Archive for the ‘children’ Category

The Food Industry: When Ethics Just Isn’t Enough

The issue of ethics in the food industry never really goes away, but there are times when it garners more than its usual share of headlines. About a month ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” by Michael Moss, author of “Salt Sugar Fat.” The piece is a riveting look at the often-cynical moves made within the food industry within recent decades to use our tastebuds against us, to use our love of salt and sugar and fat to persuade us to buy products that are making us more overweight and less healthy.

The next headline had to do with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to push back by banning supersized sugary drinks. The move had many fans. Not among those fans: Starbucks, which said it simply would not comply, the American Beverage Association, and New York State Court Judge Milton Tingling, who accepted the ABA’s request to block Bloomberg’s plan.

Most recently, and related to all of the above, the New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on the need to impose stricter regulations on food companies in order to slow the industry’s otherwise seemingly inexorable march toward ever more addictive, and less healthy, prepared foods. The piece was written by a guy named Michael Mudd, a former executive VP at Kraft, no less.

Mudd’s key point is essentially that if the food industry is going to be reined in, government is going to have to do it, since the industry shows little interest in restraining itself. In other words, to borrow Mudd’s words, government is going to have to “force ethics” on the industry.

There are at least two significant problems with framing the issue this way.

The first problem has to do with chalking it all up to a lack of ethics. This is entirely the wrong diagnosis. Or, to be precise, even if the food industry suffers from an ethics deficit, that deficit is not necessarily the root cause of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that there are some problems for which “more ethics” simply is not a viable solution. Ethics is about finding rules that make social living better, but it assumes some overlap of interests. In particular, ethics only works where we have a shared sense that our lives—or our businesses—would go better if we followed a few rules. Ethics isn’t fundamentally about self-sacrifice; it’s about mutual restraint for mutual benefit. That’s why ethics is generally important in business: harmony is good for business. But it’s still a competitive game, and at the end of the day all the competitors want to win. Unless you can show the food industry that its interests will somehow be promoted by playing by a different set of rules, then an ethical solution just isn’t in the cards.

There’s a second reason why ethics isn’t enough. Ethics involves restraint on self-interested (or profit-seeking) behaviour. But the notion of restraint presumes some understanding of where to draw lines. But consider the dilemma faced by any company that sells a fundamentally sugary or fatty food, like Coke or Twinkies or Doritos. These products are delicious, and harmless if consumed as most of us consume them, namely in moderation. When the Coca Cola Company sells me a can of coke, it does absolutely nothing remotely unethical. I’m a grownup, well-informed about the nutritional characteristics of Coke, and besides this one coke is meaningless, health-wise.

But, yes yes, we all know that anyone drinking too much Coke is going to suffer ill effects, and a society that drinks too much Coke is going to suffer too. But how much is too much? No one can say. And simply imploring the Coca Cola Company to “be more ethical” is useless, here. True, we can implore them not to advertise in a way that targets kids, or not to promote ridiculously huge servings, but that leaves the fundamental paradox of their product untouched. Even a scrupulously ethical — indeed, saintly — Coca Cola Company would still find itself uncertain as to how to market its product. How would you sell a product that many people enjoy harmlessly, but that in the aggregate causes trouble?

Finally, the plea for “more ethics” in the food industry misses entirely the fact that that the food industry’s pattern of supplying us with excessive quantities of fat and sugar and salt constitutes a classic social dilemma, a situation in which each person’s (or company’s) behaviour is individually reasonable, but collectively disastrous. We’re poisoning ourselves with junk food for the same reason we’re burdening our atmosphere with giant quantities of carbon dioxide. Not because we’re stupid or unethical, but because my own efforts to reduce carbon emissions (or yours, or yours, or yours) are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a difference. Coke can’t solve the obesity problem. Nor can McDonalds. Nor Kraft. Nor… you get the picture.

So, yes, feel free to call for greater regulation of the food industry. But recognize that in doing so you’re not calling for more ethics. You’re admitting that even ethical companies can produce unwanted outcomes. A good understanding of the role of ethics in business must include some appreciation of the range of problems at hand, including the ones for which ethics is unnecessary, as well as the ones for which ethics simply is not enough.

Samsung, Chinese Workers, and Labour Rights

Samsung and Apple recently shared the spotlight as the parties to a billion dollar intellectual property lawsuit. Now, Samsung has replaced Apple as the tech company in a different spotlight — the spotlight, that is, consisting of accusations of mistreating Chinese workers. A report by the New York-based NGO China Labor Watch says that Chinese factories making devices and components for Samsung are guilty of a range of abuses. Employees working more than 100 hours of overtime in a month. Children under 16 working in factories. Failure to provide safety clothing where appropriate. And on and on.

A few key points are worth noting.

First, a note about overtime. It’s worth pointing out that China Labor Watch criticizes overtime — voluntary overtime — as if overtime were a bad thing. But at the Foxconn factories supplying Apple, at least, the biggest complaint of workers was that they wanted more overtime. If anything similar is the case at the Samsung factories, this implies that stricter limits on overtime would indeed be a bad thing, at least from the workers’ point of view.

Of course, wanting more overtime doesn’t prove that things are great at the factories; it just proves that workers want more money than they make during a regular workday. After all, if you pay people poorly enough, everyone will literally beg you for more overtime.

But then, it’s also worth remembering that “overtime” is a social construct. The amount of hours someone should work in a week is a matter of convention, and in North America and Europe we established the conventional 35 or 40 hour work week once we could afford to do so. Not everyone is yet so lucky.

Second, it is a mistake to lump all the accusations in together, as if they were all of a kind. They aren’t. Some of the complaints have to do with things that are susceptible to tradeoffs. Long hours, for example, may be acceptable if workers believe the loss of leisure time is justified by the extra income. It’s arguably a matter of rational calculations for each worker.

Other complaints, in comparison, have to do with rights, and rights are traditionally regarded as not being readily subjected to such calculations. We don’t allow voters in a democracy to literally sell their votes, for example. We put such a high value on the right to democratic participation that we forbid voters from making tradeoffs of this kind, from weighing how much they value their ability to vote against how much they value some quantity of money. Now, back to Samsung. One of the issues raised by China Labor Watch is that workers in the factories lacked a mechanism by which to lodge complaints. The existence of such a mechanism in the workplace might arguably be said to be a right. Such being the case, Samsung cannot simply argue that its workers are making a rational tradeoff here. Rights, as the saying goes, are trumps.

Finally, a note about accountability. As law professor Stan Abrams points out, one of the key factors differentiating the Apple and Samsung cases is that Samsung owns or controls many of the factories in question. Apple, on the other hand, was (and is) criticized for conditions at factories owned by its subcontractor. But since it didn’t run those factories it could plausibly deny knowledge and perhaps responsibility. Samsung, on the other hand, has no such refuge. When you own or control a factory, you can’t plausible, ethically, deny that you know how workers are being treated.

That’s not to say that the Apple and Samsung cases are categorically different. In both cases, the companies in question need to take a hard look at how their products are being made. But consumers and investors need to take a hard look, too. And that means not just casting a spotlight, but doing the hard mental work of thinking through some complicated questions of right and wrong.

Child Labour in North America

Once upon a time, I was a child labourer in the agricultural sector.

You see, I grew up on a small farm. I learned to drive a tractor when I was 10 years old. I was barely strong enough to push the clutch pedal all the way in. By 12, I was loading bales of hay onto wagons and feeding livestock. Like thousands of other youngsters across North America, I was part of a middle-class farm family.

Of course, my experience — and, I would think, the experience of other farm kids in North America — was worlds apart from the brutality of child labour in developing nations. But there is at least some overlap in terms of ethical issues.

So I’ve been interested to see the debate over proposed changes to US labour laws. The proposed changes “would ban children younger than 16 from using most power-driven equipment and prevent those younger than 18 from working in feed lots, grain bins and stockyards….” The only exception would be children working on farms “wholly owned” by their families.

I don’t have a strong point of view to put forward on this issue. I know I learned a lot as a farm kid, and my parents always made sure I was safe. But growing up on a farm, even a North American farm, isn’t always a positive experience.

All I want to point out here is that there are a couple of importantly-different levels to this controversy.

One level has to do with the conflict between parental autonomy and government regulations designed to protect children. Kids are among society’s most vulnerable members, and some parents are careless, and so government has some obligation to promote their safety and wellbeing. But on the other hand, a society in which parents were not allowed to make important lifestyle decisions for their children — including some risky ones — would be intolerable. (Note: far more children die of drowning each year than die in agricultural mishaps. Never mind automobile accidents.)

But the other level here has to do with regulation and the complexity of human business activities.

You see, the details of the above story, about revising US labor laws, illustrate the difficulty inherent in writing regulations. When US labour laws were originally devised, the meaning of the term “family farm” may have been relatively clear and succinct. So it made sense to say that kids, while generally forbidden from working, could still work on their parents’ “family farm.” But as the story points out, the current proposal “did not consider the thousands of farms nationwide that are owned by closely held corporations or partnerships of family members and other relatives.” In other words, there’s more than one way to structure a business that fits the basic criteria for what we would legitimately call a “family farm,” of the kind that merits a (partial) exemption from child labour laws.

And so this case provides just one more little example of the general principle that regulations aimed at regulating business face the eternal challenge of keeping up with varying and evolving business practices. That means not just headaches for regulators, but also heightened obligations for business to self-regulate.

Philip Morris: Endangering Kids and Academic Ethics

Tobacco giant Philip Morris is doing its best to get its hands on research about teen smoking, and encouraging some UK academics to violate ethical standards along the way.

Here’s the story, by Andrew Hough for the Telegraph: Philip Morris: tobacco firm using FOI laws to access secret academic data

Philip Morris International has tried to force the University of Stirling to hand over secret data into teenage smoking and cigarette packaging gathered over more than a decade.

The manufacturers behind the popular Marlboro brand, have used Freedom of Information laws to [attempt to] gain access [to] about 6000 confidential interviews undertaken with teenagers as young as 13, which discuss their views on smoking and tobacco….

The researchers are rightly fighting the request.

It’s a shocking move on Philip Morris’s part, even just from a PR point of view. To be seen seeking information that the company clearly hopes to use in marketing to children will do nothing to improve anyone’s opinion of the firm or the industry.

But there’s a second wrong, here, and that lies in the attempt to get the researchers in question to violate their obligations to the research subjects — the children and their parents — who participated in the research in question.

When university-based researchers conduct any kind of research on human beings, they are required to adhere to pretty strict standards for research ethics. The most fundamental of those standards has to do with obtaining informed consent from research subjects. Such consent may be obtained only after research subjects are fully informed about the goals of the research, as well as about what sorts of privacy protections they can expect. In the case described here, it is almost certainly the case that the children interviewed, and their parents, would have been assured that while the researchers would of course eventually make public the aggregate results of their research, the raw data — the interview transcripts that Philip Morris seems to be seeking — would of course be kept confidential.

So Philip Morris is asking these researchers to break their promise and to breach the trust placed in them by research subjects. The company is attempting to get the researchers to violate their duty. This puts the company’s behaviour into the same moral category as suborning perjury or intentionally putting another party into a conflict of interest. It’s a bad thing when a company violates its own duties; but it is especially corrosive to work so hard at encouraging other people to violate theirs.

Pink Toenails, Gender Identity and Social Responsibility

This one’s a real tempest in a teapot. Or rather, in a bottle of nail polish.

OK, so here’s the short version. Clothing chain J. Crew’s latest catalog includes a picture of president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting her young son’s toenails pink. Yes, pink — the colour most closely associated, in North American culture, at least, with traditional femininity. Criticism ensued, alleging that J. Crew was acting (intentionally!) to promote a gender-bending agenda. The calibre and cogency of the arguments in favour of that conclusion is about what you’d expect.

The main critic, Fox commentator and psychiatrist Dr Keith Ablow, provides an object lesson in how to cram as many argumentative fallacies as possible into a single piece of writing, in his oddly-titled editorial, “J. Crew Plants the Seeds for Gender Identity”. (I’ve blogged about the significance of logical fallacies before, here.) Among the good doctor’s fallacious arguments:

He alleges, without substantiation, that pink-toenail-painting is highly likely to result in gender confusion. In the absence of supporting evidence, we are expected to believe him because he’s got “Dr” in front of his name — essentially a form of illicit appeal to authority. He also engages in straw man argumentation (in which a critic attacks something his opponent never said nor implied), by suggesting that, via this ad, “our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” [my emphasis]. He also begs the question by assuming that pink is just for girls (and I’m wearing pink as I write this, by the way). He also has an unfortunate tendency to resort to rhetorical questions: “If you have no problem with the J. Crew ad, how about one in which a little boy models a sundress? What could possibly be the problem with that?” (What if my answer is “nothing”? Ablow provides nothing to help me, then.) Ablow also commits the fallacy known as appeal to ignorance when he points out that the effect of “homogenizing males and females … is not known” (i.e., we don’t know that it’s safe, so it is probably unsafe.) He also makes use of an illicit slippery slope argument, suggesting comically that ads such as this are somehow going to result in the end of all procreation, and, hence, of the human race. And Ablow’s argument as a whole amounts to one giant, fallacious, appeal to tradition. I could quite literally teach the entire Fallacies section of my Critical Thinking class just by having students pick apart Ablow’s critique of the J. Crew ad.

(Note that another critic, Erin Brown, over at the conservative Culture and Media Institute, commits fewer fallacies, but only because her article is shorter. But then she apparently doen’t even know what J. Crew is, referring to the men’s and women’s clothier as a “popular preppy woman’s clothing brand.” I happen to own two J. Crew ties. Men’s ties.)

Now, my response to the critics of J. Crew’s ad may seem flippant. So be it. Sometimes ridicule is the best response to something ridiculous. But there is a serious point to be made, here, about the social responsibility of business.

Ablow and Brown share one important view in common with many critics of modern capitalism, namely this: they all believe that businesses have an obligation to pursue certain social agendas. They merely disagree over what that agenda should be. For Ablow and Brown, the social obligation of business is to defend & promote good ol’-fashioned American values, including apparently carefully scripted gender roles. For critics of capitalism, the social obligation of business is to promote social justice, environmental values, gender equality, and so on. In either case, those who urge businesses to adopt social missions — as opposed to merely making and selling stuff that people want to buy, within the bounds of law and ethics — ought to be careful what they wish for. Because if and when businesses do take up social agendas, they may not be the agendas that those advocates prefer.

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Thanks to Laura for showing me this story.

MTV’s “Skins”: The Ethics of Profiting from Teen Sexuality

There’s been a lot of chatter in the last few days about MTV’s teensploitation show, “Skins.” Of course, one theory says that that’s just what MTV has been hoping for — a lot of free advertizing.

I’m quoted giving a business-ethics perspective on the show in this story, by the NYT’s David Carr: “A Naked Calculation Gone Bad.”

What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.

And you’d be right.

Last week, my colleague Brian Stelter reported that on Tuesday, the day after the pilot episode of “Skins” was shown on MTV, executives at the cable channel were frantically meeting to discuss whether the salacious teenage drama starring actors as young as 15 might violate federal child pornography statutes.

Since I’m quoted in that story, I’ll just cut to my own conclusion:

“Even if you decide that this show is not out-and-out evil and that the show is legal from a technical perspective, that doesn’t really eliminate the significant social and ethical issues it raises,” said Chris MacDonald, a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto’s Clarkson Center for Business Ethics and author of the Business Ethics Blog. “Teenagers are both sexual beings and highly impressionable, and because of that, they’re vulnerable to just these kinds of messages. You have to wonder if there isn’t a better way to make a living.”

I wouldn’t bet one way or the other on how this will turn out — in particular on whether pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers will convince MTV to can the show. If it does, then this controversy turns into a nice example of how just the wrong kind of corporate culture can produce bad results. Consider: there are an awful lot of people involved in conceiving and producing, and airing a TV drama. In order for Skins to make it to air, a lot of people had to spend months and months going with the flow, basically saying to themselves and each other “Yes, it is a really good idea to show teens this way, to use teen actors this way, and to market this kind of show to teens.” Hundreds of people involved in the production must have either thought it was a good idea, or thought otherwise but decided they couldn’t speak up. If this turns out badly, MTV will have provided yet another example of how things can go badly when employees aren’t encouraged and empowered to speak up and to voice dissent.

Lead Content in Products for Children Adults

Selling products for kids is a tricky business. We adults are, to a certain extent, willing to adopt a “buyer beware” attitude. But kids deserve protection — the duty to protect children is a universal ethical norm. Add to that the fact that they are simply more physically vulnerable, and it’s not hard to see why we expect (and impose) higher standards of behaviour on the part of companies that make products aimed at kids.

That implies all kinds of ways in which manufacturers need to exercise caution: in product design, in the sourcing of parts and ingredients, in the manufacturing process, and in marketing. One way to avoid the extra hassle: make a product for kids, ignore the relevant safety standards, but make sure that you claim, when asked, that it’s really not for kids at all.

Here’s the story, by Justin Pritchard for The Associated Press: Feds dismiss recall on lead glasses

A federal agency reversed itself Friday and said lead-laced Wizard of Oz and superhero drinking glasses are, in fact, for adults — not children’s products subject to a previously announced recall.

The stunning about-face came after the Consumer Product Safety Commission said last month the glasses were children’s products and thus subject to strict federal lead limits.

Lab testing by the Associated Press found lead in the colored decorations up to 1,000 times the federal maximum for children’s products. The CPSC has no limits on lead content on the outside of adult drinking glasses….

The story here is in part about the odd decision by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But I want to focus on the decision the company here made.

Now, I might have been a bit harsh when I implied above that the company making these glasses is being disingenuous when they say the glasses really aren’t for kids. Who knows what their intentions were? Our default assumption about people’s intentions should be a fair and charitable one, in the absence of evidence to the contrary. But that of course highlights the difficulty with a regulation based on divining a company’s intentions:

Under federal law, an item is a “children’s product” if it is “primarily intended” for those 12 and under.

Now on one hand, regulation based on intent makes a good deal of sense. If the relevant standards for kids’ products really is different, there really is no other way to draw a line between what counts as a product for kids and a product for adults. There’s nothing stopping parents from giving their kids access to products that are clearly “for” adults. So it seems fair for companies to be able to say, look, we intended that product for adults…it’s not our fault if some parents decided, instead, to give our product to their kids.

But I also think it’s worth pointing out that while regulations may focus on the manufacturer’s intentions, the relevant ethical standard should point to reasonable expectations. The makers of the glasses in question here may well have intended their product to be used primarily by adults, but the question they should have asked themselves is whether glasses with fantasy characters on them can in fact reasonably be expected to end up in the hands of kids. And if so, they should adhere to standards that are relevant to that expectation.


Thanks to LH for alerting me to this story.

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