Does Dr. Roy Vagelos or Merck and Co. have a responsibility to pursue R&D for a human version of Ivermectin, the drug for river blindness? Lets take this question to a positive evaluation. Developing a drug to combat river blindness has potential costs and benefits. Merck discovered an opportunity to treat millions of infected people around the world but knew that the drug would probably never see commercial use. Investing millions of dollars in research plus knowing that the company would not be able to profit from the results did amplified the risk of Merck coming up empty handed. Merck has a long history of being pioneers in the development of major antibiotic compounds, beginning with penicillin and streptomycin in the the1940s (Donaldson page 254). While scientists were encouraging the firm to invest in further research to determine if existing drugs could be adapted for safe use in humans, the outcome was not certain. The company’s decision could potentially have either positive or negative effect on employees’ morale. Allowing scientist to pursue the research could make them feel good about themselves and what they do for society.
If a safe and effective drug could be developed, the prospects from Merck recouping it’s investment was almost zero. Could Merck justify such an investment to shareholders and the financial community? What criteria would be needed to help them make such a decision? The negatively impacted stockholders and the major costs also have to be taken into account. If the company were to pursue the research, it would task its scientists to work on the project while forgoing an opportunity of developing a profitable product, stockholders would have to cope with potential decline of the firm’s long term profitability. The responsibility of the executive management is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the corporation, regardless of the impact on its shareholders. They are not obligated to justify ever investment decision to its shareholders.
In turn, investors have an opportunity to feely decide whether they wish to invest with the company. This falls in line with benefit of the profit motive. Adam Smith pointed to the motivational importance of “regard to their own interest,” (Adam Smith page 166), he did not suggest that this motivation is all that is needed to have a flourishing system of exchange. Adam Smith explains, if he can not trust the householder, the baker may have difficult in proceeding to produce bread to meet orders, or in delivering bread without prepayment. And the householder may not be certain whether he would be sensible in relying on the delivery of the ordered bread if the baker is not always altogether reliable (Amartya Sen page 259). While Merck would not be able to justify its investment in terms of the financial bottom line, they could argue that the development of the drug would have a significant positive effect on company’s goodwill (which is very hard to measure).
A pharmaceutical company’s scientists are one of its most important resources, a point that students often miss. Of course these scientists would know that they are working for a for-profit company. But, they are also highly trained scientists with advanced degrees, who probably have humanistic values about helping people and curing disease. So, this is an important consideration. Merck and Co. were obligated to study and produce the human version of the vaccine. The main parties involved in this ethical dilemma are Roy Vagelos and millions of poor people infected with parasite or being at risk to be infected. Roy Vagelos has a corporate economic concern to raise the profitability of the company by means of new products. The head of the Merck and Co. also had an ethical concern to help poor people to survive, as the philosophy of the company is to investigate drugs for people not just for money. Millions of infected, or at risk to be infected, people have a concern to have access to a drugs, which would kill the parasite without side effects.
Merck and Co. has an ethical obligation to pursue the cure to river blindness. As stated by Amartya Sen, we have then an important contrast between two different ways in which good business behavior could make economic sense. One way is to see the improvement of the society in which one lives as a reward in itself; this works directly. The other is to use ultimately a business criteria for improvement, but to take note of the extent to which good business behavior could in its turn lead to a favorable business performance; this enlightened self-interest involves an indirect reasoning (Amartya Sen page 263). I also agree that business ethics has to relate to both.