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“Can a company be bitchy?”

Corporate (and political and scientific) social responsibility

By Leigh E. Rich and Michael A. Ashby

PHIL: Oh, God, Lem. You’re using science for no good. We took an oath we would try to do that less (Better Off Ted 2009a, “Bioshuffle,” episode 109).

The American sitcom Better Off Ted (whose second and final season was released last fall on DVD) takes a stab at corporate ethics—and whether the concept can even exist. The premise of the caustically comedic program centers around a research and development department at “one of the largest corporations in America,” the powerfully and preposterously named Veridian Dynamics (Better Off Ted 2009e, “Pilot,” episode 101). Heading up the team is Ted Crisp, a handsome and driven but affable middle manager whom most everyone in the show desires either to be with or to be like. Phil and Lem are ingenious (though socially awkward) laboratory scientists, capable of making real most any idea the company throws at them—from cow-less “beef” and the world’s smallest squirrel to weight-loss toothpaste and weaponized pumpkins. Ted’s boss, Veronica Palmer, hair always drawn in a tight bun, is a no-nonsense and rather impassive self- and company-centered executive who is the personification of the corporation itself. And Linda Zwordling, the department’s product testing manager, and Rose, Ted’s eight-year-old daughter, provide a “fool’s” perspective, acting as voices of conscience for the team.

Although funny and almost goofy at times, tapping into the frustration every “worker bee” likely experiences on a regular basis, the sitcom offers a platform for considering ethics in everyday life and what responsibilities employees and executives as well as companies (and other organizations) might have beyond one’s job description or the corporate mission statement and strategic plan. In the pilot episode, Ted explains, “Is it wrong to invent a deadly pumpkin? Or an irritating chair that makes people work harder? Thing is, work’s not about right and wrong. It’s about success or failure” (Better Off Ted 2009e, “Pilot,” episode 101). In this sense, Ted is a “company man,” the darling of Veridian who has at least tasted the Kool-Aid of capitalistic corporate practice and is willing to pursue, although not without some thought, almost any product Veridian dreams up. That said, unlike other, minor characters in the show, he is not completely morally bereft, and he is liked by those both above and below him on the corporate ladder. He loves this favorable position and his job and is portrayed as a caring and competent boss and father, but—as the above quote indicates—he clearly has room to grow in his moral practice, particularly when it comes to achieving company objectives and his own ambitions. [continued …]

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Rich, Leigh E., and Michael A. Ashby. 2015. “Can a company be bitchy?”: Corporate (and political and scientific) social responsibility. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 12(2): 159–169.

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