NOTIONS: Does principal or principle matter more?

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A few weeks ago, my friend John and I treated our three 17-year-olds to a boys’ night out.

We started off at Bazbeaux downtown, inhaling guy pizza (read: pepperoni and sausage) and dissecting the big news of the day-Michael Jackson’s acquittal on charges that he shared alcohol, porn and a little night groping with a teen-age boy.

Our teen-age boys, news junkies all, then rattled on about kids getting paid to play online video games and the proliferation of “cheats” and hacking in such contests. My son, Zach, said kids have created software for one shoot-em-up that effectively shields them from fatal enemy fire. That helps them play longer and make more money.

Zach said the honchos controlling the games try to stop such unethical behavior by cutting off access to cheaters. But they don’t always catch them-and they sometimes block access to honest-but-highscoring players.

Wanting to instill a modicum of education in the evening, the dads had agreed on an after-dinner flick. So we drove south to Key Cinemas for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

In case you’ve not seen it, this documentary is based on a book of the same title by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. The promotional flyer (attributed to Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman) described it this way:

“‘The Smartest Guys in the Room’ lays bare, in funny and shocking video clips, the culture of arrogance at Enron, a corporation that exploited deregulation to turn the buying and selling of energy into a kind of private casino.

“It captures how the company was given favorable treatment by the Bush administration, and the bigger picture of how its fraudulence emerged from-and depended on-the speculative mania of the dot-com era.

“By the time Enron is shutting down electricity plants, exploiting-and perpetuating-the California energy crisis for its own ends (we hear a recording of one trader, during a brush fire, as he says ‘Burn, baby, burn!’), you may be sitting there slack-jawed, wondering how they got away with it for so long. Or when it will happen again.”

That’s certainly what our boys were wondering, though as we headed for our cars, jaws were jacking, not slacking.

Next day, John and I compared notes.

John’s Eliot said he was going to write a book on ethical economics.

Zach had ridden his bike to Borders and bought “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.”

All three boys had arrived at a similar conclusion: Capitalism is a wonderful economic theory, and profit a powerful motivator, but the acquisition of principal must be guided by moral principles.

The question, of course, is who draws the ethical line and where.

Last week, at the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s annual meeting, there was a presentation by Ben Cameron, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group-a national association of 400-plus not-for-profit theaters.

Cameron talked about sharp declines in foundation and government giving to notfor-profits and why that’s come about.

He then discussed the shift in corporate giving. Cameron said companies today are less often donating because it’s the right thing to do and more often because of “enlightened self-interest.” As evidence of that shift, he said more and more giving is driven not by CEOs or community relations executives, but by marketing departments.

The dilemma emerges, of course, when the donor’s “enlightened self-interest” conflicts with the recipient’s values. Do you take the money or not?

A few months ago, there was a big business conference in Indianapolis. It was hosted by my alma mater, whose president has promised that our university will become one of the top five cancer centers in America. It took place in a city and state determined to become life-science leaders. And it took place on a campus that’s trying to raise tens of millions of dollars for a new cancer hospital and more cancer research.

The conference was sponsored by lots of health-related companies whose products and services save lives.

But their logos sat side-by-side with one other sponsor-Phillip Morris-whose products, when used as directed, spark illness and death.

Do you take the money or not?

In the past few months, my little business has been approached by five of this region’s most prominent restaurants, all seeking marketing communications counsel.

My colleagues, knowing that my late wife attributed the cancer that would kill her to secondhand smoke, told the prospective clients they’d have to go smoke-free-now-or it would be hypocritical for us to represent them. My colleagues also told the restaurateurs that going smoke-free first would reap publicity and make them more money.

Not one of those restaurants has been willing to risk principal for a principle.

Neither has my alma mater.

Maybe Eliot will write about that in his ethical economics book.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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