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Is a Moral Compass a Hindrance Or a Help For Startups? 197

Nerval's Lobster writes As an emerging company in a hotly contested space, Uber already had a reputation for playing hardball with competitors, even before reports leaked of one of its executives threatening to dig into the private lives of journalists. Faced with a vicious competitive landscape, Uber executives probably feel they have little choice but to plunge into multi-front battle. As the saying goes, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and when you're a startup that thinks it's besieged from all sides by entities that seem determined to shut you down, sometimes your executives feel the need to take any measure in order to keep things going, even if those measures are ethically questionable. As more than one analyst has pointed out, Uber isn't the first company in America to triumph through a combination of grit and ethically questionable tactics; but it's also not the first to implode thanks to the latter. Is a moral compass (or at least the appearance of one) a hindrance or a help for startups?
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Is a Moral Compass a Hindrance Or a Help For Startups?

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  • by Lilith's Heart-shape ( 1224784 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:22PM (#48421545) Homepage
    Morality is for the working class. If you want to succeed in a capitalist economy, it's better to be amoral.
    • by wcrowe ( 94389 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:32PM (#48421601)

      I think you're equating capitalism with avarice. It is possible to run a business while maintaining a sense of morality. Lots of people do and make a living that way. However, if all you want to do is make money, and continue making more and more of it, for no reason other than to keep making more of it, then yes, morality must, at some point, be tossed out.

      • Capitalism (private ownership and operation of property) in a free market system (system free of government intervention) has proven to be the best system for generating profits while improving the overall economy for all people involved. People tossed out the free market and they are trying really hard to toss out capitalism as well, they saw all the wealth generated in a free market capitalist system and believe that that wealth is gained somehow immorally, however I argue that making profits in a capita

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The profit motive encourages stealing. That's what's going on on Wall Street. Capitalism has been great for a portion of the developed world, and it worked for that portion because they used it as an excuse to steal from everyone else.

          • You're not right, because if you're stealing, you don't get repeat business. Good capitalists seek repeat business. There are lots of companies that are successful because of their relationship with government, like say, Comcast, which have legal territorial monopolies that don't have to give a shit about their reputations that agent really capitalist.. They're mercantilist. This isn't the kind if thing that Uber us, in fact, they're kind of under attack by government assisted territorial monopolies in most
        • by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @07:26PM (#48422007)

          . Anything that reduces individual freedoms is less moral than anything that increases individual freedoms.

          Your entire argument hinges on that premise being true. Its not true. The rest of your argument falls with it.

          Suppose I and my friends have all the money, all the property, and all the food, and you don't have any of it. What exactly are you free to do?

          I am not taking away your freedoms. You are absolutely free in every sense of the word. Now how are you going to live without somehow infringing on my and my friends freedom.

          You can offer us you labor in exchange for something, and if we feel generous we might take you up on it. Or not. Lets suppose not. Now what do you do, exactly, with all your freedom? How are you planning to pull yourself up from your bootstraps? You can't work the land, because its mine and I don't need you to. You can't forage, again, all the property is owned, and you aren't welcome to poach from it.

          How you make it past a week is beyond me. The charity of others to clothe and feed you I guess. So you may live at their whim and sufference, and should they decide you no longer amuse them, I guess you die.

          Yes, that sounds like a good system upon which to found civilization.

          • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @07:32PM (#48422049)

            You misunderstand how libertarians use the word free. To them, freedom means being able to do whatever they want whenever they want in any way they want without any form of responsibility to anyone or anything. In other words they mean anarchy, and they're deluded enough to think they're all Ayn Randian supermen who will rise to the top in such an environment. Holding a rational debate or explaining anything to someone like that is a waste of time, it's like trying to convert the pope to Buddhism.

            • You misunderstand how libertarians use the word free. To them, freedom means being able to do whatever they want whenever they want in any way they want without any form of responsibility to anyone or anything. In other words they mean anarchy, and they're deluded enough to think they're all Ayn Randian supermen who will rise to the top in such an environment. Holding a rational debate or explaining anything to someone like that is a waste of time, it's like trying to convert the pope to Buddhism.

              Hey hey, don't go blaming anarchists for the libertarians and the ancaps. Theres a damn good reason why anarchists are anti-capitalist and have sworn by the motto of "Property IS theft" since Proudhon first said it in the 1800s.

            • You seem to not have your facts straight. First off you are describing anarchy, and while anarchy is a nice thought anarchy can never exist naturally, it's fleeting state exists in the same way as alkali metals exists in nature. As part of a greater whole.

              Secondly, your definition of anarchy is completely wrong. Allow me to fix it for you. "To them, freedom means being able to do whatever they want whenever they want in any way they want as long as it doesn't limit the freedoms of others."

              • by AuMatar ( 183847 )

                Sorry, your definition of anarchy is wrong. Anarchy is lack of a government. There's nothing in it preventing others from limiting your freedoms in it. In fact that would be the 100% goal of most of the population in an anarchy- to amass power over others and use it.

          • by labnet ( 457441 )

            Great Post:
            The USA has allowed capitalists to subvert government to impoverish its people... but look at northern Europe: highly socialist while allowing capitalism and I think a much more mature society than the USA.
            Even in Australia, we are much more socialized than the USA, and yes I hate the high taxes, but it provides a much better safety net for the poor.

          • by khallow ( 566160 )

            Suppose I and my friends have all the money, all the property, and all the food, and you don't have any of it. What exactly are you free to do?/quote> In the real world, I do have something you or your friends value - my labor.

            Second, if you and your friends have all that power and no interest in helping me, then who will impose on your freedom for me? If society universally decides not to support me, then I don't get that support. Any imposition on society to help me comes because someone wants to help me. In that case, they could just help me directly and cut out the very expensive middle man.

          • Suppose I and my friends have all the money, all the property, and all the food, and you don't have any of it. What exactly are you free to do?

            That is closer to communism than capitalism, with individual owners replacing the overall State as the owner of All Things.
            However, if we assume that you are operating in a capitalist environment, then "you and your friends" would have to agree on policies about the control of, and access to, the resources you own.
            If "you and your friends" happens to be you and a couple of friends, it is not too hard, because then you should be able to find sufficient common ground to reach unanimous agreement - specificall

          • I think you are describing exactly the situation that led my forebears to leave England for the colonies that would become the USA. In the 17th century in England you got what the landed gentry allowed you to get. Sure there were some middle class merchants and such, but to a large extant the way up was owned by the aristrocrats and they weren't sharing it out.
        • by doug141 ( 863552 )

          John is shipwrecked on a raft. He heads towards an island. He approaches, he sees coconuts and small animals, he knows he can make a life here. He also sees another man pulling his raft onto the beach.

          John gets to the beach and meets Bob. Bob says he got to the island first and owns all the property. John says that's BS. Bob shows proof he was born there. John wasn't going to go along with that system when he thought Bob just washed up, and he's thinking about living on an island where he is going to be Bob

          • Hire a better scriptwriter?

          • Well, what good is a solder and a fancy gun (which I assume to mean a solder gun) to Bob. If John is a Geek, he probably knows how to use a solder gun and can offer to build some electronics or at least a coconut radio in exchange for rent on the island.
            • by doug141 ( 863552 )

              Oops *soldier. Anyway, John offers to work (40 hours a week?) for rent. Bob says ok. After they have an agreed upon deal going for a few days, Bob says "Our deal was 40 hours a week 'for rent' (he made air-quotes and smiled). You have not been paying for my food that you have been eating. It'll be 80 hours a week now, making goods and services for me. Or get off my island."

              John's move.

        • by znrt ( 2424692 )

          Capitalism (private ownership and operation of property) in a free market system (system free of government intervention) has proven to be the best system for generating profits

          doesn't make it good. specially not if it's not sustainable. and this:

          while improving the overall economy for all people involved.

          is false. it has improved the economy for some, at the cost of busting the economy for many.

          capitalism is no good if it doesn't generate actual value besides profit and doesn't control inequality. a global market whose only regulation is concerned with protecting profits and socializing losses is a call for disaster. factor in the surge of an uncontrolled financial economy which even manages to destroy value and you'll see very clearly wh

        • To simply say that "free market capitalism works" isn't even wrong. Economies are complex and mixed. There has never been a purely free market economy anywhere in the world and there never will be. Thinking that one approach, one tool, and one set of measures will be appropriate for all cases and scenarios is plainly wrong. Economic policies, approaches, tools, and measures need to be selected and adjusted according to the circumstances in each case. Sometimes monetarism is appropriate, e.g. at the start of

          • by pnutjam ( 523990 )
            Amoral money grabbing psychopaths who know how to do PR and convince the gullible to support their financial gain with the slim hope of a better deal in the future.
        • Anything that reduces individual freedoms is less moral than anything that increases individual freedoms. Anything that reduces private property rights and self determination through these rights is less moral than than anything that increases private property rights and self determination.

          The problem is, excessive focus on private property rights leads to wealth concentration which decreases self determination - and thus effective individual freedom - for most participants. Or possibly for all, since even

        • by Jahta ( 1141213 )

          Capitalism (private ownership and operation of property) in a free market system (system free of government intervention) has proven to be the best system for generating profits while improving the overall economy for all people involved. People tossed out the free market and they are trying really hard to toss out capitalism as well, they saw all the wealth generated in a free market capitalist system and believe that that wealth is gained somehow immorally, however I argue that making profits in a capitalist free market system is the most moral way to run an economy.

          Except that isn't the case at all. As eloquently demonstrated by Ha-Joon Chang (economics professor at Cambridge University) [amazon.com], the "free market" is a myth. Every market has its rules, it just depends which set you are playing by.

          There is ample [theguardian.com] evidence [theguardian.com] that the rule set favoured by "free market" proponents enriches a small minority at the expense of everybody else. That doesn't make for a healthy (or moral) society.

      • I think you're equating capitalism with avarice. It is possible to run a business while maintaining a sense of morality.

        When you are playing fast and loose with your customers, your suppliers, your employees, your financial backers, the press, the government --- what do you think is happening inside your start-up? Most likely, the rot is spreading everywhere.

        • It's a stretch to say that Uber is doing even half of these, if that's what you're inferring. I'm an Uber customer and I have exactly zero complaints about Uber playing "fast and loose" with me.

          Do I wish that one senior VP wasn't a total douchebag? yes, that'd be great. But if I refused to use the products and services of every company that had a douchebag senior VP in their ranks, I'd probably have to move to Alaska and start learning how to build everything myself.

          • Uber isn't fast and loose with their customers. They are fast and loose with the law. They claim that their business model is such that they don't require taxi licenses. But all of the reasons they cite could just as easily be cited by the taxi services.
            • Sure, anyone can just "cite" a reason. That doesn't mean it's going to work.

              Anyway, I was only addressing the previous poster who made that blanket statement about "When you are playing fast and loose with your customers" - they aren't.

      • by dAzED1 ( 33635 )
        His text was off then, but not his subject line - "Capitalism does not reward morality." That it's possible to be moral and somewhat succeed isn't per se the point - the point/question is whether morality is a hindrance. It most certainly is one of those, when in a society (like ours) where companies can make false claims to having morality - some of us intentionally seek out moral businesses to patronize. When truthful labeling (and the like) is not mandatory, and court cases actually strike the requir
      • by znrt ( 2424692 )

        he said "if you want to succeed in". which starts with the with the obvious question (witch many possible non-obvious answers) of what your definition of success is. i guess you're lacking ... a success compass!!

    • Wrong question. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by BarbaraHudson ( 3785311 ) <barbarahudson@gm ... m minus caffeine> on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:40PM (#48421655) Journal

      Companies don't have "moral compasses" - the people working in them do.

      If you have a moral compass that works, are you willing to toss your morals aside, or work for/with people who do not possess the same values?

      If the answer is no to the first part, then you don't need to answer the second part.

      If the answer is yes to the second part, then you're just negotiating the price at which you are willing to prostitute your "morals."

      • by AuMatar ( 183847 )

        Very short sighted answer. I'm not willing to sacrifice my values. Am I willing to work for/with others who have other values? Of course.

        I'm pro-choice. Not all my coworkers are. We work together just fine.

        I believe in welfare. My boss is a hardcore republican. We work together fine.

        Why? Because those morals don't apply to the job. Now to get closer to the mark:

        I believe in minimal accumulation of only annonymized data for use in improving my project. Some of my coworkers want far broader reaching

      • by dAzED1 ( 33635 )

        +1 to your comment. Some of the biggest problems in our current society trace back to making groups of people no longer groups of people - we pretend that corporations have a compass, when a piece of paper can have no such thing. We then treat the government as some external entity that oppresses us, when in theory the Great Experiment is supposed to be "government of the people, for the people, by the people" - *we* are the government. These people [uber.com] *are* uber. Are those people served by having morals,

    • by Zephyn ( 415698 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:41PM (#48421669)

      Early on in the life-cycle of a company, getting a reputation as being too immoral can hinder your ability to attract employees, customers, and investors. You need to make the most of your benefit of the doubt when you're small and no one knows about the people running the place. Once you've become a significant or dominant part of the market you're competing in, the public's perception of your morality doesn't matter as much.

      In other words, your true nature as a heartless bastard shouldn't go public before your company does.

      • So you are saying Machiavelli [wikipedia.org] got it backwards? :)

        • Which part of what Machiavelli wrote (presumably from "The Prince" or "The Discourses")? In "The Prince", he extolled the idea of looking moral without being moral. He also recommended imposing hardships all at once and relaxing them slowly over time, but that applied when you were in a position to impose.

    • Morality is for the working class. If you want to succeed in a capitalist economy, it's better to be amoral.

      I'm tempted to take this as an admission that the geek doesn't see himself as part of the working class. It would explain a lot.

    • Corporations are set up so that you never have to blame yourself. If you do something a bit shady, it's because the boss told you to, and it was likely due to a bout of group-think. If you are the boss, then you're doing it because some executive told you to do it, during a session of group-think. If you're an executive or even the CEO then you did it because the board expects you to do it, and you do whatever it takes to make the quarterly numbers look right. If you're on the board you get excused beca

    • It does. If you want repeat business, you have to protect your image, your brand, and provide good service. I think what happened here is someone pissed the guy of and he reacted like a normal human being. Think of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry asked for the telemarketer's home phone number.. That's all this was.
    • The taxi industry is an example of a capitalist economy? Lolz. They're the very epitome of corporatist protectionism.
    • by Evtim ( 1022085 )

      One of the first statements [to the MT] I did as a chairman of the workers council of my company was:

      You ask for socialism and cooperation on the work-floor and capitalism on the top floor. So, maintaining good and humane relationships between the employees makes more productive work force, generating wealth which is then distributed in a capitalist fashion [ratio benefits and rewards MT:work floor = 70:1].

      In other words: privatize the profit, socialize the loss. That's what every corporation does....what h

  • It is obviously a help for start-ups until the consumer gives a shit about what a company does ethically.

    The question should be is a moral compass a help to society. Then the follow up is: What should we do given that we know a moral compass is a benefit to society but almost 0% of companies have one.
    • It depends... Zynga was run by an amoral asswipe (Mr. Pincus) for quite awhile. It took the fading of games like Farmville and Yoville with no real viable replacement from them, coupled with the arrival of new shinies to distract their customers (e.g. Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, and similar crap) before they were cut down to size.

      I guess what I'm saying is that it takes a public and/or industry willing to both pay attention to the company's doings and a willingness to do something about it. See also the

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

      The question should be is a moral compass a help to society. Then the follow up is: What should we do given that we know a moral compass is a benefit to society but almost 0% of companies have one.

      Actually, a lot of companies have a moral compass, even "evil" ones. I mean, do you consider Apple evil because they sue over patents? But what about their moral compass for environmental causes? Or supporting LGBTQ equality? The latter two have either caused problems with shareholders or the public.

  • I thought this might be another Haselton story.
  • I'd say that on the short term morality is a hindrance. But even if your morally questionable decisions don't cause your startup to implode, would you really want to be part of the kind of company it would become?

    • by CrankyFool ( 680025 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:38PM (#48421643)

      You raise a really good point that gets ignored often.

      As a startup, you're fighting not just for money and customers, but also talent. Speaking as your typical tech person in the bay area, I'll say that the place is lousy with startups doing interesting tech work where I could solve interesting problems, and it's full with a plethora of places that will pay me well. One thing that I consider in companies is their moral and ethical profile. I work where I work because, irrespective of the crazy wages and the problems, I feel like it leads the way in ethical and humane management of high-performance engineers, and its approach to its customers is transparent and ethical. I wouldn't work for a company I considered evil, or whose execs I had serious ethical problems with -- and Uber falls into that category.

      Summary: Not appearing like you're ethical will noticeably impact your ability to compete for talent.

      • That's true even outside of the Bay area.

        Here in PDX, I've worked in boiler rooms, for amoral shitheaded corporations, clueless startups, and similar places. I lost count of how many interviews I would suddenly walk out of due to a strong sense that the place is completely wrong to work for.

        I've finally found a place where the folks running the show actually give a damn about their employees, and are willing to prove it in spades. It's a non-profit org, but damn it feels good to go home every day...

        • Ends justifying the means gives rise to lots of bad stuff. I'll avoid politics as a citation. Instead, I'll choose organizations that focus on morality, their customers, their employees, as well as their investors.

          In each case, if you pick amoral customers, employees, or investors, any one of the three will bring you down, because each has a greed stake, rather than a value stake, in the outcome of the working machine that is the organization.

          Those managing the organization can pick moral or amoral, each wi

      • Indeed, I came to say this same thing.

        Don't work for a company that cheats its customers. They will soon enough cheat their employees as well.
    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      I'd say that on the short term morality is a hindrance. But even if your morally questionable decisions don't cause your startup to implode, would you really want to be part of the kind of company it would become?

      Or in the words of Groucho Marx

      I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

  • With regards to the comments the execs made about harassing reporters and such...

    It should be pointed out that Reports act exactly as he suggested others do.

    • Uber stands guilty of being clueless about political correctness. Digging dirt about the private lives of entrepreneurs is called whistleblowing, and will probably earn a biopic made about about your life. Dishing on union satraps or Luddites is "harassment" and therefore evil.

      How quickly we forget that Sarah Lacy was herself caught in evil doings just a couple of years ago:
      http://valleywag.gawker.com/ar... [gawker.com]

      • by Fwipp ( 1473271 )

        "Evil doings" apparently means speaking honestly about negative experiences with a company you've worked with - or perhaps worse, giving them a chance to make amends?

        "[Option] 1. we sever the relationship entirely and never do another event there. rest assured we will let people know why when they ask and we'll reference it in our next post about our next LA event."
        "Honestly, it's up to you guys. If you feel you've done nothing wrong, pick option A. We have plenty of venues that were disappointed they weren

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @06:37PM (#48421639) Journal
    Once you get to be too big to fail, you also become too big to jail. Banksters like Jamie Dimon would simply call the fed and ask it to call off this investigation or that probe. So it is beyond question lack of moral compass helps the big companies. It is when they are small people are debating about it.
  • When a journalist writes a bulls--t story about you ought to know whos paying their bills and who their friends are. The Linux community had to deal with that for years
    when "journalists" would write hit pieces on linux during the SCO trials. Does that mean they ought to be Doxxed and harassed at home? Hell no but knowing if they are getting paid by rivals and are friends of your enemies is damn useful.

    • When a journalist writes a bulls--t story about you ought to know whos paying their bills and who their friends are.

      What I want to know is when did anyone with a blog/website suddenly become "a journalist"? Is the bar really that low?

      I can setup a domain and pound out some page-view inducing BS; am I a journalist then?

      • by voss ( 52565 )

        I suppose the answer is if you get paid or otherwise earn money to gather and/or present news and information then you would qualify,
        A journalist can be a blogger but not all bloggers are journalists.

  • If you have a moral compass, it can help you determine the right thing to do and the right path to follow. And (cynically) based on your company's risk tolerance for the type and amount of bad PR, it can help you determine how far to deviate from that path.

  • Oh wait...that's no longer valid so the answer is having a moral compass isn't good to have in business at all. "Think of the poor stockholders!"

  • Hinderance?? (Score:2, Insightful)

    I'm assuming that the author managed to mangle the spelling of "hindrance". Mostly because I'd have to be appalled that an "editor" could neither run spellcheck nor recognize a misspelled word...

    On the other hand, this is /., so I shouldn't be surprised....

  • by MacTO ( 1161105 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @07:22PM (#48421981)

    ... and it is only a guess:

    Most startups need a moral compass in order to recruit and retain employees who are invested in the success of the company. If the startup doesn't offer that, there is a high probability that quality employees will move on when better opportunities arise. (Examples are higher pay, better benefits, or a more stable job. These are all things that startups find difficult to provide.) Depending upon their clients, it may also serve to separate the startup from the competiton.

    Yet Uber (and the likes) are not your typical startups. Since they are trying operate in a highly regulated industry, and in an industry where the regulations vary from place to place, they are very politicized. Unfortunately politicized issues make it very difficult to have a clean fight because those with a vested interest have the existing power structures (politicians, courts, etc.) on their side.

  • If the purpose of a company (which is what startups are) is to make money, then anything that diminishes its capacity to make money is a hindrance. For example, not engaging in certain money making practices because of ethical reasons.

    The public image of a company affects its ability to make money. However, the public image of a company is just that: an image. You don't need to actually be ethical, you only need to be perceived to be ethical to build a positive public image.

    In short, a moral compass is at

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday November 19, 2014 @07:38PM (#48422091) Homepage Journal

    IF: you have a moral compass.
    THEN: having a moral compass is a help to your achieving your ends.

    On the other hand,

    IF: you don't have a moral compass.
    THEN: not having a moral compass is a help to your achieving your ends.

    In other words the question is meaningless unless you stipulate "help or hinderance to what". Also you need to specify the behavioral flexibility of the people in question. Someone who is strictly immoral -- that is to say he never does anything moral if he has an evil alternative -- would have to be irrational. The eviler alternative is not always the rational choice.

    Also moral/amoral doesn't capture everything about somebody's thinking and character. Some people are amoral and shortsighted. Others are amoral but can see the long term value of curbing their behavior. On the other hand some people are strictly moral but rigid and unimaginative. Others are highly moral and creative. To a creative person an obstacle is often an opportunity.

    Ultimately you are who you are: goodie-two-shoes or amoral bastard or something in between. Whatever you are you have to make that work for yourself.

  • "Is a Moral Compass a Hinderance Or a Help For Startups?"

    Having worked for several startups to large Fortune 50 companies, I'll fit this into Silicon Valley's 2 common choices that directly tie into their exit strategies:

    a. sell the company/IP business plan: No (don't need morals)
    b. IPO strategy business plan: Yes (cause you're trying to sustain the company, hence its business philosophy)

  • ...that the people running startups have any choice in the matter. Aren't they too busy wooing investors to give much thought to who's lending them that money and what they'll want for it later?

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