Business ethics: What kind of person do you want to be?

Business Ethics and Golden Balls

Last night, a segment from NPR’s RadioLab was centered around a British television game show called “Golden Balls,” in which contestants compete against one another with the objective of winning money. Students from this past year’s class will almost definitely recognize what this post will be about once they get 4 minutes 10 seconds into the recording, where the rules are explained.


  • A pot of £13,600 is up for grabs between the two contestants
  • Each contestant has the option to either “Split” or “Steal”
  • IF: Contestant 1 and 2 both choose to “Split,” the pot is split and each contestant receives £6,800
  • IF: Contestant 1 “Steals” and Contestant 2 “Splits,” Contestant 1 receives the full £13,200 while Contestant 1 receives nothing (and vice versa)
  • IF: Contestant 1 and 2 both choose to Steal, they each receive nothing

“The ultimate test of faith, trust, and greed”

As the radio host goes on to explain, the overwhelming majority of contestants go to great lengths to assure each other that they will opt to Split the pot with the other. The contestants reference personal stories, explain their values, and put their honor on the line – only to Steal later and result in one or both of them leaving with empty-handed.

Our weeklong FLY Sessions are comprised of two main sections. We begin with personal finance, establishing basic concepts important for both individual and business finance. The second half of the week begins a transition into entrepreneurship, taking students through a hypothetical journey of developing a product, market, and eventually a business plan.

Along the way, I pitted the students against each other in a similar manner, using points, pen, and paper. Out of about 25 rounds, not once did two students both choose to “Split” with each other.

What kind of person do you want to be?

This variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma was my introduction to a segment on Business Ethics; not only are ethics an integral component to leading a meaningful life, but they are also simply good business. There are hundreds of ethical theories that have been developed. I taught the following seven. Of course, I did not enforce a certain belief or perspective (that would be unethical), but rather, the opposite: the idea that there are rarely right and wrong answers, merely better or worse ones, especially in complex ethical dilemmas.

  • Utilitarianism: Only have to satisfy majority, e.g. I only need to give snacks to eight students
  • Fairness: I give everyone snacks or nobody snacks
  • Egoism: I do what’s in my best interest, so maybe Ryan and I will just eat all day
  • Rules: E.g. “No matter what, lying is always wrong.”
  • Virtue: Action + Consequence → Virtue, e.g. “A white lie (action) makes her feel better (consequence), aligning with my virtue of being compassionate”
  • Social contract: You did me a favor, it’s only right I do you one too
  • Rights/Duty: Right to privacy, right to autonomy, duty as a student, as a soldier, as a teacher

In one’s professional and personal life, ethical dilemmas will abound. Like a contestant on Golden Balls, you may find yourself in a position to harm another for self-benefit. Whether they are a colleague or acquaintance, friend or stranger, having the tools to evaluate ethical dilemmas and reflect on their outcomes will allow for healthy, measured growth for both an individual and a business.

Matthew Lau

Matthew Lau is responsible for creating the curriculum and facilitating the program for the week-long session, as well as helping to market and plan. He is a graduate from Santa Clara University pursuing a career in financial planning.