The complex “business case” for human rights

Questions of human rights are almost continually in the news, whether  reports of ongoing human-rights violations in South Sudan or North Korean accusations of human-rights violations in the U.S.

For many purposes, the language of human rights provides the lingua franca for discussing questions of ethics. Certainly debates over human rights have become prominent with reference to the world of business. The language of human rights come to mind pretty readily, for example, when we discuss dangerous working conditions, discrimination in employment, or environmental degradation. That’s why I recently co-hosted a day-long event called Where To From Here: A Canadian Strategy for the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights? The event was an attempt to begin the task of figuring out how to turn the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into an actual agenda for concrete action for Canadian businesses, governments and NGOs. The discussion was fruitful, but I came away from the day with two lingering worries.

The first has to do with what is sometimes called the “business case” for human rights. During our day-long discussion, a lot of folks were concerned to make clear that respecting human rights is good for business. If we educate businesses on the business case, they suggested, then we can let executives’ built-in profit seeking impulse do the rest. And surely there is something positive to be said for the connection between respecting rights and doing well in business. Treating people well is conducive to productive long-term relationships, and productive long-term relationships are conducive to profits. But is respecting rights always conducive to maximizing profits? Clearly not. There will often be times when a business can increase profits by engaging in behaviours that put workers’ lives at risk or that stifle their right to free association or what have you.

But to look for a business case that establishes an iron-clad connection between human rights and profit is to ask for too much, and is perhaps not necessary in the first place. For practical purposes, you probably don’t need to prove (which you can’t anyway) that respecting rights always brings profits. It may be sufficient to establish that a) violating human rights brings substantial risks (risk of labour unrest, risk of litigation, risk of additional regulation), and that b) putting management systems in place to ensure that human rights are respected is not as expensive as you might have thought. In other words, the business case doesn’t have to be expressed in profits; it might be enough to express it in terms of avoiding losses.

The second point has to do with the notorious “hammer/nail” problem. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And when the only moral concept you have is “human rights,” then every wrong you see looks like human-rights violation. But of course, there are many ethical questions that have nothing to do with human rights, or that are at least not fruitfully expressed in such terms. Rights are important, but they aren’t all that matter. We also care about good consequences (for individuals and communities) and about character and about justice and so on. And sometimes it will simply make more sense to talk in terms of those concepts instead of in terms of human rights. An exclusive focus on human rights — and I’ve met people who literally could not express an ethical question without reference to the violation of some human right or another—brings two real risks. One has to do with what we might call “rights fatigue.” The language of human rights is incredibly potent, because human rights are ostensibly universal and because they are ostensibly inviolable. So such rights imply very strong obligations. If everything is about human rights, it tends to devalue the currency.

The second risk is that in some cases focusing on human rights may result in making it harder to reach agreement on ethical questions that really shouldn’t be that controversial. Is paying an employee very low wages to work 14-hour days a violation of a human right? Well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s probably a bad thing, and seems contrary to the spirit of various labour-related human rights, but is it an actual violation of one of those rights? What about hiring a 13-year-old girl with no better option to harvest cotton in Burkina Faso? It’s certainly a regrettable set of circumstances, one we should want to make better. But if making things better requires that we first agree on whether some right has been violated, we have a vary high moral hurdle to overcome first. It may be better to agree that the situation isn’t so good, and get on with trying to make it better.

2 comments so far

  1. Marvin Edwards on

    There is a practical problem with “business” ethics. Two businesses compete with each other on quality and price. If one of them is able to provide the same quality at a lower price, then his business will expand while the other guy’s business shrinks until. eventually, there is only one business.

    In “A Governor’s Story”, by Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s fight to keep the Electrolux factory through wage concessions and tax cuts failed because Electrolux could hire workers for $1.27 an hour in Juarez, Mexico.

    Within a state or nation, laws can establish a minimum wage, a rule that all businesses within the borders must play by. Instead of seeing how little you can pay your employ, you are forced to compete on quality and efficiency.

    If we are to have free and open trade, then we must also have rules that apply world-wide. And the rules must have teeth.

    It is difficult to follow the more ethical course when it means losing your business to those willing to exploit their workers. Either you close up shop or you join them in a race to the bottom.

  2. Curt Day on

    Though there are times when valuing human rights can be good for business, we must be prepared for those times when they aren’t. And it is at that time when we have to ask ourselves which is more important.

    I’m afraid that with the Free Market’s claim that self-interest is both our strength and guide, that, as Marx said would happen, all human connections are reduced to “naked self-interest” and “cash payout.” Such a world is neither sustainable or worth sustaining.


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