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Apple and the ethics of leadership

Dr Richard Bunning, Teacher

Faculty Blog

Is the ongoing controversy between Apple and America’s FBI a classic example of an ethical dilemma in business? In brief, the FBI has asked Apple to develop a process to unlock the security code of an iPhone belonging to a terrorist who, along with his wife, was responsible for the deaths of 14 Californians last year. Apple boss Tim Cook has refused, citing the firm’s commitment to protecting the privacy of its customers.

Charles Street, one of our Leadership students from Australia, has addressed the issue on our online forum and asks of Tim Cook’s decision, ‘Does he protect the privacy of all Apple customers (ethical conversation) or does he give in to the demands of the US government (legal conversation)? ’. The Economist succinctly outlines the issue, noting that the whole conflict, which is making its way through the courts, is also very good publicity for Apple. One further wrinkle is that the phone doesn’t actually belong to the terrorist, it belongs to his employer – who also wants the security code cracked.

We recall from Plato’s The Crito that Socrates decided to stay in Athens rather than fleeing (and thus saving his life), even though he was unjustly found guilty of crimes against society. His reasoning was that since he had agreed to live in Athens, he also needed to abide by the society’s rules, even if they had been administered unjustly by others. That was ethical, the right thing to do. So by similar reasoning, should Tim Cook decide to abide by the rules of the US government? Or is there a greater good to be gained by protecting the privacy of citizens, a right that some believe the US government to violate from time to time?

Charles further suggests that Apple might even be creating a ‘positive business ethics gap’ through the position it is taking, whereby its ethical practices exceed societal expectations, actively setting a standard and perhaps providing leadership in the development of ethical practices.

Ethics is the study of moral philosophy: what is truth, what is good, what is justice, what is right and wrong. In the case of Apple vs the FBI, what is ethical? Should Apple support the FBI’s demand to help in the fight against terrorism? Or is Tim Cook correct in his assertion that Apple customers are to be protected and the development of code-cracking tools would set a dangerous precedent?

Charles’s question very clearly highlights the challenges of ethical leadership. What is the right thing for Apple to do?