The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Google and corporate responsibility
Tom Smith

A loyal reader has asked me what my views are on corporate responsibility and as this is my blog, I thought I would take the opportunity to roughly explain them.  I am generally unsatisfied with what I take to be the view of corporate responsibility on (roughly speaking) the right, let's say conservatives and libertarians.  There probably are nuanced views out there I am unaware of, so I apologize in advance for doubtless caricaturing certain views and for the extent to which my arguments are against straw men.

It seems the anti-CSR view is that corporations just don't have any social responsibilities.  I agree with that, if it means that corporations do not have any duty to promote socialism or extend benefits to anybody in particular beyond what they have agreed to do in contracts or that they are required to do by law.  By benefits I mean pay money, for example.  So if somebody says, you can't close down that plant; that would put too many people out of work; it's your social responsibility to keep it open, I would disagree.  A business corporation is not an employment agency.  It is famously not an eleemosynary institution.

This view is often associated with the view that the corporation is not any sort of real entity, but rather just a nexus of contracts, and so there is no real person there on which to impose a social responsibility, so just shut up about it.  I disagree with this view.  I think corporations are as much collective entities as many other sorts of things, such as states, teams, and tornadoes, the reality of which we take for granted.  There's a lot to be said for theory of the firm, but philosophical sophistication about substances if you will is not one of them.  But that is another argument.  You don't need a responsibility bearing entity called the corporation to get to my main point.

My main point is that humans acting on behalf of a corporation or its shareholders, stakeholders or whoever are just as much subject to moral duties as anybody else who has that much power would be.  If you are driving down the road in a really big truck you have certain duties, not exhausted by the law, to be careful because of your moral duties to other humans.  There are some economists out there who do not grasp this point, but some do as well.  We have moral duties that are not captured by our legal duties.  And we have legal duties we can safely ignore as a matter of morality. 

Just because I am acting on behalf of others, say to maximize their profits, does not relax in any way duties which I have not to harm others in certain ways.  So there will be many things I simply cannot do as a matter of morality even if it would profit the corporation to do so.  So Google may not cooperate with the persecution of people who are simply fighting for their basic human rights just because it might be or even would definitely be in the interests of Google shareholders to do so.  I am thrilled that Google seems to see it this way too.  I predict we don't here much from anybody who would say, hey, wait a minute Google, get in there and make money no matter how many Chinese it enslaves.  But if that's really what they think, they should speak up.

This is granted a weak view of corporate "social responsibility" and I would not even call it that.  It's just a view that moral obligations don't somehow cease to apply just because some people decide to act collectively to make money.  But CSR critics do sometimes talk as if it were otherwise.  So take the issue of child labor in the third world.  CSR sorts say US corporations should not use child labor in other countries.  Their opponents may say, no, it's not our problem to consider the morality of child labor; our job is just to maximize profits within the law, and we are obeying the law in the various shitholes countries in which we operate.  This however is just a mistake.  The question is, is the corporation behaving immorally by employing children to make its shoes or whatever.  It might not be.  Making shoes might be the best thing that ever happened to these kids.  Or, it might be that they really are being exploited immorally.  If it is the latter, it should be obvious that the fact that it is legal and profitable is completely irrelevant to whether it is morally permissible to do it.  A related point, which probably deserves its own paragraph but wont get one here, is that corporations will sometimes affect a general moral skepticism, along the lines of, in this big crazy diverse world of ours, who are we to say what's right and wrong. All we can do is follow the laws and make as money as we can.  It is perfectly true that if you want to criticize the morality of corporate action, you have to do it from a point of view other than complete moral skepticism or various other views that don't really believe morality has much force.  I have no problem with that.  I think all sorts of things that are legal and profitable are wrong.

As to Google and China, it could be that having a Russian born founder, as Google has, gives it a certain, uh, appreciation of communism.  My guess is that the usual relativism you can get on most college campuses about how those darn communists are just pursuing an alternative blah blah blah doesn't get you very far with those who have had some experience with it, at least within their family unit.  Communism don't look so cool from the gulag or the laogai or even if you know they are more than words.  It thrills me no end that America's hippest big company is putting its money where its mouth has been.  If you say Don't Be Evil, and you're not just being cute, then you must believe there is such a thing as evil.  Like maybe putting somebody in prison because he aspires to be free.  Saying Don't Be Evil is just a less pretentious way of saying, We Will Not Be Evil.  Big words, and ones Google is evidently trying to live up to.  American capitalism standing up to communism on moral grounds.  I love it.  Good for them.

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Tom Smith


Awfully late in the day to be getting an attack of conscience. The Chinese will have their way.

Posted by: james wilson | Jan 13, 2010 9:06:21 PM

I tend to agree to some degree - after being China's b*tch all this time, they sudenly develop qualms now (for theings everyone with a lick of sense new was China's standard MO) - but on the other hand, better late than never. If Google from here on out begins to wake up better to real life, and act accordingly, then good on them!

Posted by: km | Jan 14, 2010 9:31:06 AM

Thanks for the elaboration, Tom- I very much appreciate it. This is actually fairly close to my view as well, to the extent I have one. (I don't claim to have a well worked out view on the issue that goes much beyond what you've said here.)

Posted by: Matt | Jan 15, 2010 4:57:46 AM