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Firms without ethics likened to terrorists by Toledo speaker

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Kenneth Goodpaster

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What do Enron Corp., NASA, and a cell of terrorists have in common?

From an ethical standpoint, they all suffered from "teleopathy." a social illness marked by an unbalanced fixation and detachment in the pursuit of one's goals.

Unfortunately, that's an all too common illness in business today, said Kenneth Goodpaster, a professor of business ethics at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. Goodpaster discussed "Corporate Conscience in a Global Economy" yesterday at the University of Toledo as the featured speaker as part of an ongoing Edwin Dodd Distinguished Lecture Series in Business Ethics.

The series is named for the late Owens-Illinois Inc. chief executive. The series is sponsored by O-I and Dana Corp.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were shocked, not just by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but also by learning a few months afterward that the presence of corporate ethics in American business was an illusion.

Scandals at Enron, Worldcom Inc., and Tyco International Inc. were revealed.

Mr. Goodpaster said those scandals, as well as the culture at NASA that contributed to the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, had a pattern common to terrorists as well.

All those are examples of people who become so fixated on goals that it leads to rationalization, and then detachment.

"You've recently seen it in professional sports," he said. "Objectives become idols, obstacles become threats, second thoughts are not allowed, and eventually, second thoughts just disappear."

Corporate leaders, he said, should embrace the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

"It's not a pipe dream. It's really possible if corporations want to work it," he said.

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