By Dr. Lawrence Chonko, the Thomas McMahon Professor in Business Ethics at the University of Texas at Arlington

ChonkoMany business ethical controversies are rooted in consumer rights. A right is a justifiable claim that someone has on someone else. The “justification” of any such claim involving a business depends on standards known and accepted by the person making the claim, by the business and by society in general. President John F. Kennedy, in 1962, advocated some generally accepted consumer rights which were supplemented by the Consumer Protection Act of 1986—the rights to safety, product/service information, choice, public voice, seller education, healthy environment and redress.

As consumers, we expect that business will honor these rights and, to the extent that businesses do not, ethics issues arise.

Is it also the case that business should expect that consumers honor business rights? Consumers have marketplace responsibilities including taking care of one’s own business, accepting the consequences of one’s actions, and taking advantage of opportunities to learn about the marketplace. When those responsibilities are ignored, do questions of ethics also arise?

Consumers should heed Rudyard Kipling’s words in their purchase and consumption of products and services:

“I keep six honest serving-men

    (they taught me all I knew)

Their names are What and Why and When

  And How and Where and Who

Is the consumer acting responsibly when he/she ignores questions like the following?

  • What does a consumer need to learn about new products or product changes? It is a consumer responsibility to ask questions and learn about the quality of products and services.
  • Why do consumers ignore instructions? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers make sure they understand how to use products properly?
  • Why do consumers ignore readily accessible information? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers read materials provided by sellers concerning the use of products?
  • Why do consumers ignore the environmental impact of selected products? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers be sensitive to impact of consumption on the environment?
  • When consumers misuse products, who is really at fault? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers to properly use products?
  • How do customers make purchases—in ignorance, on impulse? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers be assertive to ensure they receive a fair deal?
  • Who are the sellers and why do consumers not check their qualifications? Should a business have a right to expect that consumers to learn about the integrity of sellers?

Now we come to the Where. Even when consumers act irresponsibly, many still feel it is their right to seek redress.  In seeking redress, whether consumers have acted responsibly or not, do they:

  • …act with sarcasm, anger or hostility?
  • …demand much more from the seller than that to which they are entitled?
  • …automatically blame the seller or manufacturer?

Further, is the consumer acting responsibly if their impressions of business activity are fueled by:

  • …the overly negative portrayal of business people in movies or on television?
  • …the consumers’ own lack of knowledge (e.g. the difference between margins and profits)?
  • …not recognizing that the overwhelming percentage of products/services consumed have truly delivered need/want satisfying experiences?
  • …not being forthright about unmet expectations—who is really at fault for products/services not delivering as promised?

When consumers engage in irresponsible marketplace behavior, do they believe they are doing what they are compelled to do? Do they become convinced they have no other options? Do they feel that their angry actions are better than those they perceive of the seller? Do they engage in self-deception by not admitting they misused products or ignored instructions, or did not conduct a seller search? Do they react in these questionable ways in order to achieve a goal that is desirable to them—companies honoring promises in spite of consumer not acting responsibly?

When ethical problems arise, both business and consumers must consider if their action respects each other’s basic rights. Both sides should ask questions like: 1) How would my action affect the basic well-being of others? 2) How would my action affect the freedom of others? 3) Does my action involve manipulation or deception, thus undermining the right to truth?

Marketplace actions are wrong to the extent that they truly violate the rights of individuals. What are consumers and businesses doing to guarantee these rights? Neither business nor consumers should expect their rights to be respected if each does not reciprocate.