I gather not very many readers sample the links on Ethics Alarms, which is a shame. They contain a lot of different approaches to ethical issues, from many philosophical approaches. Well, heck…I use them , which is really what they are here for. One of the more original thinkers represented among the various sites is Jason Christopher Cockrell, author of The Worst-Case Scenario. It appears that he has abandoned blogging, which is a shame, but his last post, at the end of 2010, was full of surprises. In it, he offered an argument against corporate charity, something I have never heard anyone criticize on any level, except to say that there isn’t enough of it.
The theory behind corporate philanthropy is that it is a win-win for everyone involved. The corporation enhances its public reputation and visibility, improving employee moral and making investors proud to hold stock. Society benefits from substantial contributions that support everything from cancer research to Sesame Street to regional theater. It is hard to imagine what the charitable landscape would look like without corporate philanthropy, but the thought of eliminating it is sufficient to give any professional fundraiser hives. I know—both I and my wife were development officers for many years.
Cockrell is having none of it. “There are many reasons to oppose corporate charity,” he begins. “It is deceptive, immoral, and border-line criminal. It hinders economic growth for the wealthy as well as the impoverished, and promotes a culture of ambiguity, pompous grandstanding, and anti-productivity.”
Tell us how you really feel, Jason!
Here is how he closes:
“Thus the executive who commandeers funds entrusted to him by others and uses them for his own purposes – even ostensibly charitable ones – is presented with an incentive structure which rewards grandstanding and hollow self-promotion, while the executive who commits the investors’ funds to their intended purpose is required to produce real benefits for the consumers in order to stay afloat. This leads us to a final and critical point which those of you who know me well may have realized was coming from the beginning: So-called corporate “charity” is not charity at all. It is avaricious crime which damages the people it claims to help and helps the people it claims to damage. Executives who presume to achieve moral superiority by being sacrificial with other people’s money are not generous; they are vicious. The particular charities which they happen to favor are deemed worthy of everyone else’s support. So if an executive happens to feel especially strongly about one kind of cancer because of a death in his family, others who suffer from a different cancer must see a loss in funding because the executive is quite happy to steal from the populace and redirect contributions to his favored cause. As a result, charity organizations focus less on creating real results which they can demonstrate to the average person and more on befriending the higher-ups. So-called corporate “charity” robs the investors who risked their money to support entrepreneurship, raises costs to consumers, lowers employee wages, corrupts charities, empowers executives to an even greater extent, and ultimately does exactly the opposite of its purported goal: getting money to charities to help people in need.”
Oh, I think he’s dead wrong. The important thing, however, is that he is challenging conventional ethical wisdom, using ethical analysis to look anew at a question that most of us would say was settled. Ethics is the study of right and wrong, and, unlike morality, it requires constant inquiry and acknowledgement of the continual evolution of values and ideas. Sometimes we examine conduct that has always been presumed to be virtuous, and conclude that society has been misguided, sometimes for centuries. Sometimes a single iconoclast points out that something we always assumed was right is really wrong, or vice-versa, and nobody remembers why we ever thought otherwise. Cockrell’s post is exactly what ethics is about–looking at conduct from all the angles, and making everyone else reconsider old assumptions about what is good.
You can read all of the post, and Jason’s reasoning, here. I’m not ready to give up corporate philanthropy. For one thing, I believe that without philanthropic influences within corporate cultures, companies would be more ruthless and less trustworthy than they already are. I have to admit, however, before Jason wrote his article I never considered that there were any arguments against the ethics of corporate charity at all.
Assuming that conduct, any conduct, is right based solely on tradition, habit, consensus or your proverbial gut is reckless and lazy, and ultimately undermines our quest for a more ethical culture. That, and not the unethical nature of corporate culture, is the most valuable lesson of Cockrell’s post.