Archive for the ‘rights’ Category

Academic Business Ethics and the Corporation as Political Actor

I’m returning home today after spending the weekend at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Business Ethics, the world’s foremost association for academics engaged in the study and teaching of issues related to business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and so on. (It was a fantastic meeting and anyone with a professional interest in these issues should consider joining SBE.)

One of the dominant themes of this year’s meeting was the role of the corporation in the political realm. It’s an old topic, one revitalized by the US Supreme Court’s decision last year in the Citizens United case. Corporate involvement in the political sphere takes many forms (from lobbying to campaign donations to participation in collaborative approaches to regulation). Such involvement is probably inevitable, but definitely controversial, and so there’s lots to sort out regarding how we should understand corporations in the political realm, and what rights and responsibilities they should have in that world. Among several dozen scholars presenting their research at the SBE meeting, a striking proportion of them presented work related to this set of topics.

David Ronnegard and Craig Smith, for example, presented work that elucidated the connection between competing theories of business ethics, on one hand, and competing theories from political philosophy, on the other.

Anselm Schneider and Andreas Scherer presented their work on the changes in corporate governance necessitated by (what I would call) the quasi-governmental responsibilities that corporations sometimes take on in the international sphere.

Pierre-Yves Néron presented work arguing that the way we think of corporations in the public sphere ought to be strongly influenced by thinking about the kinds of corporate behaviours (including regulatory lobbying, for example) that can either improve or frustrate market efficiency.

Waheed Hussain presented his work on what it might look like to “civilize” the corporation to make its participation in the political realm less worrisome — essentially, by fostering among corporations a “public interest” ethos, and insisting that lobbying etc be framed in terms of the public good.

Wayne Norman encouraged his fellow business ethicists to pay more attention to regulation, rather than focusing (as the typically do) on the corporate ethical obligations that go “beyond mere compliance”.

I myself presented some of my current thinking on the various ways we might think of corporations in their interactions with government. In particular, I argued that while, in some cases, it makes sense to conceptualize the corporation as an agent in its own right, there are other cases (perhaps many more cases) in which it makes sense to think of the corporation as a tool or technology used by citizens to advance their goals. (This is something I’ve touched on before, informally, in a blog entry.)

Although I don’t want to speak for my colleagues, it seems safe to say that the scholars whose work is noted above share an interest in better understanding what it means, and what it should mean, for corporations to be political agents. They are part of a trend — I don’t yet want to say movement — that sees scholars attempting to take seriously the complexity of the practical and philosophical problems raised by having limited-liability, joint-stock corporations participate in a realm that is generally thought of as being rightfully the place of flesh-and-blood citizens.

Deaf Nudists, Rights, and the Responsibilities of Business

Here’s another “tempest in a teapot” story with much larger implications.

By Daniel Wiessner, for Reuters: Deaf man complains nudists would not provide interpreter

A deaf man has accused a nudist park in upstate New York of violating federal law by refusing to provide him with a sign-language interpreter at an annual festival.

Tom Willard, 53, of Rochester, filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department claiming Empire Haven Nudist Park violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing his requests for an interpreter.

“I am fed up with being turned away every time I try to do something, by idiots who somehow feel the ADA does not apply to them,” Willard wrote in the complaint….

Now it’s true that the ADA‘s “Public Accommodations” does require businesses and nonprofits to take reasonable steps to reduce barriers for the disabled. But according to this page explaining the application of the ADA, Willard is probably out of luck, legally speaking:

Q. Will a bookstore be required to maintain a sign language interpreter on its staff in order to communicate with deaf customers?

A. No, not if employees communicate by pen and notepad when necessary.

In other words, a business doesn’t have to provide a customer’s chosen accommodation, as long as they do something to achieve a fair outcome. (If someone reading this understands the application of the ADA better, please comment!) At a bookstore, you don’t need a translator as long as you’ve got a pen and paper. The same would pretty clearly apply at a nudist park.

Now all that is about the law, not about ethics per se. Ethics and the law are two different things, and that goes for the legal and ethical responsibilities of business, too. But that doesn’t mean that legal issues are “merely” legal issues. The legislation with regard to how businesses need to accomodate disabilities is right there, in black and white. But such legislation is must be interpreted, and interpretation inevitably involves the application of ethical principles, and the relevant ethical principles here include not just the principle that we ought to do more to lower barriers, but also a principle of reasonableness that says that the needs of the disabled have to be balanced against the legitimate interests of businesses and other organizations (and of their other stakeholders). Judges and juries end up having to apply such principles, among others, when discrimination cases reach court. In the 99.999% of cases that never end up near a courtroom, it’s up to businesses — and the people who work for them — to do their best to apply those principles too.

Topless in Not-Quite-“Public”

According to a CBC story, a Toronto woman was chastised by security guards after taking her shirt off (leaving only her rather modest black bra) at Toronto’s Festival of Beer.

Here’s the story: Toronto woman told to put her top on

…Jeanette Martin was at the annual Toronto beer gathering on Sunday when she took up a dare from one of her friends and took off her shirt. She was wearing a bra but apparently that wasn’t enough for organizers.

“Within 10 seconds flat I had a security guard telling me to put my top back on or else I’d be escorted out of the grounds,” Martin told CBC News….

The CBC story rightly points out that, 20 years ago, a young Canadian woman named Gwen Jacobs fought and won a legal battle for the right to go topless — entirely topless — in public.

What the CBC story misses, however, is that the Festival of Beer is not a public place. It’s a business venue. As we all know, there are plenty of business establishments with a policy: “No shirt, no shoes …no service!” The basic ethical principle here is that private establishments get to make their own rules about the tone they want to set.

In fact, the Beer Festival’s rules aren’t limited to proper attire. According to the Festival’s FAQ, there are plenty of rules, including for example:

What can’t I bring with me?

No pets
No children
No opened water
No food
No chairs
No coolers
No large video cameras
No cameras other than for personal use

Of course, these rules aren’t all about attire, but you see the point. A private business gets to set rules, including ones that set the tone for their events, and attire is a significant part of that. Bars and nightclubs in particular very often have dress codes — many forbid ripped jeans, for example, or require that men wear shirts with collars. (For interesting reading, see the rules for attire for customers of Harrod’s department store.) Now pointing out that companies generally have the right to make their own rules for decorum doesn’t mean that there are not ethical limits on such rules. It’s not hard to imagine truly morally obnoxious rules they could impose. For example, if a company imposed Victorian standards on women but put no limits at all on what men could wear, that would be unfairly discriminatory. But requiring shirts is far from that.

Unfortunately, while the Beer Festival’s organizers may have been within their rights to establish rules of decorum for their event, the reasons offered by the event’s organizers were weak ones. According to the CBC,

Martin was told that she would attract unwanted attention from men and her safety was at risk.

As Martin herself suggested (along with many who posted comments on the story), if men are behaving badly, then security should deal with them, rather than blaming Martin.
Update (Aug. 12): I’ve learned through other news outlets that Martin says there were women wearing bikini tops at the Beer Fest on the day in question. That makes Security’s objections harder to understand. A business is still within its rights, but the distinction between a bra and a bikini top is, well, skimpy.

Corporate Rights as Stand-in for Human Rights

The rights of corporations are back in the news this week, as the US Supreme Court decided that a California law restricting sale of violent video games to minors constituted an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech.

Far from being shocking, the notion that corporations should be protected by certain rights ought to be utterly commonplace. Here’s why.

Do you believe that human individuals should have a right against unreasonable search and seizure?

Do you believe that human individuals should have strong rights to free speech?

If so, then you must, logically, be in favour of according such rights to corporations. Why? Not because corporations are legally persons, and not because corporations are “like” human individuals in any particular way. We don’t necessarily need to appeal to any checklist of characteristics that a thing must have in order to be accorded rights.

The reason you must logically be in favour of granting such rights to corporations is that granting them to corporations is — in at least some cases — an essential part of protecting such rights for individual humans.

Consider the right against unreasonable search and seizure. Such a right (for individuals) is a central tenet of all civilized societies. It is crucial for our wellbeing that the government not be allowed simply to show up, search our homes, and take our stuff. What about a corporation’s “stuff”? It must be protected as well. Why? Not because corporations feel fear or have interests of their own to protect. No, corporations’ property must be protected because the interests of real, flesh-and-blood people depend on the protection of such property.

Roughly the same argument goes with regard to free speech. It is literally impossible to shut up a corporation without thereby shutting up human persons. If a human being has the right to speak freely, then she also has the right to speak freely about her commercial interests, including about the products and services and viewpoints of the entities (corporations, partnerships, unions, etc.) that advance those interests.

None of this suggests that the rights accorded to corporations must be exactly the same in kind and in character as those accorded to humans. Rights for corporations are largely instrumental, and need only be accorded where doing so protects important human interests. Nor must such rights be unlimited: there are limits on free speech for humans, and those limits generally should also apply to non-human persons such as corporations and unions and clubs and churches. What is essential, here, is to see that corporate rights are not the bogeyman. Just like human rights, they are a tool for helping us get along, and thrive, as a community.

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