Practical Ethical Point of View About “the Pesticide DDT”

Introduction: Case Study

The case study is about the spread of DDT or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which proved highly useful in checking various diseases such as malaria, typhus and other such types of diseases, specifically in relevance to the US forces wherever they went to fight during the WWII. Discovered by Paul Muller, this toxic powder reached the United States through Geigy after he translated some of the relevant documents. It started to be produced on mass level after the army tasked the agricultural department to use it against the pests. It was successful not only in agriculture but also in checking diseases with amazing success rate in erasing malaria from South African area of KwaZulu-Natal by decreasing from 22,000 deaths in 1931-1932 top just 331 in 1973, a tremendous success and in next four years there was “one death from malaria in South Africa” (Corporate Social Responsibility, p. 89). As the production was handed over to a private firm, Montrose Chemical Corporations located in California won monopoly. It rather put various issues on backburner after Rachel Carson discovered that the DDT was playing havoc with the wild life and environment, including some harms to human beings through “food chain” (p. 90). It was also showing some signs of causing cancer and soon the US environmental protection agency or EPA swung into action and banned it in 1972. It, however, continued to be sold abroad in various countries even after 10 to 20 and 30 years. It was banned in some countries quite late. It is stated that some traces of its chemicals are still found in the Great Lakes after 30 years (p. 90). In other words, its harms have proved beyond any iota of doubt, but the US Government closed eyes to the production and the Montrose Chemical Corporations carried on earning profits on global level, saving the US environment, wildlife and human lives.

The case clearly demonstrates a neglect not only on the part of the commercial entity, Montrose Chemical Corporations, but also shows a complicity of a US institution, the EPA, and the willful ignorance and blindness of the US government toward business ethics.

Ethical Theories: Strengths and Weaknesses

In the business world, there are four major ethical theories; A. Utilitarianism B. Universal Ethics C. Ethical Relativism, and D.      Virtue Ethics. As far as utilitarianism is concerned, it is a normative ethical theory based on the results produced by the action of distributing something for profit. Although this theory means the greatest happiness of the greatest number, egoism and identification of one’s interests, but some other values courage, honesty and knowledge too are aligned with the greatest happiness of the greatest number, some later utilitarian philosophers argue (Business Ethics, Utilitarianism, p. 02). In other words, there are some morals behind this happiness, and that it is not devoid of any moral. The weakness of this theory is happiness of the greatest number of the people, but if the ethical values are not included as stated in the lecture, then it rests only on egoism and self-centered approach.

In the same way, universal ethics are some basic human attributes which have been generated to apply into three contexts; corporate codes, global codes and business literature, while Mark S. Schwartz (2005) has counted these values as respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship, but he has linked them to the utilitarianism, too (p. 29). The weakness of this theory is that it has not any corporate or personal or pleasure link though it is strong in that it has a universal value and almost all the values are applied on global level, as they are the same everything. On the other hand, Ethical Relativism means the ethical values are related to the situation or environment in which they are being used or what Manuel Velasquez et al. say that “Ethical relativism is the theory that holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture” and that culture determines if the action is right or wrong (Velasquez, 1992). In other words, it is related to a culture where ethics are defined by norms, and outside of this culture, it is not the same. It is not as strict ethically as it is within the culture.

Whereas virtue ethics are concerned, they are the same traits found in almost all three theories as stated above. Although the success of business hinges on profitability, like a personal success, the business success also hinges on moral virtues, says Dennis Wittmer and Kevin O’ Brien (2014) in their article “The Virtue of “Virtue Ethics” in Business and Business Education.” They further add that virtue ethics make a person think about how to run a business, manage a business and be a leader (p. 02-03). What is common in all of these theories is that almost every other theory has the ethical character traits. However, it is the universal ethics which has given details of what character traits and ethical values hold good on local as well as global level in the corporate sector as Mark S. Schwartz (2005), has defined in his article.

The Case of the “the Pesticide DDT” in the Light of Universal Ethics

If the theory of utilitarianism is applied in the DDT case, it seems correct up to the case when Rachel Carson did not publish his books. As soon as, Silent Spring came on the scene, most of the people stopped being happy with the DDT due to the fear that it might have affected them being at the bottom of the food chain (p. 90). It means there is negligence in corporate responsibility. If the yardstick of Ethical Relativism is applied in this case, there might be a contention that as the US society or culture is corporate and capitalistic in nature, there is a norm to view ethics in relation to its own cultural impacts. Even virtue ethics may fail to grasp the issue that universal ethics may grasp. In other word, each theory has its own relevance in a specific context, in a specific culture and in a specific setting, but universal ethics is what applies not only local level but also on global level as Schwartz has discussed in his paper “Universal Moral Values for Corporate Codes of Ethics.”

Why Universal Ethics for “The Pesticide DDT”?

The universal ethics are not only applied on local but also on global level. The ethical values of trustworthiness, responsibility, fairness and caring can apply to any context. These are universal as both corporate codes and global codes of ethics because Schwartz (2005) says that they are “valued based” and not “rule based” (28). Discussing them in the light of all Abrahamic faiths, he is of the view that fairness, love, trustworthiness and honesty have been principals all three civilizations as well as religions (34). In the case of “The Pesticide DDT” the issue has been related to all these principals not only in fairness, but also in trustworthiness, honesty and love or respect or care.

Ethical Conflict

In the light of this theory, there seems to an ethical conflict that they people at Montrose Chemical Corporation, EPA and the American Government must have faced but ignored. In other words, the company has failed in its corporate responsibility based on the universal ethics of justice (fairness), care, honesty, trustworthiness and love. It is because when the book was published in 1962, the company should have immediately stopped the production of the DDT. However, it not only exploited the other countries and their populations in the name of saving their lives, but also outright lied to them that it was only saving their lives and not causing any harm. The third party, the people of India, Asian countries, African and various other European countries suffered through DDT and its prolonged impacts on their environment after the things came into the limelight. Although the company did not falsify any information, yet the EPA and the company kept their mum over the allegations or issues raised by Rachel Carson in his book (p. 90). There is also a reason that there has been unequal competition, as there has been no other business entity exporting the same powder in the market.

Although the EPA stopped its production in the United States in 1972, it did not stop its production nor the factory stopped the production. It seems that there has been willful irresponsibility on the part of the corporations regarding universal ethics. It is also that even the EPA and the American Government did not stop it for the next 10 to 30 years, and the factory continued exporting the powder to other countries. The traits of responsibility, care, love, honesty and fairness have been put at stack by the company and by the monitoring authority. The corporation all the universal ethics of fairness, responsibility, care and love at stake. These are universal business ethics that are applied everywhere. The questions are, “Has the management read the book?”, “Has the management seen risks of using DDT at such a huge level?”, and “Has management not seen that it is proving harmful for wild life, human life as well as environment?”. The answers are obvious that yes, the management found several issues and must have been aware of all these realities but against the question as stated in the lecture is that of the “profitability.”

Resolution of the Conflict

In the professional practice, the entity should have immediately reported to the EPA and stopped the production of the DDT. Or else, if the third world and other countries were exporting on their own, the management must have put DANGER, WARNING or CAUTION signs on the packages of the DDT with clear and precise instructions what could happen and how to save oneself from it. Although this move might have jeopardized the business interests of the entity, it could have abided by the universal ethics of justice, love, care, and responsibility. Instead of being seen with suspicion on the long run and causing severe consequences to the public, it could have been better to be fair and shift to other business if that was at stake. It would have saved the community and the entity from embarrassment.


In short, various ethical theories such as utilitarianism, universal ethics, ethical relativism and virtue ethics apply in ethical conflicts in the business and corporate world, but it is the universal ethics that is of applicable value at the global level due to its universality. In the case of “The Pesticide DDT” the Montrose Chemical Corporation violated various universal ethical values and supplied harmful DDT to several countries with the connivance of the EPA and the US Government. The universal virtues of fairness (justice), care, love, responsibility and honesty were put at stake. It would have been better had company informed its customers and countries having the customers about the harms found through a research and alerted them about possible dangers. However, as the company did not do so, it continued unethically for next 20 to 30 years earning profit.