50 Shades of Business Ethics


I am striving to become a marketing executive. I need to know all things new, hot, and in the public eye to try and determine how to entice the public to buy the next “big thing”. With that justification, I jumped on the bandwagon and read Fifty Shades of Grey… I swear I did it only for the advancement of my professional career.

Anyway, after wishing that E.L. James had a thesaurus to help her explain Grey’s “long fingers,” I determined this was not a novel that should be going down as a “classic” of our day. However, after flipping the pages and reading about the BDSM contract that the two main characters were in the throws of negotiation over, I realized: this is not a smut filled novel – it is a case of business ethics! Is this contract, and what would transpire after the agreement, ethical? I delved back into my notes from my business ethics course to analyze this situation further.*†

Justice Theory – UNETHICAL

Rawls outlines in his theory that what is ethical is what gives the greatest benefit to the least advantaged. With regards to 50 Shades it obviously depends on how we view advantaged and disadvantaged. Grey is getting his sexual kicks and he pretty much has everything else to be desired: wealth, good looks, long fingers, business power…. But, Anastasia is getting a free wardrobe (if she likes it – I assume in the second instillation we get to see if she does or not), a car, a laptop, fancy dinners, trips in a helicopter and a glider, a room in the nicest apartment ever, a pretty good sounding sex life, and I’m sure a ton of other stuff that I have forgotten. She keeps harping on the whole relationship-love thing, but since she didn’t have that in the beginning, I feel we can’t factor that into the Rawlsian picture.

Rawls’ theory also outlines Distributive Justice – how things should be distributed in a just society (wealth, money, power, etc). Based on this idea, I see ethical and unethical portions of The Contract. Ana will be receiving money and objects (distribution of wealth) but she is giving up her sexual power – which it seems Grey has plenty of. We can imagine behind the Veil of Ignorance many risk averse people would not agree to operate under a contract such as that between Ana and Grey. They would be worried they would be the ones experiencing the pain.

Finally, the theory provides us with the Principles of Justice (I am using the Principles prior to some of Rawls’ revisions):

  • Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. There are five basic liberties: freedom of speech, thought, etc.

Immediately, I see a huge issue. The Contract takes away Ana’s basic rights – no speaking without permission, being told what to wear, and no direct eye contact. Since the rest of the Principles are in lexical order and the first is NOT MET, we can stop here and conclude that under Rawls the contract is not ethical.

Rights Theory – ETHICAL

Nozick describes his what is ethical under his Rights Theory as anything that is free from force or fraud. He does not consider all threats to be force. Force is only physical (or the threat of physical) harm or outright deception. Based on the story we know that although Ana and Grey both threaten to back out of the “relationship” if certain aspects are not met, these threats are not considered “force” by Nozick. Even though there may be “force” that occurs in the “Red Room of Pain,” this pain does not have anything to do with forcing Ana to sign The Contract and would occur only if she agrees. Also, both Grey and Ana are extremely forthcoming in their dealings with The Contract and what they would like added/subtracted.

Therefore, The Contract is ethical under Nozick’s view.

We can even use Nozick’s theory to say that all of the gifts Ana has received from Grey were received in an ethical manner. According to Nozick, “you deserve whatever you have received if force or fraud have not come into effect.”‡ Meaning us ladies all need to find a Grey-type figure to willingly give us things (if we are Nozickians).

Utilitarianism – UNDETERMINED

Under this theory the option that maximizes common good, wins. For Utilitarianism, we will look at the two options Ana and Grey have: to sign, or not to sign.

We would have to employ the Hedonic Calculus that is outlined by Utilitarianism to see which option wins, obviously this would weigh differently for each person:

  • Intensity (of pleasure or pain) – I think we see in the book that even though physical pain may occur once The Contract is signed the mental pain for Ana is stronger when she leaves Grey. Grey obviously has more pleasure if The Contract is signed.
  • Duration (of pleasure or pain) – If The Contract is signed this factor is continually negotiated, if it is not, the pain of loss is forever (man that was sappy).
  • Certainty/Uncertainty (probability of pain/pleasure occurring) – I think here we have a tie. 100% pain will occur if signed and 100% will occur if not.
  • Fecundity (amount of pain/pleasure that will continue to occur) – I think we can say that either way the pain will end. If The Contract is signed and either party doesn’t like it, it can be stopped at any point. If Ana or Grey walk away eventually the hurt will stop.
  • Purity (how pure is the pain/pleasure – not mixed) – I think on both ends it would be mixed, there is pain and pleasure associated with both options.
  • Extent (number of persons being affected) – Immediately, only Grey and Ana are affected. However, I can see Ana’s circle of friends being negatively affected if she signs.

According to the math it seems there is a tie, except with intensity, which seems to lead to the opinion that they should sign, and extent which leads to the opposite conclusion. Ana and her wavering soul would really have to sit and think about this one.

Objectivist Theory – UNETHICAL

Ayn Rand developed the Objectivist Theory. Under this mode of ethical determination it is essential for a person to sit down and ask themselves, “What’s good for ‘me’ in the long run? How can I be rational, use reason, and be the best I can be.”

Rand requires a little more detail than the plot tells us. At this point Ana wants to become the best publishing house intern she can be (really, the girl needs some higher aspirations), Grey wants to basically be the best controller of the universe and end world hunger (now, THERE are some goals). I’m not 100% sure about how a sex contract works into either of these two ambitions. So, if there is the possibility that it could hinder these goals it would be unethical – but Grey has seemed to manage just fine with similar contracts in the past. However, Rand claims that happiness is a by-product of virtue and one of the Three Cardinal Virtues is Pride. To gain and maintain Pride you must act to gain Self-Esteem. To me, through the book it does not seem that Ana gains as much Self-Esteem while experiencing “Red Room of Pain” exploits as she does “Vanilla” exploits. That leads me to believe she could be happier and more ethical if she does not sign The Contract.

Integrative Social Contract Theory – UNETHICAL

To determine ethicalness under ISCT we must determine:

  • Does this violate a hypernorm (the global test)?
  • Does this violate an authentic norm (the regional test)?

Although there is no set way to determine a hypernorm the two that are outlined are:

  • Core Human Rights: including those to personal freedom, physical security and well-being, political participation, informed consent, the ownership of property and the right to substance.
  • The obligation to respect the dignity of each human person.

A norm is authentic if:

  • Compliance is approved.
  • Deviance is disapproved.
  • Almost everyone does it.

If the situation violates either of these norms you stop because the situation is unethical – I think it’s pretty obvious from both a hypernorm and authentic norm analysis that The Contract would be deemed unethical. Unless I’m missing something and these contracts ARE the norm – then I guess I’m abnormal :/

Did I get these right? Do you see the analysis in the same way or differently? Please leave some discussion points below and don’t forget to follow Masters of What (it’s that little button over there on the right hand side)!

*Disclaimer: I have ONLY read 50 Shades of Grey, no further into the series…Don’t be mean and spoil all of the salacious details! Plus I’m sure MORE contract negotiation occurred in the other 2 books.
†Another Disclaimer: I did get an A in my business ethics course but I will not lie and say I 100% understood all of the intricacies in all of the theories, I maintain my right to have interpreted some things wrong – This is a big deal because I NEVER admit I could be wrong 😉
All quotes (and CORRECT knowledge about the subject) are attributed to my fabulous professor of my MGT 722 course: Seminar in Business Ethics and Social Institutions, Dr. Lori J. Ryan. Any INCORRECT information I managed on my own.
My Business Ethics Folder

I still have my Seminar in Business Ethics and Social Institutions folder, and love it. So much hard work was put into this folder.

Advertisements