This post is part of a series on the ethics of buying services:

Paying a Corporation

2021-03-06 • 8 min read

Corporations are people, my friend.

– Mitt Romney

In the first post in this series, I discussed a case where a creative agency paid 13 homeless people 20 dollars a day to carry Wi-Fi hotspots around Austin, offering them to South by Southwest festival attendees. I said that I thought the creative agency had wronged the homeless people because they treated them as mere means to further their own ends (namely to generate promotional buzz). But the creative agency is a company, not a person. Does it really make sense to say that a company has “wronged” someone? and what should we think about those festival attendees who took advantage of the free hotspots?

Another way to approach this problem is by introducing the corporation as an intermediary in a moral interaction. Take for example two comfortably paid programmers, Dante and Serena. Dante is employed by a software consultancy, but Serena is a freelancer. If you offer to pay Serena for her services, she is free to take your offer or not: there is no coercion. But if you negotiate a deal with the software consultancy for Dante’s services, he has no say in the matter, because he is contractually obliged to do whatever work the consultancy asks him to do. On the surface, it looks as if you are coercing Dante, but of course no right-thinking person would say that you were. That is because he has previously chosen to sign away part of his freedom to the consultancy. This may look like a silly example. But now consider a situation where Dante had unwillingly signed away his freedom. In this situation, it does seem wrong to make a deal for his services, though, as we shall see, under some circumstances it is not so clear-cut.

I will return to the problem of paying corporations for services. But first let’s see how corporations fit into our moral landscape in the first place.

Are Corporations People? #

But that’s not a very good way of posing this question, because being a person involves all kinds of things that have nothing to do with morality. It’s normal for us that corporations, like people, can own property, have legal rights and so on, but we cannot derive an ought from an is. The question we want to answer is whether organisations have moral agency, in other words whether they are the kinds of things that act according to some idea of right and wrong and can therefore be held responsible for its decisions. (Whether they have moral standing – whether we should take them into account in our moral decisions – is a different question, with which we don’t need to concern ourselves here.) To think about this, we must think about what it is that confers moral agency on humans while failing to do so on the other animals.

Remember that a corporation is a type of organisation. An organisation is made up of people who have come together in order to work towards some purpose. The purpose of corporations is to produce goods or services, usually in order to profit.

Philosophers have debated the moral status of corporations for 40 years and I for one don’t know all the intricacies of this debate. So let us consult the Library of Alexandria:

[Peter A. French] bases this conclusion [that corporations are moral persons] on his claim that firms have internal decision-making structures, through which they (1) cause events to happen, and (2) act intentionally. Some early responses to French’s work accepted the claim that firms are moral agents, but denied that firms are moral persons. […] Other responses denied that firms are moral agents (also). [Manuel Velasquez] argues that firms lack a necessary condition of agency, viz., the ability to act[.]

From what I can tell, most agree that corporations are moral agents. Of course that still leaves open questions about how the different employees as individual moral agents are related to the corporation as an encompassing moral agent. When a corporation acts wrongly, to which extent, if any, have its employees also acted wrongly? This seems like a pretty complicated question which I won’t get into here, because what I am interested in here is of course the relationship between corporations and those who buy their services.

I think what makes us humans moral agents is the fact that we are aware of the reasons for our actions and have the ability to act on that awareness. We hold each other responsible for our actions because we could have acted differently. The other animals act, too, but instinctively – they aren’t aware of why they do the things they do in the way that humans are. The same is true for small children and some severely mentally ill people, which is why we sometimes don’t hold them responsible for their actions, either.

Now, I can’t think of a corporate act that is not initiated by one or more of its employees. So I don’t think corporations can act in the sense that humans can act – as the initial cause of a series of events. Instead, they are superstructures constituted by humans; maybe they are not true moral agents, but we can at least usefully see them, talk about them and hold them accountable as moral agents; just as we can talk both of the survival of a species and the survival of each member, so we can also talk about the duties of a corporation and the duties of each employee.

Chef in Shackles #

Here is a thought experiment adapted from one used in discussions about vegetarianism specifically, but which applies to participation in wrong-doing generally. I will state it in an easy form initially but will then modify it so as to make it gradually harder, at each step doing my best to evaluate it according to Kantian principles. In its first form, it runs:

(E1) Food SPE runs Chef without Shackles, a restaurant at which the chef is known to be working of his or her free will. The chef is superb; the food is delicious.

This is the exact same case as the one with the programmer employed by a software consultancy. No one will object to anyone’s eating in this restaurant; most of us eat at restaurants like this regularly. So let’s make the case more interesting (modifications in italics):

(E2) Food SPE runs Chef in Shackles, a restaurant at which the chef is known to be held against his or her will. The enslaved chef is superb; the food is delicious.

First things first: obviously Food SPE is acting wrongly by holding the chef captive: the company has violated Kant’s Formula of Humanity by using the chef as a mere means to further whatever ends it has in mind (so to put it). But are you, should you go eat at this restaurant, acting wrongly? I think it’s pretty clear that, just like Food SPE, you are also using the enslaved chef as a mere means to achieve your end (having a nice meal). If you do not show up that day, perhaps the chef would not have to prepare that meal. What’s more, in producing demand for this sort of service, you are the initiator of a causal chain of events that may lead to the chef staying (or further similar chefs becoming) enslaved. The restaurant is a link between you and the chef but it doesn’t change the moral calculation: it’s still just as if you had been forcing the chef to cook for you directly.

But we can complicate the case:

(E3) Food SPE runs Chef in Shackles, a restaurant at which the chef is known to be held against his or her will. The company will run the restaurant regardless of how many people come. The chef will be made to prepare the same number of meals regardless of how many people come. In fact, the company just burns the money that comes in. The enslaved chef is superb; the food is delicious.

E3 takes care of both the producing demand objection as well as the objection that your action creates new and especial work for the enslaved chef. It also doesn’t seem like you are in any way benefitting Food SPE by patronising their restaurant (though if it does seem like that, let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that you aren’t). Are you now, should you go eat at Chef in Shackles, acting wrongly? It doesn’t seem like it. You don’t seem to be using the chef as a mere means because your action could not interfere with the chef’s ability to choose his or her own ends and pursue them. Certainly a utilitarian would say that you are not doing anything wrong, because the only effect your action has is (presumably) that of making yourself a little bit happier, having eaten that delicious meal. But most people, should they happen to pass Chef in Shackles during dinner time, would choose not to eat there. Most people would probably feel ashamed or guilt-stricken if they did so. Is that feeling groundless? (Again we are confronted with the issue of reconciling moral intuitions with moral systems.)

Your act seems to pass the test of the Formula of Humanity. But does it pass the test of the Formula of Universal Law? Before we can determine that, we need to determine which maxim you’re acting on. It should be something like this:

(M1) Use the services of a slave-owning restaurant for the purpose of enjoying a nice meal, so long as doing so neither harms the enslaved chef nor benefits the restaurant.[1]

Kant’s Formula of Universal Law tells us to imagine that the maxim one is acting on is the standard action in that situation and then to determine whether its purpose would be thwarted if that were the case.[2] Put differently, the test tells us whether action X could be the universal method of achieving purpose Y.

So does M1 pass the test of the Formula of Universal Law? If going to eat at restaurants with enslaved chefs were the universal method of enjoying a nice meal, there would be a great deal of these restaurants, and there’s a good chance that one of them might need or want to enslave you, the person who is willing this maxim. But if you are enslaved in this way, you are not able to decide to have a nice meal, because you are at the mercy of your owner. So your purpose has a good chance of being thwarted. More generally, in order to pursue the end of having a nice meal, you need freedom to pursue it rationally. But a world in which you run a considerable risk of being enslaved is a world in which such freedom is far from guaranteed. Your efficacy in getting your meal depends, in part at least, on other people not using your same method to achieve your same purpose.[3]

So I don’t think M1 does pass the test of the Formula of Universal Law: it cannot be a universal method of achieving its purpose. Therefore, I think it is wrong to act according to M1. However, we can sidestep the issue by making an adjustment. We can act instead according to the maxim:

(M2) Use the services of whatever restaurant is near at hand for the purpose of enjoying a nice meal, so long as doing so neither harms the chef nor benefits the restaurant.

M2 passes both tests, because there’s nothing in the intention that specifies that the restaurant needs to be a slave-owning one. Therefore, I think it is permissible to act according to M2, even if the restaurant you happen to visit is Chef in Shackles.

What to take away from this? The first thing should be that, in Kantian moral philosophy, intentions matter. And, intuitively, it does seem more heinous to act according to M1 than to act according to M2 – it seems more heinous in the first instance because one is intentionally seeking out a slave-owning restaurant. In this way, the tests produce quite acceptable outcomes.

But we can also see that this thought experiment is extremely fragile. Poke at any side and it changes its colour. Because it’s easy to imagine many different variations of it that all introduce different harms to the chef, each of which variation would shift the thought experiment in the same direction: towards making M2 coercive, too. I had to carefully construct the situation where it could be permissible to interact with Chef in Shackles. In practice, that just means that, in the real world, with imperfect information, we ought in similar situations to judge cautiously, because if we happen to be wrong about a single detail (maybe the restaurant doesn’t burn the money after all) then the moral goodness or badness of the maxim changes.

Footnotes #

  1. There’s a kind of edge case here where the person intends to benefit from the enslaved chef but in the end doesn’t. For example, maybe they get food poisoning. So it’s important to read the purpose as an intention, regardless of the action’s actually likely or possible outcomes. ↩︎

  2. Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends. But note that there are different interpretations of how contradictions of this sort arise when universalising. Here I use the test of practical consideration, which is also the one endorsed by Korsgaard. See Korsgaard, Kant’s Formula of Universal Law for more on this. ↩︎

  3. Specifically, I think this is, in Kantian parlance, a contradiction in the will, which would make this an imperfect (meritorious) duty. ↩︎