(corporate) responsibility: what’s your policy?

i heard a piece on the radio on the other day which proposed this question: did ikea (the swedish/enormously successful maker of furniture) have any moral responsibility to challenge russia’s anti-gay laws?  the background here is that ikea had published an article in their lifestyle magazine which featured a lesbian couple, but then removed that particular article from the russian edition of the magazine, citing russia’s homosexual propaganda laws.  an ikea spokesman said the company had to abide by local laws, but gay-rights activists say ikea missed an opportunity to move the needle on social progress.

from a legal perspective, of course it’s absurd to insist that a private company from one country wage a battle for human rights in an entirely different country.  even if it was the same country, any given company still would have no legal imperative to advance human equality.  it wasn’t even until 2009 that u.s. companies had a legal imperative to promote economic equality between the sexes in america.  so even if ikea claims to value diversity, it’s not like anyone can force them to match deeds to those words.

but, somewhere along the line, it seems like we decided that corporations are people.  it weirds me out a bit to think of a company as a “they” (and merely hearing the phrase “corporate citizen” makes me feel pukey), but our supreme court has clearly ruled that “their” speech is protected—even if “they” don’t have the right to vote (yet).  now, i’m not a lawyer, but if we’re going to accept the conceit that corporations somehow morphed from an abstract legal construct into an actual being with guaranteed rights, then we should take this idea to its logical conclusion:  if corporations have rights just like people do, then surely they must also have the same responsibilities as people do.  they must be held accountable to the same laws as people, and subject to the same punishments as people.

people are fined for illegally dumping waste, so shouldn’t BP be fined every time they dump waste into lake michigan which exceeds EPA regulations (i.e., every single day)?  people are imprisoned for repeat offenses with illegal drugs, so shouldn’t glaxosmithkline do time for repeat criminal & civil violations w/r/t illegal drug sales?  (fines are apparently an insufficient deterrent for gsk—so i think we need some mandatory minimums there.)  people face capital punishment if convicted of murder, so shouldn’t dow chemical get a lethal injection for making the top ten list of polluters for both air & water?  as billions of episodes of law & order taught me: you don’t have to pull the trigger to be guilty of murder.  you just have to set in motion the events which inevitably lead to the killing.  and if dumping mass amounts of toxic waste doesn’t qualify there, i don’t know what does.  though i suppose dow chemical actually slips by with just a life sentence since they’re based in michigan—but companies in texas should beware: they’re fond of the chair down there.  and, to kinda bring this back full circle, shouldn’t we also be able to charge corporations with hate crimes?  you (i.e., a corporation) want to fire someone because they’re gay?  yeah, not so much anymore.  you’re going to court—and not just for wrongful termination.  this is a criminal matter now.  even in the lone star state.

so while companies may not have a moral obligation to advance social justice, maybe we could give them a legal reason to.  if they disagree, they’re free to exercise their right to free speech & assembly with a protest.  provided that the protest occurs safely within the designated “protest zone.”  i don’t know about you, but i think there are an awful lot of unemployed lawyers out there these days—and there could be some real money in prosecuting corporations.  we should maybe think about this.  for serious.



  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    Lots of strong points here. What about the banks that sold investment products they had no way of understanding, or, far worse,that they knew were worthless? What about an airline that sells me a seat and then bumps me? Isn’t that fraud — selling something you don’t have.

  • Melissa says:

    This ties in with the discussion of what kind of moral/ethical/legal obligation companies like Target and others have to notify people that their personal information- names, addresses, emails, phone numbers- has been stolen. It sounds like Target chose to wait until after the busy holiday season to notify people that their information had been stolen between Thanksgiving and December 15, which is apparently legal, but obviously the ethics of it are a whole other matter.

    • They didn’t report it until journalist Brian Krebs reported that a bunch of stolen credit card numbers seemed to all have being used at Target in common and that the company was investigating the breach. He broke the story on Dec 13. Target issued a statement on Dec 19. I’m wondering if they would have reported it at all if the story hadn’t appeared. I think there are some guidelines for having to report it to credit card companies, but not to the general public.

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