It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.
Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.
Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.
From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?
It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)
There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.
Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.
Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.
None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.
Nonprofit and charitable organizations face many of the same ethical challenges that other organizations face, but they may also bump into a few special problems from time to time.
As an example, consider the following HR dilemma, which was posed to me recently.
I work for a nonprofit organization in health research, and I’ve recently been told that I will be hiring and supervising a new individual whose parents are donating her salary for one year (it’s to be a one-year, limited-term position) in addition to making a sizeable donation. The hope is that, in time, the donors will make a significantly larger gift of a million dollars or more. The arrangement presents numerous challenges to me as a manager, since everyone in the upper levels of the organization agrees that the true nature of the arrangement can’t be revealed, but many employees will realize that the situation is unusual and will have serious questions about it.
I’ve presented my concerns to those involved, but the decision-makers are rationalizing their actions (they tell me it’s “for the good of the organization”), and asking me to embrace this “opportunity.”
Clearly, the mid-level manager here is in a tough position, caught between a rock and a hard place. The manager is being told, by those higher up, that this is the way things are. But the manager also has a team to manage, and the unorthodox hiring of this new “employee” may cause trouble.
Here are what I think are the relevant considerations:
1) I don’t think the basic arrangement itself is obviously unethical. The “employee,” here, is essentially a volunteer, being bankrolled by her father. A bit lame, for her, but if she provides the organization with some value, that in itself could be a good thing, in addition to the donation that her father is making and may later make.
2) Point #1 above assumes that this person will actually do some work, rather than just be padding her CV by means of this one-year position with a reputable nonprofit organization. If she’s just going to take up space, then her presence is inevitably going to be resented and hence disruptive.
3) Then there’s the question of whether this “hire” is affecting anyone else’s job. From what I understand, no one is being fired to make room for this new person. But even if no one’s job is immediately in jeopardy, it may have implications for who gets hired over the next year, who gets overtime, whose job is expanded in interesting ways, and so on. So other employees do have reason to be concerned.
4) The fact that senior management sees a need to hide what’s really going on, here, seems to be where the ethical problem lies. That part seems highly problematic. If this is a good “hire”, why not be transparent about it?
5) At a certain level, this is as much a “wise management” question as it is an ethics question. If (as seems to be the case) the current plan is bad for morale, then wise senior managers should realize that, and think this through more carefully.
All in all, I would suggest that the situation, as it is being handled by senior managers, represens a significant lapse in leadership. Their motives in accepting the deal — hiring this woman in return for a big donation — are reasonable enough. The mere fact that her hire wouldn’t go through the usual processes isn’t itself damning, provided that the net value to the organization is positive, and as long as no one’s rights are violated. Perhaps the ends here do justify the means — after all, we’re talking about the potential for a very large donation. But the fact that senior managers feel the need to keep the deal secret is a major red flag. Wise organizational leaders should work hard to make sure that, when compromises are being made, they are at very least compromises that they are able to defend, and about which they are willing to be transparent.
Ethics should be thought of as the heart of your organization’s HR function. Likewise, HR is likely to be the heart of attempts to manage ethics within your organization. Let me explain why.
It’s hard to imagine a function more essential to most businesses than HR.
HR may not get the glory that Finance does, but it’s just as important. Hiring, training, evaluating, and retaining the right people are all undeniably core management challenges. Every manager knows this. The relevant difference between Finance and HR is that Finance gains prestige by bringing to bear the tools of quantitative analysis; HR issues, on the other hand, are typically harder to quantify, harder to mathematize, leading many to think of them as “mushy.” But “mushy” typically just means “I find this stuff difficult.” Managers who find HR difficult would rather hide in the numbers. Ironically, HR gets called “soft” precisely because it is so hard.
At many large companies, the HR Department is in charge of ethics — or at least that part of ethics that isn’t bundled with Compliance. The HR Department is often tasked with making sure every employee gets a copy of the company Code of Ethics, for example. HR is also typically in charge of ethics training, as well as updating the company’s Conflict of Interest policy and other ethically-salient policies.
But the fact that many companies embed their Ethics function within their HR function may actually obscure the extent to which every aspect of HR is ethically significant. The full extent to which HR is an ethical matter may not be obvious.
Ethics is fundamentally concerned with the choices we make — either as individuals or as companies — when those choices have an impact on people’s well-being or their rights. And so ethics is and must be part of all of the policies and activities for which HR is responsible, not just the ones that have the word “ethics” explicitly attached to them.
Hiring, for instance, (or setting the rules for hiring) involves balancing a range of value-laden criteria, such as skill and experience and reliability, and avoiding ethically-inappropriate criteria such as race, gender, and sexual orientation. The same goes for performance evaluation. Likewise, how overtime is handled — who is eligible, under what conditions, with whose permission — is a fundamental question of justice. This is also true of policies related to discipline, which obviously require attention to fairness, another central sub-topic within ethics.
So even if it weren’t in charge of ethics training and ethics policies, the HR function would remain ethically crucial.
Finally, HR also gains ethical significance by embodying most of the few tools available for managers to shape that elusive thing known as corporate culture. Culture — that communal set of understandings, beliefs and traditions that give a shared sense of “how we do things around here” — is widely acknowledged to be a critical element of organizational success. Indeed, there’s a well-worn saying to the effect that culture trumps strategy every time. That is, regardless of what strategic initiatives senior managers put in place, or what policies they put down on paper, those initiatives and policies are liable to fail if the culture of the workplace isn’t suited to them. Enron famously had a rather lengthy code of ethics, but the culture fostered by the company’s compensation model and its performance review process went a long way toward fostering a culture in which unethical behaviour was readily tolerated. Culture, you might say, makes up an organization’s collective ethical character.
So we see, then, that HR is actually ethically significant in two ways. It is the locus of an enormous number of central, ethically-relevant policies, practices, and decisions. And it is the mechanism through which organizational culture is built, the culture that will hopefully support rather than frustrate ethical decision making.
A shorter version of this blog entry appeared at the Cornerstone Blog
Loblaw Companies Limited, the company that owns the Joe Fresh retail clothing line, has announced that it will pay compensation to the families of victims of last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh. Details are sparse at this point, but it’s an interesting development.
The move will of course garner the company plenty of praise. Some of that praise will be offered only grudgingly, by those who will see it as the least that can be done by a money-hungry corporation in the habit of squeezing profits out of the labour of Bangladeshis with few other options. But still, there will be praise. For it is easy to see the good in a transfer of wealth from a multibillion dollar Western corporation to several hundred exceedingly poor families. Any plausible amount of compensation will be trivial to the company, but an enormous boon the those in Bangladesh who were affected.
But I for one still have questions, in particular questions about what is motivating the move. As I’ve said, the move will do a lot of good, but there are many different principles that might underlie any given action that does good. And we typically care not just about outcomes, but about principles too. Upon what principle is Loblaw compensating the victims in Bangladesh?
Cynics are already assuming that the move is pure PR, aimed at deflecting criticism (however unfair) and dissociating the Joe Fresh brand from the grimy reality of developing-country sweatshops. That’s one possibility.
It might also be that the company sees such payment as a form of charity. The building collapse last week resulted in horrible human suffering. Most big companies donate to charitable and humanitarian causes. And even if Loblaw doesn’t see itself as responsible for the collapse, it must see a connection, emotionally at least, and so the families of the dead are an especially apt target for the company’s charity.
But for me, the word “compensate” raises questions. That word can mean many things. But in contexts like this, it is perhaps most naturally read as referring to payments aimed at offsetting a loss, payments from someone who is either responsible for that loss or who at least for some reason owes such a payment. “Compensation” is not quite the same as “restitution,” of course. The latter word clearly implies culpability. But still, the word “compensation” seems to imply a level of regret, if not guilt. Is that what the company is implying? After all, Loblaw could have opted simply to say “We’re going to help those affected,” or even more neutrally, “We’re going to send money.” But “compensation” is the word the company itself is using. Is that really what they mean? And if so, why specifically do they think they owe compensation? What level of responsibility do they take — do they plan on taking — for the actions of subcontractors on the other side of the planet?
This is more than mere semantics; it’s about the principles underlying corporate behaviour. If, as seems inevitable, we are to regard corporations as entities capable of taking action, and of meriting praise or blame, then we need to be able to talk about what motivates them, and to ask them about the principles upon which they act. In a way, to seek a principled explanation in a situation like this is even more demanding than simply to ask that the company pay up. As I’ve already noted, the money in this case is a drop in the bucket. Giving voice to a set of values and principles upon which corporate behaviour is based is a lot harder than writing a cheque.
In Bangladesh, on Wednesday, a building collapsed, killing at least 260 people. The factories in the building made garments for a number of global retailers, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. This weekend, I’m very likely going shopping at Joe Fresh, and with a clear conscience. People threatening to boycott the brand are woefully misguided. Their sorrow is justified; a change in their shopping habits is not.
The events in Bangladesh represent an utterly horrible loss of life. Anyone unmoved by such a tragedy is less than human. But to see this as an indictment of Joe Fresh, or of Western consumers, is a serious mistake.
So, just what happened in Bangladesh? The 8-story building that collapsed on Wednesday housed a number of garment factories, a shopping mall, and a bank. The people who died did so partly due to the fact that someone in Bangladesh made a very, very bad decision: police had ordered the building evacuated the day before, due to structural defects, but factory managers ignored that order. That was an immoral decision, and perhaps a criminal one. I hope those managers are brought to justice.
Now, yes, it’s true that the purchasing decisions of Canadian consumers are also part of the causal chain that led to those deaths. But causal connection is not the same as moral responsibility. Every event, tragic or not, is the culmination of countless contributing factors. To be part of a causal chain is not the same as causing something to happen. There is no reasonable sense in which Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are responsible for Wednesday’s deaths.
In fact, Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are doing a lot of good. Places like Bangladesh — people in places like Bangladesh — absolutely rely on the jobs provided by the international garment industry. That is, there are people in developing countries who only have jobs because people in the industrialized West buy clothes from retailers who subcontract to manufacturers in places like Bangladesh.
None the less, some people are expressing outrage at the fact that Bangladeshis are dying so that Canadians can have cheap clothes. Is this situation really so unique? In North America, the deadliest trade is commercial fishing, followed closely by mining and logging. Does anyone imagine that no corners are cut in those industries, no safety standards violated? So Canadians, too, are dying…dying so that Canadians can have cheap crab and haddock, cheap oil and aluminum, and cheap wood and paper products. Actually, a lot of that stuff goes for export, so Canadians are dying so that people from other countries can have those things cheaply. Such is globalization: millions of people world-wide take risks that they think are worth taking, in order to make a living, and they can do so because people on the other side of the world are willing to pay them to.
But of course, companies like Joe Fresh still have some obligation to make sure that their subcontractors are treating employees decently. And the company certainly acknowledges as much. According to a statement on the brand’s Facebook page, their parent company, Loblaws Inc. has…
“robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment. We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards. We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards.”
In other words, the company makes exactly the promise it ought to make. Of course, there’s only so much it can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, on the other side of the planet. But then again, there’s notoriously little any company can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, whether it operates on the other side of the planet or just down the street.
Has Joe Fresh done enough in this regard? It’s impossible to say from the outside. But what’s crucial, here, is to see that even an event as tragic as Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh does nothing to impugn the company’s integrity. Should we ask questions? Of course we should. But these events shouldn’t make us jump to conclusions. Nor will they deter me, at least, from going shopping this weekend.
In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.
Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?
The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.
So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.
And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.
Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?
“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.
Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.
A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.
I spent the morning today speaking at Centre for Accounting Ethics Symposium called “Accounting Ethics and Tone at the Top” (put on by the School of Accounting and Finance, University of Waterloo). I was part of a panel discussion that took on the provocative question of whether positive ethical tone at the top ensures success.
It’s a provocative question because the word “ensure” pretty much points to a negative answer. Success is never guaranteed in business. In fact, it is the constant fear of failure that drives competition, that drives the pursuit of efficiency, that drives innovation. Nothing – literally nothing – guarantees success. Will a killer product ensure success? Of course not! You need the right financial model, the right marketing channels, the right organization, and the right competitive environment too. Will a great team ensure success? No, of course not. Other organizations have great teams, too. You also need the right leadership, a product that consumers want, and so on.
So positive tone won’t guarantee success, but neither will anything else. The right tone won’t guarantee ultimate victory in the marketplace, but that’s hardly a criticism. The fact that a positive ethical tone won’t guarantee success doesn’t mean it’s not important, indeed, essential. Without it, an organization’s chances of long-term success – defined either in terms of integrity or in terms of the bottom line – are considerably diminished.
So what do we mean when we refer to “tone”? Tone is much more complicated than it sounds.
In this context ethical “tone” means the tone or tenor that a leader sets with regard to choices between right and wrong, between more and less admirable forms of behaviour. Tone is the signal that is sent from top to bottom within an organization about what kind of behaviour is to be admired and emulated, and what kinds of behaviour will not be tolerated. Ethical leadership means taking responsibility for the tone you set.
But tone takes many forms. It is crucial to see that setting the right tone means much more than just sounding ethical. It also means acting ethically, and being seen as acting ethically. Tone consists in the set of signals given through the words a leader says and the deeds she does and the attitudes she displays.
It means doing what you can to manage that elusive something called “organizational culture,” and knowing that culture trumps strategy every time.
In particular, setting the right tone means avoiding – in both words and deeds – excuses and rationalizations. Rationalizations (“I had no choice;” “No one was really hurt;” “It’s not my job;” “It’s a stupid rule anyway…”), are an absolutely key ingredient in a great many instances of wrongdoing. And we don’t generally make up rationalizations on our own and learn how to apply them from scratch. We learn them, unfortunately, from our role models, from people we look up to, from people we see as leaders. Leaders can and must set the tone, in neither helping themselves to such rationalizations, nor tolerating them when used by others.
Setting the right tone also means fostering open conversation about ethics, about the obligations of and obligations within your organization. It means putting ethics on the table. It means letting those who work for you know that it’s OK to ask questions about ethics, and to make values and principles an explicit part of their decision-making. A leader needs to build decision-making capacity and empower employees to take responsibility.
We can sum up the significance of tone this way: A great deal has been written about ethical leadership, and the significance of ‘tone at the top.’ That literature might be usefully summed up by two sweeping statements, two unavoidable truths:
1) Ethics must come from the top down. People take their cues from their leaders. Yes, people learn their basic values from their parents and other childhood role-models, long before they become employees. But they learn how to enact those values in a business context from their workplace mentors and leaders. All of us learn basic lessons about honesty and integrity from our parents. But few of us learn about technical concepts such as Conflict of Interest from our parents. They don’t teach us about the moral obligations embodied in fiduciary relationships, or about how to balance the various interests at stake in a quasi-adversarial relationship between buyer and seller. We need leaders – specifically business leaders – to teach us those things. So: Ethics must come from the top down.
The second grand lesson is this:
2) Ethics cannot come from the top down. It cannot be imposed. You need buy-in. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You can hand every employee a copy of “their” brand-new code of ethics, commissioned by HR and endorsed by the CEO and the Board. But that doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it, let alone take it to heart. A code won’t overcome an organizational culture that puts short-term profit-seeking above all else; or a culture where individuals put moral blinders on, focusing narrowly on their own jobs rather than taking responsibility for the ethically-significant elements of the organization’s mission. It won’t make up for a culture that tacitly endorses playing fast and loose with accounting rules. That’s why tone – not just sermons handed down from on high – is so important.
A focus on tone can of course easily become confused with a focus on words, and on the personal integrity that a leader takes him- or herself to have. We see this all the time. When the mayor of a major city prides himself on integrity, on wanting to “clean up City Hall” and to put an end to the “gravy train,” but then cannot recognize a blatant conflict of interest when he sees one, you see “tone at the top” gone awry.
In my next blog entry, I’ll continue this topic by addressing what it means to focus on “tone at the top” and whether it can ensure or at least contribute to success.
There’s a famous philosophical thought experiment known as “the Trolley Problem.” It goes roughly like this. Imagine one day you see a trolley — the famous San Francisco variety, or something more like a Toronto streetcar — hurtling along its track. The driver is incapacitated, and the trolley is bearing down on 5 people, mysteriously unconscious on the track. You happen to be standing next to a switch, which can divert the trolley onto a different track. But lying on this other track is another unconscious person.
So assuming (as the philosophy professor insists you must) that you don’t have time to haul any of the various unconscious persons off the tracks, your choice is effectively this: should you divert the trolley, thereby killing one person, or do nothing, and allow 5 people to die?
The puzzle is intended to get you to think about what’s more important: promoting good outcomes (fewer deaths instead of more) or sticking to cherished principles (like the principle that you should not cause the death of an innocent person). It makes for a fun and often fruitful classroom discussion.
But as a model of real-life ethical decision-making, the trolley problem is pretty bad. Seldom does life present you with two cut-and-dried options, neatly packaged by your philosophy professor. As Caroline Whitbeck points out, real life isn’t a multiple-choice test. In real life — in business, for example — ethical problem solving is more like a design problem: you need to design the options, before you get to choose among them.
But the trolley problem can still serve as a useful starting point for talking about business ethics. The key is to ask the right questions. Here are a handful of questions designed to make the trolley problem relevant to business ethics. Each, of course, requires a bit of mental translation. We are not, after all, primarily interested in actual trolleys.
1) Does your business need a policy for situations like this? Is your business one in which trolley-problem-like dilemmas come up often? Are employees often faced with situations that require them to trade off outcomes against principles? If so, do existing policies tell them how to deal with such dilemmas appropriately?
2) Is there anything you can do to prevent situations like this from happening in the first place? One of the key characteristics of the trolley problem is that it’s a lose-lose situation: either you kill an innocent person, or you allow several people to die. It’s worth asking (especially if such problems are common; see #1 above) whether there’s something you can do to avoid such situations so that you don’t have to deal with them at all.
3) What kind of corporate culture have you fostered, and how will that culture push people one way or the other in such situations? The trolley problem is a true dilemma, and reasonable people can disagree about it. But what about situations in which you can throw a switch and kill 5 people (metaphorically, at least) in order to save one? And what if that one isn’t a person, but is your company’s bottom line? Will your company’s culture encourage employees to put short-term profit ahead of all other considerations
4) Will people in your organization recognize situations akin to the trolley problem as being ethical problems in the first place? Or will they make the decision on purely technical grounds? Will they see past the fact that flipping switches is, you know, their job? Or past the fact that hey, the trolley has to run on time, and we always flip this switch that way at this time of day?
5) Finally, if the decision were being made by a team, or members of a hierarchy, rather than by an individual, would members feel empowered to speak their mind if they felt the team, or their boss, was making a bad decision?
Philosophical puzzles like the trolley problem become famous for a reason. They get at something deep. And they can provide fruitful fodder for discussion as part of corporate ethics training. The core of a great discussion is there: you’ve just got to know the right questions to ask.
Is the customer always right? Is it more important to protect consumers, or to give them options and let them choose? This is a real-life dilemma that was posed to me recently. I’ve changed the names and some other details in what follows, but the basic dilemma is real.
Abe and Ben are starting a coffee shop together. Situated in a trendy neighbourhood, the shop will feature high-quality, fair-trade, organic coffees and a range of gourmet pastries from a local bakery. They’re in the process now of deciding on their menu, and on smaller details like the condiments (sugar, cream, etc.) that will be available for patrons. It is this latter issue that has brought Abe and Ben into conflict.
Abe contends that the only condiments they should provide are cane sugar, organic milk, and soy milk. Abe wants no white sugar or artificial sweeteners. After all, he says, the health of our customers matters, and white sugar and artificial sweeteners are unhealthy.
Ben says, Look, the customer is king. Some will appreciate cane sugar, sure, but some want the white sugar they grew up with, and some diet-conscious folks will want zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, and we should give them what we want. Who are we to tell them what to do?
So who is right?
I would say choice is a good thing. To the best of my knowledge, the evidence is very weak that “other” condiments are bad for you (especially in the relevant, tiny quantities). For that matter, if Abe is that concerned about his customers’ health, he should argue for not serving sugar at all. There’s plenty of evidence that that is bad for you. As a scientist friend of mine puts it: there’s much more evidence that sugar is bad for you than there is that artificial sweetener is bad for you.
Of course, if Abe and Ben decide to make “100% natural,” or something like it, a part of their branding — as many companies do — then it makes sense to offer only condiments that are consistent with that ethos. But there’s no reason to think of that as a more ethical policy.
Is it fair to charge airline passengers based in part on weight? That’s the plan recently announced by Samoa Air, and it’s a plan that is raising a few eyebrows.
Yes, it’s an ethical issue. But no, there’s no clear answer.
Interestingly, the mainstream media stories I’ve read about this thus far have made little mention of the obvious moral worry, namely discrimination. On the face of it, this looks like systemic discrimination against overweight and obese flyers. You and I could be in adjacent seats, booked seconds apart, but if you happen to be 20 pounds chubbier than me, you’ll pay more.
Whether being fat is sufficiently under personal control to make it a permissible basis for discrimination is hotly debated. But it’s worth noting that a weight-based policy also discriminates against those whose extra pounds are pure muscle. A heavyweight boxing champ would be about fifty pounds heavier than me, and would therefore pay more. The same goes for someone with the same build as me, who happens to be 4 inches taller. So if this is discrimination, it’s discrimination against those who are heavy, not those who are fat.
The other factor not mentioned in the few stories I’ve read about this is the environment. In aviation terms, weight translates into fuel, and more fuel burned means more environmental impact. So in charging by weight, an airline is basically levying a kind of carbon tax. And while how much you weigh isn’t fully within your control, the amount of luggage you bring with you is, and Samoa Air charges based on the total weight of you plus your luggage. Charging more on that total encourages people to carry less, and in principle might nudge frequent flyers, at least, to lose a few pounds. Such reductions eventually mean reductions in carbon emissions, and that’s a good thing. So even if there is a problematic form of discrimination going on here, there’s at least one factor on the other side of the moral equation.
Finally, it’s worth noting that to the extent that we’re worried about discrimination against bigger people (regardless of why they are big), being charged extra for their weight is far from the only price bigger people pay. Sufficiently large people also “pay,” for example, in the form of pain suffered by squeezing into airline seats not designed for people their size. That’s one of innumerable ways in which people who are outside the norm suffer in a world of products and services that are mass produced. But then, if the unusually large person pays a price for being squeezed into a seat designed for smaller folk, the person next to them pays a part of that price, too.
Of course, Samoa Air is a tiny airline, based in a tiny country. And commentators suggest that the company’s example is unlikely to be copied by major airlines. Indeed, it’s probably next to impossible: Samoa Air not only charges more to heavier passengers, it gives them more space — something likely impossible on standardly-configured passenger jets. But it is precisely for this reason that Samoa Air makes for a good case to use in ethics training and education. Before coming down on one side or the other, it’s important to tease out not just that there’s an ethical issue at all, but that there are in fact a range of ethical questions here.