Comment of the Day:”Unethical Website Of The Month: #GrabYour Wallet”


Should I regret when readers explain my positions better than I do? I don’t. It is one of the great advantages of the Ethics Alarms symposium format: very smart people often refine my views and make them clearer for me, as well as others.

An example is Glenn Logan’s Comment of the Day, on a topic that has come up her before, boycotts. Every time it has, someone has countered my ethical conviction that boycotts are intrinsically wrong with the argument that we all have a right and often good reasons to refuse to patronize a business, so why is it unethical to urge others to follow our lead? Glenn does a better job answering that question than I ever have.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post “Unethical Website Of The Month: #GrabYour Wallet.”

This is how I see boycotts, and I’ll explain by responding to parts of [reader Spartan’s] comment:

Assuming people have X amount of dollars they are going to spend, those X dollars will just go to other companies. Every time I buy a GM car (I only buy GM cars), am I hurting someone from Ford, Nissan, BMW, etc.?

Are you buying the car for its value, or in order to hurt other companies? Presumably, most people buy cars for their perceived value, or their styling, or some other characteristic that pushes the correct buttons of their personal taste in cars.

But if the only button GM presses is related to politics/religion/etc. then yes, it would be unethical.

I have a Mormon colleague who will only stay at Marriott hotels because it is a Mormon-owned chain. Is he boycotting other hotels?

Let me answer this question with another question: Is it ethical for a white person to patronize white-only restaurants because of the race of their ownership? Is it ethical for a gay person to patronize only gay-owned establishments? How about Catholics using a religious test for their patronage?

This can be a closer call, because the motivation is not hurting, technically, but helping, particularly in the minority context. However, I still think it’s unethical in the main. I don’t think an ethical company would want their politics or beliefs, let alone race or sexual orientation, used as the only reason people patronize them over others. Hence, I deem your friends actions to be unethical, if not as bad as other boycotts.

… am I also boycotting other hotels because I book the same hotel as him to make our travel logistics easier?

Absolutely not. Apparently, you are motivated by a reason other than the politics/religion/belief/association of the hotel, at least in part. You want to be in the same hotel, and your decision is therefore driven by a more important motivation than hurting the business of other worthy companies.

In my view of the matter, beliefs etc. are not an invalid consideration unless they are the overarching or singular factor in a buying decision. That’s no less true for patriotic-only decisions to buy Ford or Chevy over Japanese or European brands. If we are to be a free and ethical people, we must think and act like free and ethical people, not slaves to our ideological yokes.

When I refused to buy French wines for a short while during the Iraq war, I was acting unethically because I was trying to punish the French for their position, not because I preferred wine from other regions. Fortunately, I quickly came to my senses and realized I was an idiot, and don’t intend to repeat that mistake. Besides, I like French wine, and I was mostly hurting me. 🙂

I wouldn’t think of boycotting Google by not using the more useful Chrome just because of their politics, or Starbucks just because of their stupid nonsense. Now, if there is a Starbucks competitor nearby who offers quality coffee, I may use Starbucks’ politics as one factor in my coffee purchase, but not the main or only one. If I know Starbucks tastes better and the value relationship is not too far out of whack, Starbucks gets the nod.

Speaking only for me, politics/religion/beliefs/etc. are ethical as a comparatively minor factor in a buying decision, but when it becomes the only or most important factor, we have veered into the land of an unethical boycott, even in a personal decision and without group action.

The simple ethical analysis boils down to the Golden Rule: Would you be okay with people boycotting your company because of your political/religious etc. beliefs, or those of your relatives? Of course not. Therefore, you shouldn’t do so to others.


Filed under Business & Commercial, Daily Life, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Government & Politics, Religion and Philosophy, Rights, U.S. Society

24 responses to “Comment of the Day:”Unethical Website Of The Month: #GrabYour Wallet”

  1. Chris Marschner

    Glenn has described the economic concept of marginal utility and that every good or service is a bundle of attributes – some positive, some negative.

    Every person values these attributes differently. Boycotts become unethical when a third party organizer of a boycott alters the consumer’s tastes and preferences by using implied threats of one becoming a social outcast by not agreeing with them. Such acts undermines a consumers evaluation of ordinal utility shift benefits that would otherwise accrue to the consumer to those pushing for the boycott.

  2. Wayne

    I really don’t think it’s unethical to choose not to buy from a company whose politics you detest. Organizing a boycott is another thing although in some cases it might be ethical. For example, a loan sharking business that preys on poor people who suddenly lose their job and can’t pay the next month’s rent.

    • dragin_dragon

      I’m not sure that could fairly be called a boycott, Wayne. Loan-sharking is illegal; thus, you would only be urging people not to participate in an illegal activity…very ethical, IMO.

    • Other Bill

      Different deal, Wayne. The only patrons of loan sharks are per se victims. How are they going to boycott any lender? Go to … another loan shark? All the people who don’t have to go to loan sharks are going to … stop going to loan sharks?

      Maybe a closer analogy would be Walmart. I don’t shop at Walmart because I think they’ve destroyed an entire merchant class in the United States (and they’re working on it elsewhere). Do I care about the Walton family’s politics? No. Do I think not shopping there would be a good, ethical thing for people to do. Yes. Will that ever happen? Not until Walmart raises its prices to where they’re not undercutting everyone else. Maybe that’s a closer analogy than loan sharking. Boycotts responding to specific business practices may be ethical. Maybe we should note that.

      What happened to Ivanka Trump was an entirely different kettle of fish. She sells shoes. Her father’s now a politician. So what? What’s the point of boycotting her shoes other than being childishly vindictive?

      • Wayne

        Not such a great example. Aside from the people setting up their tables outside the stores trying to solicit for dubious charities for “homeless vets” and such which annoys me, the day of the mom and pop store is long gone. Anyway, COSTCO does exactly the same thing with the added feature that that don’t sell conservative books by authors they don’t like, excerpt when pressured by the public. Some businesses in my state are allowed to make loans to people with no bank account or collateral which will remain nameless although the consumer protection agency certainly gets many complaints.

        • Other Bill

          I don’t shop at Costco any more than I shop at Walmart. You never know, consumer preferences may change over time. Pendulums swing in all sorts of directions. I like the Ace Hardware model. At least they are independently owned and the service is pretty darned good an almost old school.

          • Other Bill

            And if you shut down all lenders of last resort, where would people without bank accounts or collateral get capital? There would be all sorts of people advocating for their rights.

          • Wayne

            Well the one in my neighborhood is pretty good and the employees are pretty helpful. If I have to pay a little more than Lowes or Home Depot I don’t mind as it saves me a lot of time wandering around those stores with employees a scarce commodity.

  3. luckyesteeyoreman

    I disagree. Consistent with the notion that ethics evolve as a society’s values evolve, the reasons for the choices freely made by free people are none of the business of the entire society. Jack, you were saying, about hate crime?

    The alternative would be the compelling of boycotters to buy from the sources of goods or services that they have indicated they intend to boycott, based on some “reasoning” that “The reason(s) for your (boycotters’) boycotting must not be allowed acceptance.”

    To single out even just one particular reason for boycotting – whatever the reason – and to say that that one reason “must not be allowed acceptance,” is to render all other possible reasons for boycotting equally vulnerable to the same “reasoning.” In fact, the essence of capitalistic competition is to enable “boycotting.” In cases of people who freely choose what to buy and where to buy it, the Golden Rule is only relevant to the behavior of the buyer, and not at all relevant to the merchant: “[Buyer] Do I think this product should be available to everyone else who might desire to buy it? I must, if I am buying it [even if the consequence of the Buyer’s choice is to deny availability of what Buyer bought to others]” versus “[Merchant] Do I think anyone who chooses not to buy what I am selling should be compelled to buy it, regardless?”

    • Glenn Logan

      I can’t make sense out of the last paragraph as it relates to my comment, so I’m just going to address this:

      The alternative would be the compelling of boycotters to buy from the sources of goods or services that they have indicated they intend to boycott, based on some “reasoning” that “The reason(s) for your (boycotters’) boycotting must not be allowed acceptance.”

      Why would this be so? Nobody said anything at all about compulsion. My point was strictly about the ethics of purchasing decisions, and using beliefs/religion etc. as the overriding determinant in making that decision. So why would society, or any of us really, want to compel boycotters to do anything? We could and should object to that behavior, but beyond that, there is no compulsion here.

      Nowhere do I argue that someone, or even a group, should not be permitted to boycott anything. There is simply no way to compel someone by means of law, since the First Amendment clearly stands athwart such an effort.

      The discussion, at least from my part, is purely about the ethics of the matter. Acting unethically and refusing to buy from Starbucks strictly or mostly because their ownership is enamored of liberal things is purely a personal choice, as is virtually all behavior, ethical or unethical. I think we should choose to be ethical in our behaviors and reject the alternative, but I’m certainly not prepared to see such an opinion enforced on anyone.

  4. I actually think that Glenn used some awful reasoning here… Glenn, you have the bad habit of taking a question, not answering it, and instead answering a question more convenient to answer.

    For example:
    1) “Are you buying the car for its value, or in order to hurt other companies?”

    This question assumes that the answer to Spart’s question (Every time I buy a GM car, am I hurting someone from Ford, Nissan, BMW, etc.?) is irrelevant. I’m not sure if Spart’s question is relevant, but I know that Glenn’s isn’t. If for instance, I know that a Christian baker is a bigot, is my not spending money at their establishment unethical? I’m DEFINITELY attempting to punish them, but so what? This is a bad test.

    2) “Is it ethical for a white person to patronize white-only restaurants because of the race of their ownership? Is it ethical for a gay person to patronize only gay-owned establishments? How about Catholics using a religious test for their patronage?”

    Again ignores Spart’s question (“I have a Mormon colleague who will only stay at Marriott hotels because it is a Mormon-owned chain. Is he boycotting other hotels?”), which wasn’t about the ethics of the action, but whether or not it constituted a boycott. I’m almost certain that Spart sees this behaviour as problematic.

    I think we can all agree that discrimination based boycotts are ethical violations, but I disagree with Jack here about the underlying nature of a boycott… That is, that there are good ways and bad ways to boycott.

    I think that the easiest way for the vast majority of boycotts is for companies not to get involved in politics, especially not openly. I’m not talking about Boycotting a company because an employee donated to a cause that you disagree with, for instance, I’m referring to Starbucks telling their employees to write #RaceTogether on their coffee cups. I love me a Green Tea Frappuccino (hook them up to my veins), but I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbucks for a month after that debacle.

    Basically, even if a company offers a superior product, it is not unethical for you to refuse patronising the company if they AS A COMPANY has done something that devalues their product in their eyes (like giving the strong impression that you must be a racist because of the colour of your skin). The “Ethical Boycott” would be an extension of that, it would be a variation of: “These guys are doing this, I think it would effect your likelihood of giving them your money.”

    tl|dr: It’s more complicated that a blanket condemnation or approval of boycotts as a thing.

    • Somewhere on this thread someone asks about my position on the NFL. The NFL KILLS people, and profits from it, while making the public complicit and fooling the culture into accepting brutality. I attempt to educate people about why this is an unethical enterprise by definition (Killing people to make money while not fully divulging the risk is unethical under any ethics system), and if, knowing that, they stop watching the game and persuade others to do likewise, wonderful. I am not organizing a boycott, nor arguing that we should not patronize any company that buys ads on the Super Bowl broadcast (though ethical arguments for doing that could be made.)

      Yes, organizing boycotts to save lives that are undeniably being taken for cash benefit can be ethically justified. Nobody has a right to kill people. We DO have a right to express opinions Elizabeth Warren doesn’t like, and threatening everyone connected with a company because of a political view is Unethical by any measure: using threats and harm to constrain civic participation.

      • Spartan

        And your position on Polanski and Allen?

        • Polanski should be in jail, and so should Allen. I won’t pay money to watch anything by either of them. The Hollywood types who excuse their conduct or refuse to believe it are like my Chinese students. But I don’t and never have advocated boycotting art because of the artist (See the Bill Cosby posts).

      • “threatening everyone connected with a company because of a political view is Unethical by any measure: using threats and harm to constrain civic participation.”

        I think this is an inherently weak argument. It labels political disagreements as a ‘threat’ and withholding patronage as ‘harm’. I suppose the argument could be made that those things apply, but only in the most esoteric of ways.

        I don’t think the problem is that people vote with their dollars, and explain to other people why they’re doing it. More, that people are stupid, they have a hard time separating people and businesses, we’ve lost all sense of proportion, and we experience life in a raw-nerve existence.

        And part of people being stupid is that companies are staffed by stupid people. Google WW2 era advertisements (have a soft blanket and a puppy on hand if racism triggers you), and you’ll see countless examples of companies shilling the troops. Sometimes they’d include promises that proceeds would go to the war effort, but more often than not it was pure patriotism exploitation.That was the way you advertised politically (at least at them time, it wouldn’t fly now): Patriotism! Troops! Something the vast vast majority of America agreed on. Fast forward to 2017, nothing is safe. And so the smart thing to do would be to just butt out: Offer a good product at a good price, advertise it neutrally, butt out of politics. But who am I kidding?

        Now what I’m hearing from you, and correct me if I’m wrong is that the ethical outcome of all advertising would be positive attention. That if Starbucks made a festive coffee cup that everyone agreed with, that it would be ethical to share it, but if they started #RaceTogether2, we would be ethically estopped from talking about how we feel about that. That hits me as just… weird… Which is why I’m sure I’m missing something. Maybe this is a definition problem… What’s the difference between vocally disagreeing with what a company is doing and organising a boycott?

        • Because one is offering an opinion, and the other is organizing a boycott? These are materially different things, HT. What’s difference between saying individuals should resist abusive power and organizing an army? Individual action is different in KIND from group action. If I decide that my self-respect means that I will not eat at a place that treated me poorly, that not an effort to destroy the place. Using Facebook to get everyone I know to boycott the place is based on vengeance and intimidation.

          Organizing asshole conduct en mass is obviously more ethical than just being as asshole on your own—and boycotting a business because of who the owner’s father is IS asshole conduct.

      • Spartan

        But you see, political, social, and economic policies do affect people. As you acknowledged on your Mao thread just today — millions of people can die from starvation because of the government. Wars can be fought, infrastructure can be undermined, benefits can be cut, the list is endless. Well-meaning people in both of the major political movements think that their positions are the right ones while, at the same time, being diametrically opposed to the other side. So, in that sense, boycotts can be justified if you think you are on the right side. And, for the record, I agree with you about Polanski and Allen — although presumably they aren’t hurting anybody right now, so boycotting them is rather meaningless. And your refusal to label your posts on football as not advocating for a boycott is really just splitting hairs — because what you want to have happen is enough people to demand change in the sport or refuse to watch it altogether. (Again, for the record, I agree with you about football too — and I’ve always felt that way about boxing.)

        • We’re lawyers, Beth, and trained to split hairs because they often need to be split. Not that I know what a “hair” is…

          But gag aside, I think there is a big difference. I want individual people to make good ethical decisions and not support unethical enterprises. I don’t want people who haven’t thought about it to mindlessly boycott a business because I’ve organized one.

          • Spartan

            On your other post on this topic, I said that I generally oppose boycotts to the extent that they promote “group think,” but I do differ from you in the sense that I do want people to vote with their dollars. And now, technology has gotten us to the point that we can figure out how to vote with our dollars with just a few clicks. Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. If I decide that I am going to oppose every business, charity, etc. that the Clintons are engaged in, and I did so thoughtfully, how is it unethical for me to go to a website that has aggregated every single entity in which they are involved? Further, to the extent that “GrabYourWallet” was non-partisan, wouldn’t it be ethically neutral?

            (Did you like the hair gag? I deleted a “for a bald man, you sure do like your fine tooth combs” joke figuring it would be funnier coming from you. I was right.)

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