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Ethical Mantra “Don’t Be Evil” Becomes “Do The Right Thing” For New Google Parent
New slogan will co-exist with "anti-evil" Google philosophy.
The Wall Street Journal points out that Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, has a new code of conduct and a new ethical slogan: “Do the right thing.” The code states in its preface, “Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates (‘Alphabet’) should do the right thing — follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.”
Famously, Google launched with the philosophy, “Don’t be evil,” which is formulated on its site as “You can make money without doing evil” (or perhaps the former is a popular paraphrase of the latter). While carrying the best intentions, this tagline has subjected Google to repeated sarcastic rejoinders and satire over the years as critics used it to bludgeon the company when it seemingly transgressed the “evil” boundary (or crossed the “creepy line”).
I am not a professional ethicist or philosophy professor, but I think it’s worth considering the differences in meaning and tone between the two directives. It’s also interesting that the two now co-exist and that Google’s anti-evil position wasn’t entirely preempted by the new mantra.
In philosophy, US civil law, Christianity and traditional Judaism, there are both negative and affirmative rules or imperatives. In civil law, you’re not obligated to risk your life to save a drowning person. But if you do undertake that recscue, you need to act with care and not cause harm to the person. If you botch the rescue, you can be sued.
In Christianity, the “Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12) states “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is actually a slightly more “affirmative” treatment (in terms of moral obligation) of an earlier Jewish teaching, attributed to first century BCE Jewish sage Hillel, which translates “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.”
The earlier Google slogan, “Don’t be evil” sounds stronger than “Do the right thing.” But “Do the right thing” actually imposes a higher standard and burden in the abstract. It suggests an affirmative obligation to act with the highest integrity and moral character, whereas “Don’t be evil” suggests something more like “Don’t hurt anyone.” It actually imposes a less stringent burden, though the word “evil” is very potent.
Perhaps for the reasons above, Alphabet has limited the perceived responsibility it is taking on by defining and qualifying “Do the right thing” with “Follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.” It’s less “Dive into the river and save the drowning girl” than “Be a generally good person.”
One might argue that this new position is a more mature statement from a more mature company. However, it’s also partly a way for Google/Alphabet to get out from under the criticism and PR headaches that the old slogan caused.
These slogans and mantras are important as expressions of corporate values, and we should take them seriously. Social responsibility is a critical value that more corporations need to sincerely adopt. A prime example of that is Patagonia, a company that has been living “Do the right thing” since its founding roughly 50 years ago.