Monday, January 21, 2008

Ethics and the Writers’ Strike

Tibor R. Machan

In the field of business ethics there is a very influential movement called stakeholder theory or, alternatively, corporate social responsibility. The gist of the idea is that when corporations are being managed, the managers have a fundamental obligation to serve those who have an interest in how the company is doing. So, in contrast to the idea that management ought to seek to advance the best interest of those who own or have invested in the company, this view holds that management ought to look out for the best interest of those who have a stake in the company, who could be helped by it, such as employees, customers, subcontractors, neighbors near plants and office buildings, and so on.

The target of this movement is the idea of the right to private property and that when one owns something, one may determine what should happen with it (within the limits of everyone’s rights). Shareholders own the company and together ought to be free to provide its direction. Instead, stakeholder theorists claim, it should be politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, preachers, and others in the population who should give company’s their direction, their purpose.

At the foundation of this movement lies the idea that people owe their lives, their labor, their property to others, first and foremost. This is the ethics of altruism, a favorite of many moralists but also an ethical doctrine that is ultimately impossible to practice consistently. As W. H. Auden so cleverly put the point, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.”

The people who advocate this altruistic ethics, especially as it influences the way businesses are being managed, are those on the political Left. And the political Left in American includes, more than most professions, those who write the scripts for Hollywood movies and television dramas. If you check out the moral orientation of most Hollywood fare, it is plain to see that it promotes the idea that businesses shouldn’t seek to make profit but aim to help those in need.

The heroes in Hollywood aren’t the suits who bring in the dollars (and create the jobs), not by a long shot. The heroes are the actors and actresses who gallivant around the globe offering help to the needy and put down concern with the box office and commercial success. The fact is largely ignored that they couldn’t do their philanthropic work without the profits that the suits make possible for all these actors and actresses. As with Mother Teresa versus Bill Gates, never mind that the former could barely help a few people while the latter has created decent jobs for millions and useful tools for the rest of us. Looking good, in terms of the altruists, seems to trump actually doing real good!

Yet, there is a glitch here, as the writers’ strike reveals. Suddenly the fact that this strike has virtually crippled the entertainment industry cuts no ice. Never mind all the stakeholders who are losing work and cannot pay their bills because the writers are insisting on pursuing what they perceive to be their own economic interests. In short, where is the “social responsibility” of the writers, their unions, in this current strike? Why is it OK for them all to focus on their own economic well being, their economic future, on what benefits them and their loved ones? Why, if corporate managers are acting badly in advancing the economic interest of those who own and invest in their companies, aren’t the writers and their union leaders acting badly by trying, with this prolonged work stoppage, to advance their own economic interest?

Why are the writers and their union leaders not renouncing self-interest and profit and going back to work for the benefit of all the stakeholders? Is it, perhaps, that they aren’t actually very serious about their altruism? Is it perhaps that when it comes close to home they agree with W. H. Auden’s point that altruism is an impossible guide to human conduct. It is one thing to give lip service to it and to denounce those who seek to make a profit from their work; it is another thing entirely to walk the talk and abandon the pursuit of profit by, for example, stopping the writers’ strike.

Of course, the writers have every right to strike--although with the oddities of mandatory unionization their strike has a good many perverse elements. But it would be cool if they admitted that when it comes to their own economic well being, altruism isn’t their ethical guide and egoism is and they are doing exactly what those “greedy” suits are doing whom they are always putting down in their writings.

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