It must be nice to be a social entrepreneur. You get to feel good about yourself and your company, but you’re business savvy, you get it. You’re not some tree-hugging monkey fascist or a member of the vegan hipster army.
Corporate ethics, alias corporate social responsibility or social entrepreneurship, doesn’t only idiosyncratically introduce ethics into a field of social life that once famously denounced its moral responsibility; it also brings into question the existence of ethics as an independent and meaningful institution in our societies.
Unless you’re a principle-driven puritan, then yes, of course, enhanced corporate governance and corporate social responsibility are not worse or just as bad as “real”, vulture or Enron-style capitalism. They are, however, also no reason to start chasing your Pimms® with Champagne on rooftops and have more to do with hedonism and illusion than with what one could classically call ethics, or the study of good action. Calling it ethics would be pushing it – we can only have so many angles dancing on the head of a needle pin.
Like Kim and Kanye
Ethics as an institution – as the ultimate yardstick by which we measure the value and virtue of our deeds – has been vanishing since the very beginning of capitalism. “Mercantilism marked the end of the ethical attitudes and instructions of Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas,” writes J. K. Galbraith in his History of Economics (1991): “Since the merchants were patently in pursuit of wealth in a society where they were influential, perhaps dominant, such pursuit lost its evil or dubious connotation.”
The logic of the market – a logic that today goes far beyond the Smithian or Ricardian assumption of how capitalism works – has since spread thoroughly and infiltrated all aspects of social life. In the words of Theodor Adorno: “What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance.”
The wedding between real corporations and NGO-style make-a-difference jargon is only the next logical step. Like the wedding between Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, it has little to do with love and is ultimately about the merging of two mega-brands for the sake of a selfish greater good.
Brands and trademarks have one crucial function: they simplify the process of decision-making. They act as signifiers of desirability and quality. And now the purchase of a “green” or a “red” brand essentially means that we no longer need to worry about deforestation or the plight of the less fortunate. We can happily go about our consumption-driven lives. Brand affiliation has replaced the need for tedious ethical judgements.
Ethical branding also causes us to turn a blind eye. Obviously, companies haven’t turned into Yeezus. So we accept the bad and focus on the good. An ethical American Apparel, for example, would not have celebrate the fact that their overpriced T-shirts are “made in the USA” while allowing their former CEO to run around like a sexual predator of the workplace. Equally, an ethical NYU wouldn’t focus on the fact that Arab women will enjoy a Western education (a dubious moral at best) while building their campus entirely on the back of slave labor.
According to Aristotle, a person who systematically makes bad decisions succumbs to forces that are less than fully rational. His or her desires for pleasure or power become so strong that they make the person care little about acting ethically. Ethics is the rigorous struggle for good conduct. It is not an ex post facto cost-benefit analysis. Today, this so-called “good life” is often frowned upon for being both outdated and elitist, but it’s really only a semantic rebranding of who the “citizens” are that allows us to assume today’s societies are significantly more equal.
Ethics is not a vague feeling of good or bad
Corporatization doesn’t only weaken activism by aligning public interests with the goals of corporations; corporate activism also takes “capital” away from the institutions that are supposed to ensure that certain standards are met, wealth is distributed and investments are made. Philanthropists, who take making the world a better place into their own hands, are naturally reluctant to raise taxes for the things they couldn’t be bothered with; hence, meaningful investments take on the traits of a fashion rather than being ascertained by ethical standards.
Ultimately, if the power of the brand were not irrationally biased towards corporations, their public images would not be able to recover from factories collapsing, negligent oil spills or working conditions that drive people to suicide. Public institutions would not be settling rape suits and any corporation trying to deny persons the access to water or making the eradication of real crops in drought-stricken areas part of their business strategy would be shut down by real NGOs so that we could start afresh in a brave new world.
Ethics is not a vague feeling of good or bad, happy or sad. In the years to come we will have to relearn the true rigor and art of ethical decision-making. But until that day comes, I suggest you take care of your business, Mr. Businessman.
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