, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 71–77 | Cite as

Business Ethics 101 for the Biotech Industry

  • Chris MacDonaldEmail author
Current Opinion


Biotechnology companies face ethical challenges of two distinct types: bioethical challenges faced on account of the nature of work in the life sciences, and corporate ethical challenges on account of their nature as commercial entities. The latter set of challenges has received almost no attention at all in the academic literature or media. This paper begins to remedy that lacuna, examining ethical issues that arise specifically on account of the status of biotech companies as commercial entities. The focus here is on three representative issues: product safety, corporate social responsibility, and corporate governance. It is argued that each of these issues poses particular ethical challenges for companies in the biotech sector. In the area of product safety, it is noted that biotech companies face particular challenges in determining what counts as a ‘safe’ product, given the contentious nature of what might count as a ‘harm’ in the biotech field. In the area of corporate social responsibility, the adoption of a ‘stakeholder approach’ and an attempt to manage the social consequences of products pose special challenges for biotech companies. This is due to the enormous range of groups and individuals claiming to have a stake in the doings of such companies, and the trenchant controversies over just what the social consequences of various biotechnologies might be. In the area of corporate governance, biotech companies need to seek out and follow best practices regarding the ways in which information, authority, and influence flow between a company’s shareholders, managers, and Board of Directors, if they are to avoid duplicating the ethical and financial scandal that brought down ImClone. An important meta-issue, here — one that renders each of these corporate ethical challenges more vexing — is the difficulty of finding the appropriate benchmarks for ethical corporate behavior in a field as controversial, and as rapidly evolving, as biotechnology. Three programmatic suggestions can be made: Firstly, scholars and others interested in the ethical performance of the biotech sector must seek out and build opportunities for richer interdisciplinary collaboration. Secondly, companies within the biotech sector must seek out expertise and build capacity and competency in dealing with the corporate ethical issues that arise in their sector. Finally, companies in the biotech sector should explore the opportunities for collective problem solving afforded by the existence of local, national, and international industry associations such as the Biotechnology Industry Organization, BIOTECanada, and EuropaBio.


Corporate Social Responsibility Business Ethic Corporate Governance Stakeholder Theory Initial Public Offering 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research was supported in part by a grant from the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation, and a New Faculty grant from Saint Mary’s University. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of these organizations. Thanks to Bryn Williams-Jones, Wayne Norman and Rahul Dhanda for helpful comments. Special thanks also to three supportive anonymous reviewers for this journal, for their many thoughtful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySaint Mary’s University HalifaxCanada

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