Startup Founder Ethics

Startup Founder Ethics

Recently I was talking to someone about a book they were writing to develop new ethical frameworks that startup founders can use. I realised that my primary ethical framework was not one I have published anywhere (Purple Circle Ethics). So I am putting it here, as well as a secondary, more simple framework that we developed on that call (I’ll name this Select/Execute Ethics for want of a better term). Note, I am in no way claiming these as original, they are both pretty basic frameworks easily derived from other ethical models, but still wanted to get them out there as I do not think many startup founders consider things like this.

Purple Circle Ethics

The main concept of this framework is that there are distinct arenas of ethics. For example, there are ethics for how you personally live your day to day, but also how collective groups of people act e.g. your family or your team (startup). The major question that Purple Circle Ethics tries to answer is, how aligned at the ethical arenas for you specifically?

In this example there is no alignment at all, rather each arena is completely unrelated to the other. This means that being ethical in one arena has no impact or alignment whatsoever with being ethical in another.

Most people are a bit of a jumble. Great father doing great community work while working at a company actively poisoning rivers. In such a case their arenas might look like this.

With active work, for example, changing jobs, greater focus on family, active work in the community, you can start to get the ethical arenas to align more. This has really positive emotional effects from personal experience, though I have no scientific evidence.

If you have perfect alignment across all arenas you are existing in a perfectly unified ethical arena. This is my personal goal, unattainable of course, but still something to strive for. Hence, working on climate change with my startup, actively building an ethical and diverse team etc

Why should unity actually be something we seek? That is a tough question and in essence a PHD thesis I am unlikely to ever write so i will leave it as an axiom that people can take or leave. The axiom: “greater alignment across ethical arenas is good”

Select/Execute Ethics

The second framework is newer and uses the 2x2

framework beloved of MBAs everywhere. For a startup, you are trying to solve a specific problem in a specific way. You can select an unethical or ethical problem to solve. Once the problem is selected, you can then execute on that problem in an ethical or unethical manner.

So let's say you want to solve the problem of children dying of malaria. That is very ethical, but how you and your startup executes on that is another matter. For example you could solve this by kidnapping children and keeping them imprisoned under mosquito nets. In this case you would appear in the bottom left quadrant:

On the other hand let's say you want to solve the problem of children dying of malaria by building new financing models that empowers local communities to create and distribute mosquito nets. In this case you would be in the top left quadrant.

Alternatively let's say you want to solve the problem of finding people to consume tobacco products. My priors say this is an unethical problem to solve and I say that unashamedly. BUT, you could attempt to do this ethically for example by targeting adults with a massive amount of education on the downsides and help for addiction for those who want to stop.

But lets say, you create a vaping product aimed at children, well you are squarely in the bottom left quadrant, and causing terrible damage to the world.

The final area is that neutral space, where so many companies and founders live. This is the space I lived most of my life, the grey space right in the middle, muddling along with ok ethical execution of startups and a problem set that is not really net bad or good for the world. If you start a company in this space, let's be honest and never say “We are changing the world”.

So, to summarize, my preferred order of ethical trade-offs is below. Ideally you are actively working on big ethical problems ethically but if not, muddling along is OK. Just don’t start companies working on unethical problems. Like, what is even the point?

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