Is Every Product a Potential Weapon?

Just how much responsibility does a company bear for the uses to which its products are put?

For a relatively strict take on that question, see this piece by politics prof Stephen Zunes, writing for the advocacy-oriented online mag, Obama’s Caterpillar Visit a Thumb in the Eye for Human Rights Activists.

Over the objections of church groups, peace organizations and human rights activists, President Barack Obama decided to return to Illinois to visit the headquarters of the Caterpillar company, which for years has violated international law, U.S. law and its own code of conduct by selling its D9 and D10 bulldozers to Israel.

In his speech on Thursday, Obama praised Caterpillar, saying, “Your machines plow the farms that feed our families; build the towers that shape our skylines; lay the roads that connect our communities; power the trucks that deliver our goods.” He failed to mention that Caterpillar machines have been used to level Palestinian homes, uproot olive orchards, build the illegal separation wall and, in some cases, kill innocent civilians, including a 23-year old American peace activist.

OK, let’s veer immediately away from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and look at the more general question: is a company responsible for all the uses to which its product is put? After all, lots of products can be used to hurt people, regardless of what they’re designed and marketed to do.

Two noteworthy principles are worth considering here.

The first is about moral responsibility in general. What sorts of things are we responsible for? We’re typically not responsible for things someone else does, and we’re not (generally) responsible for things we do involuntarily (like sneezing) or for outcomes that we could not have foreseen. This is sometimes summed up by the idea that we’re responsible for “the foreseeable outcomes of our intentional actions.” So, applying that principle here: does that mean a company is (other things being equal) responsible for the foreseeable uses of its products. Not quite, because the principle says you’re responsible for the foreseeable outcomes of your actions, not (necessarily) what other people do with the things you sell them. Which brings us to our next principle.

The second relevant principle is what philosopher Alan Gewirth called the “principle of intervening action.” That principle says roughly that if someone else gets to make a choice along the causal chain between my action A and some outcome Z, my own causal responsiblity for Z is diminished, along with my moral responsibility for Z. The easy case is this: if Honda sells me a car, and if I use that car to go on a homicidal rampage, Honda can rightly say “look, we just sold him the car…he decided to do something stupid and immoral with it!” The principle is less convincing at the other end of the spectrum: imagine me handing a knife to a man with a crazed look in his eye. If I said “look, I didn’t stab anyone. I just handed a knife to a dude who made bad choices,” no one would buy it.

In the end, I suspect it’s typically reasonable for companies to point to the principle of intervening action. Companies typically can’t foresee (let alone control) the uses to which there products are put, and hence can rightly claim to have marketed their products in good faith. There will of course be cases where that principle doesn’t make sense. But I doubt that highly controversial political confrontations are going to provide the clear counter-examples.

14 comments so far

  1. Claude on

    Shouldn’t another principle be the primary purpose for which the good was designed.In this case, while it is true that a bulldozer can be used to kill people, so can any heavy vehicle.However, a bulldozer’s primary purpose is not to wage war or kill people. Rather it is to help in the construction of roads, infrastructure, etc…Wouldn’t there be just as much of an outcry if a country couldn’t properly develop itself because they can’t purpose the necessary tools to develop very basic infrastructure?

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Claude:I’m not sure how much the original purpose matters. If a company designed its product for mundane purpose X, but people start using it for evil purpose Y, and if the company <>knows<> that, I would think that changes things a bit.Maybe the product’s <>dominant<> use matters more than the company’s intentions.Chris.

  3. Paul on

    Interesting case. The second page of the link you mention includes what I was looking for – what they consider to be justification that Caterpillar “violated international law, U.S. law and its own code of conduct”. Were that true, it would be a much clearer case.It’s not, of course. The article cites UN regulations stating companies should not “engage in or benefit from” violations of international human rights or humanitarian law and that companies “shall further seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights.”I suspect the first part is too nebulous to enforce, and the second part is probably never even considered. “Seek” is a pretty weak responsibility, and “abuse” is probably in the eye of the beholder.Then they cite the Geneva Convention’s rules on Occupying Powers and the destruction of property, which is likely a political issue Caterpillar would stay as far away from as possible (as will I!)And then the U.S. Arms Export Control Act is cited, talking about “internal security” – again, famously open to interpretation.So it all comes down to exactly how badly Caterpillar wants to judge Israel’s actions and conduct their trade accordingly, to which I suspect the answer is “not at all.”There must be examples of companies that do, in fact, do this – look at the real world ways their products are being used, and act accordingly (outside of regulations.) Any suggestions?And speaking of regulations, there are certainly examples where products are monitored or controlled based on *unintended* uses – chemicals, for example, that can be used to make drugs or bombs.There’s a certain irony there – if the bulldozers were being used by gangs or terrorists, I suspect the response would be different.

  4. Chris MacDonald on

    Paul:Thanks for the thoughtful comment.The comparison (or lack thereof?) with gangs might prove useful.Imagine the company that says “Yes, we know our product is mostly used by gangs who use it to do clearly-illegal-and-unethical things. But our product <>does<> have <>some<> legit uses.” There, the dominant use is in a clearly immoral activity, the company knows it, etc.Chris.

  5. Mark Mercer on

    What’s the question here? Is it whether Caterpillar can be blamed for selling products to people who will use them in ways we would rather they didn’t use them? Who cares whether anyone blames Caterpillar? Is it whether Caterpillar should sell products to these people? Sell where you can, I’d say. Is it whether there should be legal restrictions on to whom one can sell one’s products, restrictions based on how we expect the product to be used by the purchaser? That, finally, is an interesting question. I suspect that the answer should often be no, even in cases where we disapprove of the intended use. If we don’t want bulldozers used to brutalize Palestinians, it’s because we don’t want Palestinians brutalized, and our legislative and diplomatic efforts should be spent on that matter.

  6. Chris MacDonald on

    Mark:Well, the question isn’t about Caterpillar itself, necessarily. That’s just an example. But given that this is a business ethics blog, my intended question is closest to the first one you mention: should we blame a company for the uses to which its products are put? Who cares? Lots of people, including me! I want to know whether to hold companies blameworthy for things, just as I want to know whether to blame my human neighbours for things.Chris.

  7. Anonymous on

    If that is the argument, where was the aluminum tubing and rocket propellant manufactured that sent thousands of Al Qassam and other deadly rockets into Israel killing civilians and forcing a population to live mostly in or near bunkers?– Kevin McDonald Halifax, Nova Scotia

  8. Caitlin on

    Reading through this article and the several comments listed below, I am going to have to agree with Claude. Businesses make their products for a reason. People buy them. Most use the products for what they are intended to be used for. Those who use products, such as the bulldozers, immorally makes that decision on their own. The producers cannot be blamed for that. Bulldozers are very large, heavy and powerful and can be used for the wrong reasons. But so can many other things that we create. Just because a few people make bad decisions on how to use them does not give anyone the reason to point the finger at the creator. If you are so set on blaming somebody, blame the person who took the tool and used it for the immoral act. Businesses cannot control how their customers use their products.

  9. Chris MacDonald on

    Caitlin:Thanks for your comment.Your final sentence is not entirely true. Businesses <>can<>, in at least some cases, exercise control, by deciding who they will or won’t sell to. So, they sometimes <>do<> have a choice to make.Chris.

  10. Caitlin on

    True, they can say that they will not sell to some people. But, how do you decide who not to sell to? Wouldn’t that be discrimination if you choose who you will or will not sell to? Businesses can not just say “I’m sorry, we can not sell you this product because you look like someone who will use this for immoral purposes.” At least I hope the businesses in this country are not that discriminatory.

  11. Chris MacDonald on

    Caitlin:“Discrimination” is only bad if you’re discriminating based on irrelevant or unfair criteria.Gun dealers aren’t allowed to sell guns to people with criminal records, for example. That’s “discrimination” of a sort…the good sort!I’m not saying that all examples are so easy. There may be <>few<> cases where we’d want businesses to judge their customers, morally, before selling. But there probably are some.Chris.

  12. Anonymous on

    If they boycott Caterpillar then the nation of Egypt should be put under similar economic sanction since it knows very well where tunnels from Gaza to Egyptian Sinai towns run and does nothing to stop the illegal smuggling of weapons through these. A Caterpillar bulldozer destroyed a bombmaker’s house? Well Egypt let in the semtex, C-4, Plastique and detonators that were used by suicide bombers to kill our children at a nightclub or our wives at a grocery store. Punish the actor, the terrorist or the nation state that acts illegally. A weapon is not intrinsically evil. It is only a tool. A bulldozer is even less complicit. Syria and Iran also help smuggle deadly weapons in, perhaps more so than Egypt and their support of terror groups is even more marked.-Kevin McDonald, Halifax, N.S.

  13. steven on

    It’s late in the year, and much after the fact, but I am just reading this this morning and the issue does perplex me. I read in the comments and in the reply much ado about blame. But his is an ethical commentary not a legal one. To me, at this point in my quest for understanding the issue is not are they to blame but rather have they made a sound ethical decision.

  14. Chris MacDonald on


    Better late than never! 😉

    The fact that the blog is not about legalities doesn’t preclude discussion of blame: if the companies involved made sound ethical decisions, then they are not morally blameworthy. If they made bad ethical decisions, they should be blamed for those. Whether they could or should be legally accountable is, yes, a different matter.


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