Orcas and Obligations

Following the shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017, where 59 people were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, President Trump vowed to ban the sale of bump-fire stocks. These bump stocks enabled semiautomatic weapons to mimic he functionality of a machine gun. It took the president more than a year to issue a new ruling to ban bump stocks. Walmart and Cabela’s, two of the largest firearm and gun accessories retailers in the U.S., took only days after the shooting before they stopped selling bump-stock devices. Rather than waiting for governmental regulations, in this case and many others, businesses decide to self-regulate.

Source: Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Killerwhales_jumping.jpg

The idea of companies acting in the right ways, rather than the profitable ways, may be alien in the United States, especially after the overexploitation of high-risk loans caused the housing bubble to burst and worsen the recession. However, in recent years, with regulatory rollbacks in areas like greenhouse gas emission in the United States, some corporations have stepped up and voluntarily sacrificed short-term profits to act responsibly. In other areas such as artificial intelligence, companies, like Microsoft, have proactively sought more stringent government action and regulations. Despite democratically elected governments being beholden to the people, and companies being beholden to its board, the former has become less responsible and the latter more so. The current political and economic climate in the United States raises the question of why it is that this phenomenon has become so prevalent.

I believe the answer lies in the story of SeaWorld. SeaWorld is a theme park that revolves around marine animals. In 2013, a documentary titled Blackfish was released, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The project began after the 2010 death of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau and looked into the orca responsible for Brancheau’s death, from the capture to the effect of stress on orcas’ behaviors. The release of the documentary resulted in the cancellation of multiple bands, including the Beach Boys. SeaWorld’s CEO announced that the corporation had suffered nearly $16 million in losses, and stock prices had dropped by 50% in the years that followed. In short, Blackfish was SeaWorld’s worst nightmare. And no company wants to have their own Blackfish incident.

What SeaWorld did was unethical, inhumane, but ultimately legal. And while SeaWorld should, and have, suffered for its poor moral judgement, the conditions that allowed for SeaWorld’s practice came from poor regulations. The government did not regulate properly orca enclosures, just as it is not properly regulating many commercial sectors today. A company has every right to act legally. But companies have voluntarily taken steps to act in ways that do not stretch or even reach the legal boundaries. One of the reasons, the business reason, is because of the risks posed by violating basic human rights. In a twist of irony, the company is protecting those rights, and the government is failing to step up.

Corporations being responsible is promising for the future. But a stable and sustainable system cannot rely purely on good people and intentions. Some companies will always want to exploit loopholes and try to break the system for their own gain. The problem right now is that businesses don’t have to break the system for their own gain, they merely have to follow it. Big corporations may take steps to prevent possible risk because they can afford to, and possibly because of the weight of internal discussions on the moral arguments for being responsible. But some companies won’t act in that way. Many don’t. Building a system that only relies upon the goodwill of corporations to protect human rights is naïve and idealistic. The bulk of the work must be done by the government. The government must heed many influencers in legislative decisions, many stakeholders, especially in a democracy. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, but whether to protect basic human rights should not be a question to ponder.

Phil Ma, placed with Business for Social Responsibility, is a rising junior from Beijing, China. He is majoring in Political Science and Math. He has participated in the DukeEngage program in Washington D.C., focusing on the intersection between science and policy. At Duke, Phil is a Human Rights Scholar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, writing about the human rights violations in China.

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