Is It Ethical to Profit Off of the Pandemic?


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Enzo Goebel, Staff Writer

In this day and age, major corporations study the everyday consumer in order to make a profit. They know our preferences, habits, and even our deepest secrets! Not everything we see is a subliminal message meant to deceive the masses, but you get the point. Advertisements are made to be specific to the viewer, and advertisers use tricks to capture our attention by familiarizing themselves with us. In order to do this, they appeal to something almost everyone has: emotions.

Emotions can be a powerful thing, especially fear. With the coronavirus running amok, the economy is especially disrupted because consumers are either afraid to leave their homes or prohibited from doing so. Their lives are literally on the line. Unemployment has also taken its toll on the economy. But fear can also be used for profit, and some entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to pioneer the economy. Even so, you might ask, is profiting off other people’s fears really ethical? To find the answer, let’s take a look at some examples.

According to DailyMail, Oliver Cooper, 13, decided to buy a tub of child hand wash while he waited for the school bus in England back in early March. After his “mates” made the suggestion, he began selling the product for 50 pence, about 60 U.S. cents. After his initial success, Cooper ran into trouble with the school staff at Dixon’s Unity Academy, and now faces a day at home as well as two hours of detention. The consequences may have been worth it though, as he not only made a satisfactory nine pounds (about 11 U.S. dollars) and high praise from his parents, but also publicity from the press. It may seem as if there is nothing unethical about a boy using his wits to make a buck. However, the next example seems far more questionable…

After the first reported death of the coronavirus on Mar. 1, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out to clear the shelves of hand sanitizer from dollar stores across the country. The bottles they listed on Amazon sold from $8 to $70 each, reports The New York Times, who says “to many, it was profiteering from a pandemic.” The following day Amazon cracked down on the brothers and many others who had hoped to make a fortune off the coronavirus, leaving Matt and Noah with 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer products. While their idea was undeniably clever, it’s not completely ethical, because those supplies could save lives, especially at a time where hospitals are forced to ration medical supplies to ill patients and newborn babies. Let’s look at one more example to see where we should stand in terms of profiting off of fear.

During the 2008 financial crisis, “lawmakers of both parties were found to have sold stock after receiving briefings from executives or government officials that had clear impact on public markets” says Quartz. At the time, the insider trading law did not apply to lawmakers. That changed when the Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act was passed, making it illegal for officials to profit off non-public information. Now, several lawmakers face heat for selling stocks while the Trump administration downplayed the coronavirus to the public. One lawmaker in particular is Senator Richard M. Burr, who not only sold millions in stocks in February, says The New York Times, but while simultaneously warning less than 100 of his followers of the danger the coronavirus posed, he reassured the public of their safety.

What makes entrepreneurship ethical? Is it the methods one uses to attain success and the results they bear?  And how do your choices affect society at large? It is important to understand that there is a difference between being moral and ethical. Being moral is acting in a way you see fit, being ethical is acting in a way society sees fit.


Photo courtesy of AARP.ORG