10 Jun 2008

'Collapse' and the Corporation

Having finished Gang Leader for a Day (someday soon I’ll get around to writing up some of my final thoughts), I’ve moved onto Jared Diamond’s Collapse for my sitting-in-airports reading. Although I’ve barely made it through the introduction, so far I’m impressed. Despite his tendency to be longwinded – the major criticism of Guns, Germs, and Steel that I agree with – he seems to have a good grasp of the complex issues underlying modern environmental issues.

There’s a choice quote in the first chapter that I wanted to highlight. Diamond quotes environmentalist David Stiller, writing about the nature of the corporation as an entity.

“ASARCO [American Smelting and Refining Company {…}] can hardly be blamed [for not cleaning up an especially toxic mine that it owned]. American businesses exist to make money for their owners; it is the modus operandi of American capitalism. {…} Successful businesses differentiate between those expenses necessary to stay in business and and those more pensively characterized as ‘moral obligations.’ Difficulties or reluctance to understand and accept this distinction underscores much of the tension between advocates of broadly mandated environmental programs and the business community.

(Text in square brackets is Diamond’s, in curly braces is mine.)

This is a good point and bears much repeating. Corporations aren’t immoral, they’re amoral. Asking corporations to act ‘morally’ is like asking water to flow uphill. We’d do better to make the behaviors that we want – protecting the environment, treating workers fairly, whatever they may be – profitable, either by creating genuine incentives, or by punishing noncompliance, than to ask nicely and cluck our tongues when our toothless requests are ignored.

On the other side of the coin, Diamond seems to also appreciate that as simple as corporations are, actual human beings are not.

Whenever I have actually been able with Montanans, I have found their actions to be consistent with their values, even if those values clash with my own or those of other Montanans. That is, for the most part Montana’s {environmental} difficulties cannot be simplistically attributed to selfish evil people knowingly and reprehensibly profiting at the expense of neighbors. Instead, they involve clashes between people whose own particular backgrounds and values cause them to favor policies differing from those favored by people with different backgrounds and values.

Together, I think these two statements could be applied truthfully and insightfully to a wide range of current issues. The motives of other people, including and perhaps especially those with whom we disagree strongly, are seldom as simplistic as they appear. The motives of abstract, non-human actors like corporations, however, despite being made up of people, are often relatively simple.

It’s a mistake to reify corporations, and it’s equally a mistake to treat other real people like automatons. Both mistakes may produce what seem to be good predictions at first, but will fail in the long run; corporations don’t have a moral center, and will frequently do things that nobody in them as an individual would ever consider doing themselves, and virtually no one gets up in the morning intent on doing what they percieve to be evil.

If we want to produce realistic, workable solutions to pressing problems, one of our first steps has to be eliminating fallacious assumptions, no matter how satisfying (for example, perceiving those we disagree with as evil morons) they may be.

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