation for a short time before he gains respect, profit and longevity with Facebook. Whilst the situation may not be the most desirable, it will achieve the most successful outcome by benefitting Zuckerberg and other stakeholders in the long term without causing any harm to the users, meaning that justice is maintained, and Zuckerberg would be morally ethical.

If Mark Zuckerberg was to continue selling user data, he would be considered to have vices, such as being deceitful to Facebook users, resulting in high probability of users terminating their Facebook accounts. This would not only be detrimental to Facebook but would also result in the least amount of happiness overall. Zuckerberg’s actions can be viewed through the virtue ethics framework as being ethical if he maintains a virtuous character in all situations.

Conclusion

When viewed through the frameworks of the utilitarian, Kant and virtue ethic frameworks, Mark Zuckerberg’s actions can be considered as follows.

From a utilitarian perspective, his actions are considered morally unacceptable as net happiness is only achieved if the deal is not accepted, meaning that selling data would result in net unhappiness, and be strongly unethical. Even though it is not possible to predict all possible outcomes and results, it still provides a generalized outcome. The strict Kantian framework shows that Zuckerberg’s actions violate the first and second formulations of universal acceptability and respect, indicating that his actions are unethical. Through the virtue ethics framework, Zuckerberg’s actions can be seen as ethical if he maintains a virtuous character and upholds the core values of justice and respect, despite the fact that the virtues may not always indicate what is more moral.

Considering all three frameworks, Mark Zuckerberg’s actions of selling private user data to third-party companies in exchange for financial gain can be considered to be unethical and morally wrong. It is strongly suggested that he not follow through with the deal, but rather continue to deliver and improve upon the successful platform that Facebook is today.

References

  1. Bbc.co.uk. (2014). BBC – Ethics – Introduction to ethics: Virtue ethics. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/virtue.shtml [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
  2. Bbc.co.uk. (2014). BBC – Ethics – Introduction to ethics: Virtue ethics. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/virtue.shtml [Accessed 21 Mar. 2019].
  3. Csus.edu. (2019). KANTIAN ETHICS. [online] Available at https://www.csus.edu/indiv/g/gaskilld/ethics/kantian%20ethics.htm [Accessed 24 Mar. 2019].
  4. Driver, J. (2014). Kantian Ethics. In R. Low (Ed.), Business Law & Ethics (pp. 25-34) Milton, Australia: John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Ethics Unwrapped. (2019). Utilitarianism – Ethics Unwrapped. [online] Available at: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/utilitarianism [Accessed 22 Mar. 2019].
  6. Julien, A. (2013). Choosing a Kantian Maxim. [Blog] We Love Philosophy. Available at: https://welovephilosophy.com/2013/01/07/choosing-a-kantian-maxim/ [Accessed 25 Mar. 2019].
  7. Mastin, L. (2018). Virtue Ethics – By Branch / Doctrine – The Basics of Philosophy. [online] Philosophybasics.com. Available at: https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html [Accessed 30 Mar. 2019].
  8. Nicholson, G. (2019). BSB111 Business Law and Ethics: Week 3 – Ethical Agents [Lecture]. Retrieved from http://https://blackboard.qut.edu.au/bbcswebdav/pid-7379881-dt-content-rid-17023500_1/ xid-17023500_1

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Case Study Of Zuckerberg’s Actions From An Ethical Perspective Using Utilitarian, Kant And Virtue Ethic Frameworks. (2022, March 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/case-study-of-zuckerbergs-actions-from-an-ethical-perspective-using-utilitarian-kant-and-virtue-ethic-frameworks/
“Case Study Of Zuckerberg’s Actions From An Ethical Perspective Using Utilitarian, Kant And Virtue Ethic Frameworks.” Edubirdie, 18 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/case-study-of-zuckerbergs-actions-from-an-ethical-perspective-using-utilitarian-kant-and-virtue-ethic-frameworks/
Case Study Of Zuckerberg’s Actions From An Ethical Perspective Using Utilitarian, Kant And Virtue Ethic Frameworks. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/case-study-of-zuckerbergs-actions-from-an-ethical-perspective-using-utilitarian-kant-and-virtue-ethic-frameworks/> [Accessed 28 Nov. 2022].
Case Study Of Zuckerberg’s Actions From An Ethical Perspective Using Utilitarian, Kant And Virtue Ethic Frameworks [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 18 [cited 2022 Nov 28]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/case-study-of-zuckerbergs-actions-from-an-ethical-perspective-using-utilitarian-kant-and-virtue-ethic-frameworks/
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