When you were a kid playing a game and somebody cheated, you may have repeated the saying you'd been told: "cheaters never prosper." If you were the cheater, you may have been thinking to yourself, "not this time, but what about all the times you didn't catch me!"

In the past two days, I've seen two takes on the question of ethics in business -- one on each side of the issue. Today, Keith Baxter wrote:

I have yet to meet a successful business owner that hasn’t broken the ‘rules’ of marketing (or business) in order to achieve spectacular results.

Every… single… one.

...

And when I tell consulting clients that in order to win, you gotta bend the rules.

I’m always met with resistance.

You can still play by the rules if you want, but you will never beat the rule-benders in your market.

As one who believes in playing by the rules, I've passed up many an opportunity to make more money by abusing others' resources, using unscrupulous marketing techniques, or peddling product that I don't believe deliver on their promises.

And I've watched plenty of big-name marketers profit financially from making the opposite choice.

From the title of Seth Godin's post from yesterday, "No such thing as business ethics", you might think he was going to side with Keith.

And in fact, he doesn't dispute that cheating can lead to greater profits. So how does he end up on the other side of the issue? Seth wrote:

The happy theory of business ethics is this: do the right thing and you will also maximize your long-term profit...

The unhappy theory of business ethics is this: you have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit. Period. To do anything other than that is to cheat your investors...

Reader Comment:
Antone Roundy said:
Ryan, thanks for amplifying that point (and Cathy, thanks for originating it!) Too bad they don't recognize the greater and more lasting emotional benefit of making the world a better place.
(join the conversation below)

If you would like to believe in business ethics, the unhappy theory is a huge problem...

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially.

...I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing.

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we say that "everybody else is doing it", or "I had to because it's the only way to succeed."

Well, even if it's true that all the biggest successes are cheaters, that doesn't mean you have to cheat to succeed. The question is, which is more important to you: to be ethical, or to have larger-than-life success?

Could you not be happy with success that's smaller than the cheaters'?

I, for one, would be ashamed to feed my kids with stolen bread. If it came down to that, I'd rather have them grow up knowing their dad refused to cheat even when it hurt. I'd rather have them learn from and follow that example.