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Moral VS Legal Dimensions of Business Ethics

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Does a moral responsibility without a legal obligation, bind a business to an appropriate response? Business modelling seems to approach moral responsibilities from a perspective of managing their public image rather than dutiful obligation to respond to community interests. In particular, morality becomes an important part of business when business product and business conduct are directly responsible for social problems. Purdue Pharma L.P. (Purdue from this point), a private drug manufacturer in the United States, faces a legal and moral battle over the effects of her drugs, notably OxyContin. The drugs are highly addictive to their users and are responsible for multiple deaths and drug dependence. An assessment of the case from the Deontological and Justice Perspectives suggest that scope of Purdue’s legal liability was responsible for the drug-use epidemic.

The deontological perspective approaches morality from a duty-bound perspective. Deontological ethicists such as Emanuel Kant proposed that the rightness of an action depends on a series of rules such as the Kant Categorical Imperative rather than using the effects of the action to vindicate the course of action (Shim & Kim, 2017). The “good will”, an intention to produce the right outcomes, is a better prediction of morality than the outcomes of the said moral action. Now, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Federal Government, OxyContin and other painkillers are responsible for at least 190,000 American deaths since 1999 (Ryan, Girion & Glover, 2016). In addition, an excess of seven million Americans have abused OxyContin at one point in their lives, hence illustrating the troubling outcome of the drug to society (Ryan, Girion & Glover, 2016). Here, the outcomes of using OxyContin seem to validate corrective action from a legal perspective. In other words, American legal and legislative bodies sought to have taken corrective measures with an intention to promote the communal good will.

The ethical obligation to take the corrective action also applies to OxyContin. It is also worth noting that the justifications of introducing such a drug are questionable from the deontological perspective. The intention of Purdue when developing and marketing the drug are a topic of interest because they inform the morality of their intent and social responsiveness. For example, based on the principles against using humans as a means to an end, generate a profit regardless of the effects of the drug on the users, Purdue’s intention ought to align with promoting community health. However, according to Ryan, Girion and Glover’s article (2016) in the New York Times, Purdue’s executives were aware of the inability of their drug to produce the marketed benefits to patients. Symptoms of addiction in the trial group ought to have produced a definite response from the company. Instead, the continued marketing is a sign of adhering to the legal part of the issue (we are not guilty) as opposed to the moral effects of the drug. Regardless of the trial results (assuming that the trials showed the drug would help rather than harm), the signs of addiction and abuse ought to have stopped production and initiate research in an improved alternative.

It is interesting to note that the analysis of the ethical foundations of the decision does not include the role of physicians. If Purdue were to conduct a study and comprehensively prove that her drug produced the outcomes the company said it does, it follows that the company executives had a right to market the drug as a genuine attempt to trigger community wellness. On the other hand, physicians also had a responsibility to correct their prescriptions if the patients complained about symptoms of addiction and withdrawal within the day (Hoffman, 2019). In addition, as informed and educated professionals, physicians could easily read journal articles (from reliable sources) to inform their decisions rather than depending on the biased advisory of Purdue’s marketing approach (Hoffman, 2019). In particular, if a business trip from the company (a reward for prescribing the drug) swayed the physicians, they ought to face legal and ethical action for violating their duty to their patients and abusing the trust that patients put on them. In other words, the case illustrates unfair distribution of blame (finding a scapegoat to blame for all problems) rather than a genuine effort to identify a sustainable solution for the problem of drug use and addiction.

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A settlement agreement with the victims of the drug without an admission that the Purdue and the Sackler Family were guilty of wrongdoing also shows the direction of the moral consideration. With the growing volume of legal proceedings and calls for action against the company and is owners, Purdue agreed settlements with $3 billion dollars payable for seven years with the victims of abuse and promised to supply drugs and invest in methods of reversing overdose resulting from her products and help users to overcome their addictions (Hoffman, 2019). Unfortunately, the agreement is a statement of a questionable will (at best) because it also came in light of exposition that the Sackler family hid its holdings from the public, an illustration that the family was unwilling to return gains from the medicine to the community. For context, while the aforementioned deal is worth $3 billion over a cause of seven years, Ryan, Girion and Glover (2016) claimed that the value of Purdue’s revenue from the same drug exceeded $31 billion in a course of two decades.

According to Rawls’ theory of Justice, unfairness (such as visible in Purdue’s settlement agreement) of social entities and structures should benefit the “worst-off” rather than the “best-off” (Shim & Kim, 2017). Rawls was aware of natural inequalities such as physical and cognitive differences. To correct for these differences and the tendency for resources to trickle up (hence creating elite classes), Rawls’ principle proposed the difference principle to regulate inequalities (Shim & Kim, 2017). It is notable that Rawls’ theory is political in nature. It creates an impression of justice as a form of equal distribution of resources to all people.

The political aspect of Rawls’ theory create problems such as selecting qualified candidates for responsible action against the national background of free industry and enterprise (Blake, 2017). For example, without the protection of copyright laws and intellectual property, Purdue would lack the foundation to control and market her problematic drugs. In that context, the ethical issues facing members of the medical profession would not exist. In other words, the social structure creates an enabling mechanism for inequality (Blake, 2017). Given the unjust foundation of social actions, it follows that Purdue and her contemporaries are likely to act according to their best interests. In other words, the clash of perceptive between the current legal and social structures with the justice perspective trace the source of the problem to the structure of American social systems.

Wealth generation by creating social problems and contributing to close to 200,000 deaths is not justifiable from any ethical perspective (Blake, 2017). While members of the Sackler family may face an initial barrage of public outcry, they may eventually overcome the social outcry and enjoy their ill-begotten wealth. Consider the statement of such inequality to society. While millions will continue to struggle with addiction issues (including the tendency for addiction to trigger unemployment and social isolation among other indirect outcomes of the pandemic), the Sackler family is likely to lead wealthy and free lives because the case against them does not contain criminal proceedings other than the flagged cases of questionable wire transfers. The inequality in this case justifies social outcry and suggests an urgent need to revise the legislative measures underling businesses to avoid cases where businesses have to make a choice between their wellness and social wellness.

In conclusion, society has an unstable system of regulating the structure of business operations. The instability creates a situation where a business may thrive for decades provided her structure is legal, regardless of the moral implications of her conduct. From a deontological perspective, the recurrent problem is already compromising the “good will” aspect of business operations. Businesses seem to make choices from a pragmatic perspective (based on their interests to maximize profits) rather than from a moral perspective. The inequality is likely to sustain continued violations and endanger society where regulations leave wriggle room. Consider the fact that while the government has regulatory agencies to control drugs released to the public (The FDA), problematic drugs still make their way to pharmacies and cause such damage for two decades.

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Moral VS Legal Dimensions of Business Ethics. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 21, 2024, from
“Moral VS Legal Dimensions of Business Ethics.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Moral VS Legal Dimensions of Business Ethics. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 Feb. 2024].
Moral VS Legal Dimensions of Business Ethics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Feb 21]. Available from:
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