Deontology and Utilitarianism are two contrasting viewpoints on ethics. The utilitarian would argue a ‘right’ ethical decision is one which maximises the most good for the least harm whilst a deontologist first ponders the ‘right’ actions regardless of the outcome. This blog considers Johnson & Johnson (J&J) from these two ethical viewpoints in light of their recent $72m lawsuit regarding the use of harmful chemicals such as talc and carcinogens in their products and argues whether J&J are ethically right to continue with the use of these chemicals in their product formulations.
A Utilitarian approach
“Business must make a sound profit.” (Johnson & Johnson Code of Conduct)
Talc is widely used as an ingredient in cosmetic products such as talcum powder as it absorbs moisture, helping to keep the skin dry and prevent rashes; a benefit for millions of J&J’s product users worldwide, especially those residing in hot climates. Although some studies have raised concerns about a possible link between the use of talc and ovarian cancer, these studies have yielded inconclusive results; in some cases reporting a slightly increased risk whilst none in others. A utilitarian would argue that the use of talc in J&J’s products is justified when comparing the millions of users that benefit worldwide to the 1,200 cases similar to the lawsuit, suggesting more good than harm to society has been brought about by the company’s actions.
Furthermore, J&J perfectly complies with the legislations enforced in the countries in which it operates. In the EU 1,372 chemicals, including talc have been banned from use in cosmetic products as opposed to only 10 (excluding talc) in the US. J&J obeys these regulations and uses talc-free formulations for its EU products. It could be argued that by eliminating the use of talc in its EU products, whilst retaining the use talc based formulations for its US product where it is not banned by law, does indeed reduce society’s overall risk to the inconclusive claims of ovarian cancer caused by talc.
Considering the egoistic approach, a variation of utilitarian ethics focused on achieving the most good for one’s self, it can be argued that as J&J’s products are cosmetics, not drugs, no law is broken. Therefore, there is no benefit in changing their well-established and thoroughly tested processes or the chemicals used in them. For example, the chemical formaldehyde used in some of their products in minuscule quantities are not detrimental to humans. Despite being classed as carcinogenic by the EPA in 1987, formaldehyde was not prohibited by law. Without official regulations in place, eliminating the use of formaldehyde in its products would have cost J&J millions of dollars, which would have been economically disadvantageous. This extra cost would eventually have been passed down to its customers, impacting their financial capability to access these vital products.
This egoistic approach is also apparent in J&J’s response to the concerns about the potential linkage of their products with cancer. The 1,200 lawsuit talc cases are only very recent but the concerns themselves have been going on for decades. By actively changing the composition of their products decades ago as a consequence of raised concerns, they would have risked publicly exposing themselves, harming their reputation and profit. This would have been indeed unwise considering that the exact risk of developing cancer from their products had not actually been determined.
A Deontological approach
“We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurse and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.”
(Johnson & Johnson Code of Conduct)
Reading this, J&J would lead you to believe they uphold Deontology ethics. However, further research into the company revealed a distorted past; the illegal drugs promotion as well as the ovarian cancer lawsuit, suggesting quite the opposite.
J&J’s oldest product and the world’s most popular talcum powder, JOHNSON’s® baby powder was found to contain the confirmed human carcinogens 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde. Referring back to Immanuel Kant’s duty ethics, it would be expected of the company to take ownership of the problem at hand and rectify urgently. A strong link to ovarian cancer was discovered, and after three years of protesting and campaigning, the company finally acknowledged the issue and demanded another three years for the chemicals to be removed. Surely this contradicts their promise of “safety is our priority”. In 2016, J&J hit the headlines when a lawsuit was made against the firm and the jury concluded on a $72m settlement over the death of Ms. Fox, 62 who suffered from ovarian cancer after being a routine user of the talcum powder. J&J accepted the claim that their ‘feminine hygiene product’ lead to this tragedy.
Ms Berg, another victim amongst the thousands, revealed J&J sought to cover up the evidence rather than accepting responsibility by offering $1.3m hush money. Abiding by the deontologist beliefs, J&J should have accepted responsibility at first instant and accepted whatever consequences. Furthermore, it has also come to light, that J&J illegally gave incentives to pharmacies for the promotion of off-label drug use. Referring back to their code of conduct, they must ‘comply with the laws and standards’, for which they were fined $2.2bn. The repercussions of this are demonstrated in the Thalidomide controversy.
More shockingly, JOHNSON’s® baby shampoo contains 200 times the OSHA recommended formaldehyde limit. Despite the law not requiring the labelling, or reduction of the concentration of the chemical, deontologists would argue that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. Whilst the founders of Johnson & Johnson along with many other multinational corporations set out with the right intentions and visualised their products to have a beneficial impact on the many, arguably this is no longer the case. It appears that the morals of the company have been compromising human welfare to maximise its growth and profitability.
With the growing reality of a utilitarian approach, are big corporations right to compromise the lives of the few for the needs of the many?
50: Anu Iyanda, Sara Ortiz de Landazuri, Maha Khan, Emma Parkin