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Are Corporations Amoral?

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It’s rare that I disagree with Rob Neyer. But I have to push back on his column about Major League Baseball owners deciding to eliminate the pensions of their non-player employees, despite being quadzillionaires who could obviously afford it. One thing I like about covering labor issues in professional sports is that it’s the only field that grabs the attention of enough people that the little things like this get into the spotlight. Employers around the country are destroying pensions, but when NFL owners lockout referees over it or MLB owners try it, it opens space to talk about it.

Anyway, Neyer argues that corporations are amoral rather than immoral:

But with just a few exceptions, big companies aren’t in the business of respecting people; they’re in the business of sucking as money from their customers and as much labor from their employees as possible, while exacting the maximum amount of profits. They are not generally immoral; they are intrinsically amoral. Eliminating pensions isn’t evil, and perhaps not even shameful.

Corporations have made such inroads into our consciousness that this kind of formulation is common, even among people generally politically progressive like Neyer. Corporations are not some disembodied beast. They are made up of human beings with human values. We as a society allow these wealthy humans who make up a corporation to exercise power up to a given limit, depending on our own values. In times like today, or in the first Gilded Age, when corporations exercise relatively maximum power over society, to create philosophical justifications for their existence that free them of responsibility to larger society. Profit taking becomes naturalized, rather than a socio-economic-political choice. Whether this is the Social Darwinism or Gospel of Wealth of the late 19th century or the weird corporation-as-human creation of the modern Supreme Court, these ideas give corporations room to make very human choices without suffering consequences or even criticism.

It doesn’t matter what big companies are in the business of doing. They are controlled by people who are seeking to maximize wealth at the top of society. It matters to what extent we allow those rich people to do this. Today, we allow them to do about whatever we want, a consequence of a sixty-year pushback against the New Deal that has convinced lots of Americans that business knows all. This attitude allows Bill Gates to shape education policy for no other reason than he is rich. It allows for immoral fallbacks on “fiduciary responsibility” to shareholders to justify any policy, no matter how antisocial. It allows for a Supreme Court to declare that corporations can openly buy elections.

Corporate dumping of toxic chemicals into rivers is in fact evil and shameful. That’s because doing so is a decision made by human beings to maximize profit at the cost of hurting nature and people. The same goes for union-busting, for pension-slashing, and for race to the bottom politics. So long as we apologize away the behavior of corporate leaders by naturalizing their behavior, the things that upset us about corporate control over society will continue to occur. Only by pushing back against corporate ideology do we make society more equal. And that includes for the employees of Major League Baseball.

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