Sin Week, Day 4: Arms Trade

This is Day 4 of Sin Week, the Business Ethics Blog’s examination of various “sin industries.” Today’s focus is the arms industry. (To reiterate a warning from Day 1: take the term “sin” with a grain of salt. I’ve got nothing against national defence, but because of its less-noble uses, the arms industry is typically included on the list of so-called “sin industries.”)

As it happens, one of the top headlines in Canadian news today is about a Canadian defence contractor, Bell Helicopter (a subsidiary of Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., of Texas). Here’s the CBC’s version of the story: Montreal workers forced off contract over U.S. security concern, and here’s Harper calls U.S. security demands ‘big worries’.

The basics of the story are this: U.S. regulations forbid citizens from certain countries (including Syria, Cuba, Haiti, and others) from being involved in the construction of strategic military weapons. Bell Helicopters in Montreal is making choppers for the US Army, and some of its employees — all Canadian citizens — are also citizens of countries on the US government’s black-list. So, Bell has to either get rid of the employees or lose the contract. That would be a tough problem for any company, but it gets worse: Section 15 of Canada’s Charter of Rights & Freedoms forbids discrimination based on “national or ethnic origin.” Now technically (per s. 32), the Charter only applies to actions taken by government, not by private companies, but such fundamental constitutional documents can reasonably be taken as providing ethical guidance for Canadians more generally and for Canadian companies in particular. So, if Bell Helicopter discriminates against (whether by firing or arguably even by reassigning) some of its employees on the basis of national origin, it does so in contravention of core Canadian moral values.

This is a new twist on a standard business ethics issue, namely the question of how international businesses should behave in the face of differing ethical standards in different countries. (Standard examples are things like: should a Canadian company operating a factory in Mexico apply Mexican environmental standards or higher, Canadian standards? Should an American firm operating in Saudi Arabia work according to Saudi standards of gender (in)equality, or American standards?) In the present case, we see a conflict of values between two similar countries: both the US and Canada are Western nations with advanced economies, stable, demoncratic, governments and well-functioning legal systems with strong (but not unwavering) traditions of protecting individual rights.

What’s Bell to do? For some people, rights are sacrosanct. For others, rights merely produce a presumption against certain behaviour, a presumption which is defeasible under extenuating circumstances. Let’s assume the latter, more permissive, view, for the sake of argument. Clearly, even on this view, violation of rights can’t be taken lightly. But perhaps minor infringement (such as reassigning these workers to different projects) might be justifiable, if the end being sought by the US government (presumably national security) is sufficiently compelling. The trouble here is, it’s hard to see how this particular rights violation — discrimination based on national origin — accomplishes anything. It’s just not reasonable to think that retaining citizenship in one’s country of origin implies sympathy for that country’s current government, let alone a willingness to commit criminal acts on behalf of that government. So, as important as national security is, and even if it’s plausible that some forms of discrimination might be reasonable in defence of national security, it just doesn’t seemt o make sense here. Sometimes the ends do justify the means, but there at least has to be good reason to think that the means will be effective.

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