Evil: yes or no?

Lately I've been thinking about corporations and evil.
A person with whom I've been having sporadic corporations wants to write about, if I understand correctly, a business ethic, perhaps modeled on Quaker beliefs. Fair enough (or not, this is far enough outside my area of interest that I'm not sure if anything worthwhile has been written, and if not, why not). She has been running into the problem that most of the people that she's talked to so far balk at the idea: corporations are evil! (I'm not sure if people are actually saying this or simply implying it, but the message seems to be clear regardless.)

Are corporations evil? Maybe not. I'm not an utilitarian, and scoff at consequentialist ethics in general. (My scoffing was once laughed at by Eva Dadlez, after which we argued about the proper interpretation of Homer Simpson hiding a gun in the vegetable crisper.) This is relevant because, on utilitarian grounds, many corporation are evil right on their face: do they create, on the whole, more pain or more pleasure? (I can appreciate the practical aspect of this kind of thinking on Buddhist grounds, but there the question is about individual conduct.)

In my applied ethics classes, I like to go through various approaches one at a time; having sort of dealt with utilitarianism, what might Aristotle say? Funny thing with that (and I'm sure some people would argue with this statement, but that would lead to a more technical argument than I want to present here) is that Aristotle doesn't really have a concept of "evil" per se. Also, insofar as his ethics aims at eudaimonia, it doesn't apply to entities such as corporations at all.

The same is true using Kant's approach: corporations aren't people, therefore can't be evil. The people who run or manage them might be evil, but that is (if I understand my interlocutors concern correctly) a different question. Just to be clear: Kant understands "evil" as knowing the right actions - knowing the appropriate maxim that one could apply as a universal law - and then ignoring it. (I'll come back to Kant though, since that doesn't exhaust the possibilities.)

I would usually proceed to a feminist ethic of care, but there are two problems. First, I don't know how someone, working in the care tradition, would define evil in a way that didn't simply sound Kantian (knowing the right action, doing something else). Second, I wouldn't at all be surprised if someone had made a fairly explicitly anti-corporate argument using the ethics of care. (Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe I should go look that up, but I'm not going to tonight.)

The important thing to note here is that, looking at the question using three of the four dominant approaches in western ethics, corporations aren't evil for the simple reason that they aren't persons, and therefore can't be evil. It's a category error, but not an exoneration of corporations; there are other ways of looking at the problem.

How do corporations look at people? Primarily as employees and customers. There are too many secondary ways to develop a comprehensive list, but in general I'm interested in people affected by corporations in ways that aren't primarily economic (even if they have economic impact). This would include people harmed by the pollution, or, positively, beneficiaries of corporately funded public works, such as parks. Setting the secondary relations aside (even though these are really important!) and noting that a single person can fall into many categories at once (as employee, customer, and community member), I start with Milton Friedman's assertion that purpose of business - it's sole purpose - is to make a profit.

Where does the profit come from? Two sources: employees and customers, specifically, the difference between the value of the labor and how much the worker gets paid, or the difference between the cost of something and what the customers pays. (The particular analysis is irrelevant to my larger point: part of the money changing hands stays in someone's hand: that's the profit. I can provide more explicit examples of what I'm talking about later if anyone wants them, but I'm purposefully keeping the analysis generic and abstract here.) Either way - and here I'm returning to Kantian analysis - people are mere objects, interchangeable, expendable, because the only point is to make a profit.

Just to connect the dots, it is fundamental to Kant's ethics that we treat people as having dignity, not merely as objects; using this formulation, corporations can only be evil. I would still argue that, since they're not people, they can't form intentions. If that absolves them of the possibility of being individually evil (i.e., evil in the way that persons are evil), I would say that corporations are structurally evil. They cannot be good without operating as something other than corporations: they become mutual aid societies, or churches, or something else (there are a lot of organizations like that, and they don't always fall into clear categories).

A different (and possibly more direct) approach to this question might be to note that capitalism as a system operates because of coveting: you want something that someone else has (not necessarily the very thing, but one like it, bigger, better). The point of advertising is to create desires we didn't have before: e.g., when my dad first told me about "cell phones" in the eighties, I wondered why anyone would possibly want one. (Perhaps I'm underestimating the desire that existed at the time for such a thing.)

To summarize: corporations are evil, but not in the way that people are evil. They are evil because they are an essential part of a fundamentally flawed system. A description of an alternative system can be found in that radical book, the Bible: Acts 4:34-35:
"There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."
But you already knew I was a dirty hippy.



In my previous post, I think the basic point I wanted to make may have gotten lost. Simply put, Appiah seems to be assuming that people with whom he might disagree in the particular interpretation of American History are acting in good faith. I contend that they are not, and use Beliles and McDowells book as an example. The student involvement underscores that it isn't merely a difference in interpretation: I was accused of rewriting history.

Over breakfast this morning I had a conversation about splinter churches and the problems of purity, which was the inspiration for this cartoon. That, I think, is relevant partly because (I will say with no citation) that liberals are largely unaware of the fragmentation on the right, combined with a need to have the facts line up with their story. I've written about this before in reference to Jefferson - Thomas, not George. I am aware that everyone perceives the world in such a way as to confirm our own understanding of it, but I continue to be amazed that the extent to which there are what I will gently call "diverging realities" rather than a shared one with differences interpretation.

Photo Credit: Icelandic and Faroese Photographs of Frederick W.W. Howell, Cornell University Library, Bessastaðir Church.--Interior, ca. 1900. Collodion print. Bessastaðir (Iceland) Fiske Icelandic Collection, Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library



In my last post, I mentioned that Appiah "underestimates the willful ignorance of homeschoolers!" Let me clarify.
First, the book in question is The Ethics of Identity. The author is Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton and, among many other things, one of my former professors.
The quote in question is from the chapter called "Soul Making," and part of the question is the significance of public education (that is, preparing children to be good future citizens). He writes:
In recent year, some critics have objected to a history curriculum that has too much of Harriet Tubman and not enough of Thomas Jefferson; and they have also objected to a curriculum whose discussion of Thomas Jefferson focuses too much on his betrayal of liberty - in his persistent failure to emancipate his slaves - and no enough on his place as the author of the Declaration of Independence, as liberty's champion. No doubt a focus too lopsided shades off into simply untruth: the real debates here, though, are not about what happened but about what narratives we will embed them in; they are about which of the many true stories we will tell.

That seems reasonable, but that's the problem: some people aren't reasonable. And by that I don't simply mean that they want to emphasize a different set of facts, but that they want to fabricate a new set of facts to support their beliefs. (Hopefully it is clear that I'm not condemning all homeschoolers: if that's not clear, I'm about to get very specific.)
Additional background: several years ago I taught a course, "Religion in American Culture" (the course as since been renamed) at a distant campus of a large public university. The primary text I used was The Old Religion in a New World, by Mark Noll.
Some time after the course was over, a student sent me a number of email forwards, including one that challenged President Obama's statement, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values." The student was offended by this statement, but I pointed out that, even in the preambles to the state constitutions she had sent along, the phrasing was not explicitly Christian but open to other faiths (with phrases such as Almight God, Divine Providence, etc) - and that the US constitution did not have any such phrases. (We had spent a bit of time in class talking about Rhodes Island and Pennsylvania, as well as New York and Maryland, all of which had some religious liberties from the beginning).
Now, Mark Noll is an evangelical, and in the book we used is telling the story much as Appiah would expect, emphasizing some facts over others, bringing pieces together to present a coherent narrative that emphasizes Christianity. Therefore I was surprised to get this response from her (which I'm posting in its entirety):

Perhaps you should read America's Providential History by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell before you start spouting off mistaken information about our country's origins. Consider this my final email to a narrow-minded liberal professor who embraces the rewriting of our history. No need to reply, and may God have mercy on your soul.

(You see now why I want to emphasize Noll here: whatever you may think of me, it seems unlikely that Noll could be called a narrow-minded liberal who is rewriting history.)
And this, at long last, brings me to America's Provedential History. (Please note that I refuse to link this book, although this lengthy review - from a Quaker! - will give you an idea of what I'm concerned about.) At least some people are not interested in questions of emphasis: for them, Jefferson really was against slavery, Ben Franklin really did support Christianity (presumably in the form endorsed by Belile and McDowell), and omits vast amounts of basic history (mostly focusing on the colonial and revolutionary period, and apparently not getting much of that right). I have said many times - possibly on this blog - but one of the characteristics of the conservative moment is the increasing projection of their shadow on progressives (maybe I'll unpack that in a later blog post). This seems to be an instance of that: where is the rewriting happening?

To summarize: I think Appiah misunderestimates (yes, that's what I wrote - I'm surprised spellcheck still flags it) the mendacity of certain segments in the population. This is problematic precisely for the reasons he's concerned about in the book: how do we, as a nation, navigate between the requirements of particular communities and the larger polity? That question becomes fraught when some communities insist on teaching their children lies.


Happy New Year... oh wait

So, it's been a while since I posted, and I have lots to say. Unfortunately, I spent all my time monkeying around with the scanner (after spending about two minutes drawing a cartoon, the first in months). And now I have run myself out of time: I'm hungry, there is dinner to be made.

For now, just enjoy the cartoon. If you're going to be in Richmond on the 17th of February, I will be playing at the West Richmond Coffee House.

Next time: Appiah underestimates the willful ignorance of homeschoolers!