ethics of human rights, philosophy, trade

The Ethics of Human Rights (73): The Link Between Corporate Social Responsibility and Reparations for Slavery

Advertising for Mercedes-Benz, from the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal, c1943

Advertising for Mercedes-Benz, from the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal, c1943

(source)

Daimler-Benz … avidly supported Nazism and in return received arms contracts and tax breaks that enabled it to become one of the world’s leading industrial concerns. (Between 1932 and 1940 production grew by 830 percent.) During the war the company used thousands of slaves and forced laborers including Jews, foreigners, and POWs. (source)

Can companies violate human rights and should they be held morally and legally responsible if they do? Or are companies just legal fictions that can’t do anything? In the latter case, if a company seems to be engaged in wrongdoing, then it’s really just the employees, the bosses or the shareholders – or all of them – that have done wrong. It’s therefore always the individuals who should be held responsible and not the company as such. This latter view is expressed in the following quote:

[C]orporate action and corporate responsibility is something of a metaphor. Corporations don’t misbehave, speak, think, and so on. People acting on behalf of corporations do. I support applying the First Amendment to the “speech of corporations” because I think the restrictions on such speech end up interfering with the rights of people, both as listeners and as people who associate in order to create an enterprise in which some of the employees speak on the enterprise’s behalf. “Corporations have First Amendment rights” is useful shorthand for conveying that, but we have to recognize that it’s just shorthand.

And because this is just shorthand, I find it hard to fault the Mercedes-Benz of today for the actions of the Mercedes-Benz of the Nazi era. Whatever Mercedes-Benz officers and employees did then is their responsibility — not the responsibility of the very different people who run the company today. And that action during the Nazi era strikes me as not really relevant to Mercedes-Benz’s current actions, or to what should be our attitudes with regard to the company and its products today. (source)

That sounds persuasive, until you start to think about the transtemporal aspect of things. Indeed, current Mercedes employees or bosses are not the same as those of the Nazi era, but the company is. It’s Mercedes now and it was Mercedes then. It’s not absurd to suggest that the company profited from its Nazi era wrongdoing – or from the wrongdoing of its people back then – and that this advantage extends to our current time.

I’ll explain. Suppose that the Nazis liked company X and its people, and that this liking led to the government backed discrimination or even elimination of competitors Y and Z. Y and Z never recovered after the end of the Nazi era, and hence company X continues to this day to profit from the absence of competitors Y and Z. And I could suggest numerous other examples of ongoing advantages resulting from actions taken decades ago (e.g. continuing returns on savings which accumulated while the wrongdoing took place and which resulted from the wrongdoing; continuing returns on expropriated goods, etc.).

slavery reparations

(source unknown)

This discussion is similar to the one about reparations for slavery. None of the current white citizens of the US are responsible for the slavery that ended more than a century ago, and yet they do still profit – as a group – from the defunct institution, even those whites who don’t have forefathers directly implicated in slavery or who came to the US after the end of slavery. Of course, those who do have implicated forefathers profit directly from the wealth their forefathers accumulated through slavery and subsequently transferred across generations. But whites in general profit from the fact that slavery has imposed disadvantages on blacks even after its demise (lack of education, lack of certain skills, segregation, forced migration etc.). These disadvantages were and still are benefits to whites. For example, they make it easier for whites on the job market and elsewhere.

However, the guy quoted above may insist that the “group of currently living whites” is a lot like Mercedes: the group is a social fiction in the sense that it can’t act and hence can’t be responsible. Only individual whites can act. And what they do today can’t have effects on the past. Hence they can’t be responsible for what happened in the past. A fortiori, the group of whites can’t be responsible either. I agree that all of this is correct, but it doesn’t follow that the group shouldn’t be forced to pay reparations. Just as Mercedes today, it continues to profit from wrongdoing done in its name in the past, and that is unjust. Hence they should pay compensation for the unjust profit they reap.

More on corporate social responsibility here, here and here.

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