The Polis
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The Polis

The Dangers of Big Business Moralism

All manners of big companies and name brands are seizing the national platform to define and defend our society’s moral standards today. By virtue of their considerable financial imprint, corporations are learning they can impose their values of right and wrong upon various nations, states, and cities, not to mention employees, whose ideas of justice, freedom, and equality violate those defined by the corporations. Actively engaged voices of big corporations toward various social concerns is an expectation today. Their silence can lead to dangerous accusations and losses of both business and influence.

Recent years witnessed an unprecedented surge in corporate social activism so that most companies now consider such engagement part of their marketing plan. Because most of these business decisions align with the popular will, this big business moralism is often convenient for activists. But we would do well not to sacrifice that which is right for that which is currently convenient.

Noteworthy examples of corporate social activism include the growing number of companies boycotting Facebook to protest the company’s failures to block misinformation and hate speech. Walmart removed any state flags that supported images of the Confederate flag from its home office. The NBA stumbled several times in the last year to maintain a show of support for democracy activists in Hong Kong without offending the rulers of the world’s largest potential market in China.

As the voice and influence of big business in social causes grow louder in support of Black Lives Matter, Hong Kong democracy, environmental concerns, and other important causes, the inconsistencies, as well as the history, should give us reason to pause. Big business should not be the voice leading the way for the moral high ground in any reasonable and just society.

Inconsistent Standards of Morality

Many businesses beyond the NBA struggled in their response to the Hong Kong protests over the last year. Western-based companies found their interests legitimately split. Should they support democracy and oppose despotism, or put business first and keep their mouths shut? The new national security legislation passed by China and resisted by democracy protesters in Hong Kong for the last year presents a definite threat to Hong Kong activists and citizens. The threat imposed by the national security law is no doubt concerning but pales in comparison to a separate Chinese issue — the suffering of the Uighur Muslims in northwestern China.

In recent years China built at least one thousand new prisons to house the more than 1.5 million Uighurs who the Chinese regarded as potential terrorists. The Chinese government separated Uighur families. They sent Uighur children to orphanages and forcibly placed their parents in reeducation camps. China is currently utilizing forced IUDs, abortions, and sterilizations to deal with the Uighurs. This week representatives of the Uighur Muslims in China asked the International Criminal Court to investigate charges of genocide by the Chinese government against the Uighur population.

Why has one Chinese injustice received so much more corporate moralizing and attention than the other? Where is the outrage? Where are the boycotts and protests? While many leading brands and business leaders voiced opposition and conflicted concerns toward the national security law in Hong Kong, far fewer expressed even basic alarm of the Chinese atrocities against the Uighur. Such inconsistencies could result from a lack of awareness and knowledge, but the defense for morality and goodness cannot reduce so easily to the most popular cause.

Albert Einstein is credited with the assertion, “What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.” The advance of moral rightness should be more profound than the cry of the loudest popular voices, but corporations are not structured to hear the quieter voices suffering from injustice.

Historical and Structural Weakness

Big business’s history on the morality front is not a proud one. IBM infamously provided technology to the Nazis that helped fuel the speed and efficiency of the holocaust. In the 1960s, Dow Chemical supplied the US military with napalm, liquid fire, that rained down on countless civilian victims in Vietnam. Oxfam accused multinational companies of cheating African nations out of at least $40 billion in tax revenue in 2010. More recently, a 2018 lawsuit against Wells Fargo alleged the company preyed upon African American and Latino borrowers pushing them into more expensive mortgages.

Such historical failings hardly qualify corporations, in general, to lead the way on a culture’s morality front. Then again, it’s not the priority of big business to defend morality and rightness in a society. Corporate interests ultimately serve the bottom line. This is the nature and design of the modern corporation and the expectation from its shareholders. Investors are generally supportive of the different corporate social causes, from anti-discrimination to protests in Hong Kong, to the environment. Still, such support becomes tentative when the performances and balances of 401ks and other investment accounts come into question.

Is it wise to tie our most influential source of defense to moral issues, or the lack thereof, to profit sheets and bottom lines — even tentatively? Entrusting the defense of justice, equality, and morality to big business contradicts how both societies and corporations ought to function.

Filling the Void

The advance of big businesses onto this territory is the result of a void. The security and enforcement of the moral high ground was once the terrain of religious leaders, statesmen, government institutions, and renowned humanitarians. The rise of corporate moralism conspicuously corresponds to a decline in these former voices. Businesses are stepping into roles previously reserved for elements of our society that have either grown silent or lost their legitimacy.

Before we embrace the newfound moral leadership that many businesses and their CEOs are clamoring to command, we would do well to ask — is this the direction we want to go? Can corporate interests be trusted with the high ground of our society’s moral standards?

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