International Trade: Commerce, or Aid?

Early this week I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association, where I gave comments on a very good paper presented by Cristian Dimitriu, entitled “Human rights and development as fair background conditions of international trade.” Basically, the question at issue was whether, in engaging in international trade, it is ethically obligatory for companies to promote human rights. (Note the significance of the word “promote,” here. An obligation to promote human rights is much more demanding than an obligation simply to respect human rights.)

One of the suggestions I offered in my comments was a reminder that commerce, generally, is an adversarial game, and that in adversarial games, we generally have fewer and less-restrictive obligations. Business, like football, is a competitive domain, one in which the normal rules of polite society get relaxed in certain ways. The justification is basically that business, like football, is a game that harnesses competitive behaviour for socially-beneficial purposes. (The clearest enunciation of this view can be found in Joseph Heath’s essay “An Adversarial Ethic for Business or When Sun-Tzu met the Stakeholder” [download the PDF here].) Since international trade is, after all, a kind of commerce, then it’s worth remembering that whatever rules and limits it is subject to are part of the set of rules governing an adversarial game.

But international trade is not, of course, only a kind of commerce. It’s also a part of international relations, and governments engage in trade treaties and set trade policies based on a whole range of ethically-relevant considerations, including national economic interests, friendship (between nations), and a sense of obligation to help other, poorer, nations to build their own economies. Consider, for example, the fact that trade policy is one tool governments have at their disposal for enacting what they take to be their national obligations in the realm of international development. That is, one way a wealthy nation can help a poorer nation is — instead of sending them cash — to engage in trade with them.

What this suggests is that international trade involves the intersection of two very different games, with different objectives, and very likely subject to different ethical demands. So, this poses an interesting (and I think difficult) question. How should individual businesses navigate this intersection of games? Do businesses have an obligation to go some way towards fulfilling national obligations, or is that (perhaps by definition) solely the obligation of national governments?

1 comment so far

  1. […] MacDonald has a new one today discussing the many ethical facets of international trade. (I’ll probably be writing […]

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