The day after the Securities and Exchange Commission announced its $550 million settlement with Goldman Sachs, three noted business journalists appeared on a popular current affairs TV show. They concurred that the deal was a win for Goldman since the dollar amount was surprisingly low — equal to what the firm earns in just a few weeks. They felt the SEC’s case was weak and that, legally, Goldman had done nothing wrong and would have prevailed in court.
They also agreed that people were understandably appalled by some of the firm’s conduct in the subprime mortgage crisis in light of the flood of emails and other internal company documents released by Congress and Goldman. Grasping for a way to express what was repellent about such actions, one of the writers described them as “icky.” Another airily noted that they might be seen as wrong “in some ethical, moral, or philosophical sense.”
What is remarkable is while all three pundits shared the common view that Goldman had behaved offensively, they would not say that Goldman’s behavior was “unethical” or “morally wrong.”
This reminded me of the most notorious article ever published in the Harvard Business Review — a 1968 piece by Albert Carr, a former advisor to President Truman. In it, Carr argued that business is akin to poker, where bluffing is often legal and expected. While allowing that deception in one’s personal life violates “private morality,” Carr contended that business and poker are strategic competitions whose rules permit participants to profit from misrepresentations. Indeed, he wrote, being a skilled practitioner in either endeavor requires occasional bluffing.