In my global marketing strategy class the other day, instructor David Thomsen showed two pretty shocking videos in discussing public relations. One was on the Bhopal disaster of 1984. The Bhopal gas tragedy is the worst industrial disaster in human history, leaving 8,000 dead within hours of the gas leak in the Indian city, 25,000 dead since the disaster, hundreds of thousands adversely affected by the chemicals, continuing side effects on humans and other animals, and environmental damage that persists today. The “compensation” the video talks about was less than $900 per injured person. Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for the leak, denied any culpability. The Dow Chemical Company later bought them in 2001. The CEO of the company at the time, Warren Anderson, was charged with homicide and manslaughter. He left the country and fled to the United States, where he currently resides, and refuses to appear before Indian courts.

The second video was a report by Australia’s Channel 7 revealing that Nike, a corporation marred by its human rights violations and despicable working conditions in Third World countries, continued to engage in forced labor practices in sweatshops in Malaysia as late as 2008. Note this is after they claimed to have cleaned up their act.

There is a simple reason these types of actions, and others like them, occur, which is what’s called the profit motive. When profit-maximization is the creed, what happens to people is only incidental. There is a whole generation of businesspeople who have been influenced by the work of people like Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, whose principle message is that the only socially responsible (and indeed morally right) action is to maximize self-interest by way of profits. These ideas are justified by ethical egoism, a morally bankrupt and vacuous theory that says the only morally right actions are actions that maximize the acting agent’s self-interest. That’s what’s called “the moral economy.” The right, in their usual perversion of Smithian theory, always tries to defend this on economic grounds, appealing to what they refer to as “the invisible hand,” a term meant to describe the unintentional benefit to society that corporations bring about through acting in their self-interest. Adam Smith, of course, only used the term once in his The Wealth Nations and only as a “casual metaphor” for risk-adverse merchants wary of foreign exchange who inadvertently help their own countries. Smith, like many of the other great anti- and pre-capitalist Enlightenment thinkers, denounced greed and selfishness. As most serious scholars of Smith recognize, Smith never saw the “invisible hand” as a reality or “law” of markets. As Joseph Stiglitz puts it, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”

As ethical egoism posits to us, there is a certain calculus all moral agents are supposed to undertake in their actions. Namely, they are to ascertain which actions will ultimately lead to profit maximization and undertake those actions. For Union Carbide, that meant denying responsibility for the worst industrial disaster in human history and paying its victims an inconsequential and truly unjust fraction of its coffers. For Nike, that meant finding the cheapest source of labor and exploiting them in the worst kinds of ways—that is, until they’re caught. And while these might indeed be the profit-maximizing choices, surely nobody agrees they have improved the lot of all. When we ignore the rights of people and the laws that regulate acceptable behavior (as, indeed, ethical egoism asks us to do when it is profitable), the necessary result is an abject and deplorable world. The fact that the far-right advocates the abolition of regulations intended to safeguard against such massive injustices from ever happening is justified, they say, by a certain euphemism they call “market democracy” (the idea that ordinary market participants, like you or me, can shape business behavior—but you more than me, because I’m poor). The sobering reality: Dow’s revenues in 2008 totaled more than $57.5 billion, and over $16.6 billion for Nike.

So long as corporations continue to operate within the framework of this “moral economy,” justified by Friedman, Rand and others, we will continue to witness the tragedies and corruption that we hear about on an everyday basis. What is needed instead, at the most minimal level, is a better consideration for those other than the self, as advocated in theories like stakeholder theory, and better regulations and stiffer penalties to ensure “profit over people” (what Smith described to as “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”) does not become the norm.

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