Cookies & Politics: Company Advocacy
On Gay Pride Day Kraft posted an image of a rainbow Oreo cookie (sadly not yet a real product). Almost immediately, the group One Million Moms condemned Kraft and urged a boycott of Kraft foods for attempting to jam their views down the throats of America. On an interesting side note, conservative groups seem to be rather inclined to use the metaphor of things being jammed down their throats, but that is probably more a matter for a psychologist than a philosopher.
One Million Moms has been consistent in its condemnation of companies that indicate an acceptance of homosexuality. They have condemned both DC and Marvel for having gay characters in their comic books. They also advocated boycotting J.C. Penney because the company hired Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson (she is openly and famously gay). They even went after the company for including a lesbian couple in its advertisement for Mother’s Day and for including a gay male couple in a Father’s Day advertisement.
Naturally, One Million Moms is not alone in this—other anti-gay groups and individuals have protested against companies that indicate that they are accepting of homosexual customers.
Not surprisingly, there are also people who condemn companies for the opposite reason, namely their being against homosexuality. For example, Chick-Fil-A donated about $2 million to anti-gay groups in 2009 and this has concerned some customers.
As might be imagined, these sorts of situations raise some interesting philosophical issues. One point of concern is whether or not companies should be involved in political causes, such as same sex marriage. Another is whether or not people should boycott companies that support views that they oppose.
If I were in charge of making decisions for a company, I would be inclined to not engage my company in advocacy. This is, of course, based on the approach I take to being a professor: I am not there to preach a specific ideological agenda or make converts to my cause. Rather, I am there to provide a quality educational opportunity. By analogy, if I was running a company that made computers, my goal would be to make computers that people would buy and not to support a specific ideological agenda. That is not the function of my company—it is not an ideology company but a computer company.
Naturally, in my personal capacity I do endorse specific views and I should certainly do so. However, I make it clear that my views are not necessarily those of my employer or my students. After all, I do not speak for all of them and their views are no doubt different from mine. Likewise, if I owned a company, it would be unreasonable and unethical of me to claim to speak for all my employees and for my customers on matters of ideology. That said, there are at least two obvious counters.
One obvious counter is that a company that remains silent on key issues can be justly regarded as tacitly accepting certain views. When these views are immoral, this involves the company in the immorality. For example, a company that went along with segregation in the United States would be acting immorally by simply going along with that evil.
It might be objected that companies should simply go with whatever the law or practice of the day is, thus not being advocates one way or the other. While this is tempting, there do not seem to be any reasonable grounds for exempting the people who run companies from the requirements of ethics. Hence, the excuse of “I was just following the law and doing business” seems to ring almost as hollow as “I was just following orders.” As such, it would seem that companies do need to be concerned about the stances they take on issues that actually concern the business of the company. This does, of course, give them a reasonable out on issues that do not concern the business of the company.
In the case of homosexuality, it could be argued that most companies do not need to take a stance on the relevant issues, such as the ethics of same-sex marriage. As such, they cannot be condemned for not taking a stance or engaging in advocacy one way or the other. However, it can be argued that even if they do not need to take a stance, they can do so and this leads to the second counter.
The second obvious counter is that companies have the moral right to engage in advocacy based on the right of free expression that the decision makers of the company possess. As far as the concern that company advocacy is questionable because the few decision makers for the company are claiming to speak for the entire company, there are two replies.
One is that while a company need not reflect the views of its employees, the employees are not obligated to endorse the advocacy views adopted by the decision makers of the company. That is, working for a company does not morally obligate the worker to accept the positions advocated by the company. So, someone could work for Kraft without being a supporter of same-sex marriage and their employment at Kraft should not be taken as an endorsement of what the rainbow Oreo stands for. Employees who find this too objectionable can, of course, quit—provided that they can find another job.
Second is that the company decision makers already make decisions about what the company does and deciding to take an advocacy position is just another decision. For example, Apple does not consult with the people who assemble iPads to see what they think about what the next version of iOS should be or what the EULA should contain. As such, they are not exceeding their legitimate authority over the company as an entity.
That said, the people who decide the advocacy roles and positions of the company are morally accountable for those roles and positions. As such, if they adopt an unethical position, they would be acting wrongly. There is also the practical concern of the impact of such advocacy on the company’s bottom line. After all, advocacy is often done with the intent of attracting or keeping customers and there is the question of which stance will result in the greatest profits. This is, of course, more of a practical than ethical question. Deciding to take a position based on the profit potential is, however, a matter of ethical concern. The company side is but one side of the cookie, there is also the consumer side. This will be discussed in the next essay.