Advanced Search

Many people think of corporations as essentially amoral. By its very nature, they say, a corporation only seeks to deliver value to its shareholders. It's a category mistake to criticize corporations for acting immorally, since this misunderstands their purpose. To the extent that we are concerned to ensure that corporations act morally, that is the purview of lawmakers and regulators, not the corporations themselves. As long as corporations act legally, they are beyond reproach. I was wondering if the panel had any remarks about this. It strikes me as a perverse conflation of what corporations tend to do, or what they have incentive to do, and what they ought to do. I see no reason not to view corporations as moral actors in more or less the same way as ordinary people.

A great question/topic. I'll offer no particular insight except to add to it an additional question: what reasons are there, if any, to distinguish the moral responsibility of corporations from that of individuals in the first place? As candidate Mitt Romney put it a few years back, corporations ARE people, they're made up of people, their decisions are decisions that people take, ontologically they are presumably reducible to people (don't think Romney would put it that way!)--so why even introduce the idea of a 'corporation' as any sort of morally relevant entity distinguishable from the individuals who (say) make the decisions for the corporation? .... This in turn raises the very interesting question of whether groups of individuals might have decision-making processes that are different in nature from (say) individuals acting alone, and whether those differences are morally relevant ... We may (eg) recognize morally relevant influences on individuals who are acting within or as part of a group v...

I have talked to some friends after reading a book on materialism and I have a question. Don't companies have a right to push their products to us? Would it not be the weakness of our minds at fault for being consumed by commercialism? Many people I have talked to constantly reiterate that the companies are the cause of this but I would say otherwise. What would you say?

This is a great question touching on many deep issues. Much empirical research shows the incredible extent to which we are manipulable, and manipulated, by marketing. The degree to which this happens to us without our knowledge, w/o our explicit consent, etc., is the degree to which this may be morally objectionable. Now you may be right in suggesting that our decisions are not (entirely) without our consent -- often we are quite conscious of our decision-making process, no one forces you to go into a store or online, etc., and in the end we must take responsbiility for our behaviors etc. But when you read about how thoroughly manipulated we are by advertising, marketing, not to mention social pressure, you may start to feel differently. I'd recommend the work of Dan Ariely, to start -- in particular his bestseller Predictably Irrational ... good luck! ap

Many of those who favor online piracy (or who oppose restrictive laws meant to combat piracy, at least), argue that piracy does not actually hurt movie and music producers. They claim that most pirates would be unlikely to buy the products in question even if they were unable to download them for free. In restricting piracy, we aren't actually restoring revenue to the producers or anything of the sort. Those producers would be just as successful or unsuccessful whether piracy were allowed or not. Is this sensible? Let's say that I download a movie. If it is really true that I would not buy the movie in any case, does that make downloading it okay?

Great issue. If you think about it on an individual level, of course "piracy" is wrong: you are stealing that work from its producer. (The word "piracy" pretty much reflects that!). And as long as there are specific copyright laws that forbid it, then doing so is obviously wrong (at least in the sense of violating the law), whether or not you would have purchased the work anyway. But maybe we should think of it on a collective level, and ask questions such as "Are the laws in question themselves good/just laws?" (which I take Allen to be raising) and "Would a better system overall allow free downloading?" (where "better" obviously has many facets, including ethical ones). To be sure, part of answering those questions involve empirical considerations: do "producers of work" collectively do better, make more money, etc., when one allows liberal copying of their work? Think Grateful Dead, just for one select example: the 'bootleg' industry they themselves supported seems to have worked out pretty...

Couldn't all marketing that implements psychological techniques to influence behavior without the subject realizing it be considered unethical? It seems to me that advertisers have an unfair advantage over consumers who have not had the opportunity to study the psychology used in marketing campaigns.

That's a great point, but of course partly it depends on what it means to "have the opportunity": in the general sense everyone is free to study whatever they want in this country .... (of course in practical terms not everyone is free to do very much, perhaps, but at least in principle; and anyway even if far more people were "freer," in practical terms, how many would actually choose to study the psychology of marketing?) .... And, anyway, a lot of the fascinating results exploited by marketers are pretty robust: ie they persist even AFTER the people are informed .... (For great examples see Dan Arielly's book Predictably Irrational and Daniel Kahneman's recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow) ..... ap

I have an ethical question about buying milk at the supermarket. Supermarkets will usually have many rows of bottles of milk on their shelves – with milk that has the soonest use-by date at the front of the shelf, and milk that has more distant use-by dates nearer the back. Clearly the supermarket would like people to take milk from the front, so that the bottles which will go bad sooner are bought before those which will stay good for longer, so that they are not left with unsaleable bad milk. However, as the shopper, I also have an interest in the milk that I buy staying good for as long as possible after I buy it. My question, therefore, is: is there anything unethical about my reaching to the back row for the milk that I will buy? On the one hand, it is out and easy to access (I'm not breaking in to the store room), but on the other hand, they clearly intend the rows to be deplenished from the front. – Many thanks for your answers!

I've often thought about just this issue, even as I (without fail) always pick out the milk from the back row! But I cannot see what could be wrong with doing this -- unless the store sets out a customer policy forbidding it, the store has allowed it (even if it would prefer we take the milk in front) -- so we're not wronging the store in any way, which, in effect, has to accept the possibility of spoiled milk as one of the costs of doing business -- which it then, no doubt, passes on to the customer .... The deeper question here would be a kind of prisoner dilemma: if every customer agreed to take the milk from the front, thus reducing spoilage, the overall cost of milk might well go down, which would be good for everyone -- but if only *I* take it from the front then I increase my personal risk of spoilage without getting any benefit .... :-) best, ap