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Growing Web of Moral Responsibility

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20 October 2001, the Independent Newspaper UK: “Nike Admits to Mistakes over Child Labor”

2 November 2006, Bloomberg Businessweek: “Slaves in Amazon Forced to Make Materials used by GM, Toyota”

2 August 2007, the New York Times: “Lead Paint Prompts Mattel to Recall 967,000 Toys”

16 June 2010, Reuters: “Obama to demand BP pay for oil spill damage”

Child labor, slave labor, hazardous toys, oil spills— all bad news. And, in all cases, large companies were held responsible. Should they have been?

Global Chains of Responsibility
Seungjin Whang, Jagdeep and Roshi Singh Professor of Operations, Information and Technology at Stanford University, talks about the transformation of global supply chains into global chains of responsibility. Nike never ran sweatshops. General Motors never used slaves. Mattel didn’t order the use of lead paint. And BP didn’t even operate that oil rig.

But, in the end, they were all held responsible for the actions of legally and operationally independent parties, no matter how far upstream, in their supply chains.

In the case of General Motors, its own manufacturing and assembly operations were slave-free. Like many other car companies, they purchased steel from a supplier. But not to worry: GM’s New Orleans-based steel supplier was also slave-free. This supplier, however, purchased pig iron from an exporter in Brazil.

Good news! The exporter of pig iron is slave- free. The exporter sources its pig iron from a pig iron manufacturer also based in Brazil. Lo and behold, the pig iron manufacturer is slave-free. Great! So far, so good. But the supply chain doesn’t end here.

The pig iron manufacturer uses coal, among many other things, in its manufacturing site. The coal it uses is sourced from the Amazon. And, as it turns out, this Amazon-based coal supplier was discovered to be using slave labor. That is, GM’s supplier’s supplier’s supplier’s supplier was using slave labor.

The consequence: 11 December 2006, Bloomberg Businessweek: “Automakers Pledge Joint Effort with Suppliers to Fight Slavery”

They were all held responsible.

Merit-based Responsibility
In order to determine whether or not, in each of the above cases, the firms should have been held responsible, we have to determine what criteria to use in attributing moral responsibility. The most basic, intuitive, and popular view is the merit-based view of responsibility, which requires that those who are held responsible ‘deserve’ such a reaction.

According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, a traditional merit-based ethicist, there must be knowledge, intention, and gravity of circumstances in order to be held accountable and deserve punishment.

According to the merit-based view of responsibility, many of the companies listed above should not have been held accountable for the injustices that occurred around them.

To continue our example, in the case of General Motors, we ask ourselves if slavery is a grave matter? Well, yes. Did they act with ill intention? They did not intend to harm, clearly, but perhaps they were negligent.

But did General Motors act with knowledge? Absolutely not.

If according to the traditionally popular views of ethics and responsibility, firms such as General Motors should not have been held accountable for the injustices described above, why were they held responsible?

A Consequentialist World
A traditionally unpopular but growing view of moral responsibility is consequentialist in nature. According to the consequentialist view, accountability “would be appropriate if and only if a reaction of this sort would likely lead to a desired change in the agent and/or her behavior” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011).

In other words, it really does not matter to consequentialists whether or not General Motors deserves punishment. What matters to them are the actions that would be taken and changes that would occur, if one did punish General Motors, to reduce slave labor.

In this sense, punishment was indeed justified, because it produced action, not only by General Motors but a coalition of car manufacturers. The end, it would seem, justified the means.

Print ed: 05/11


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