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The Banality of Evil

As I sat in a class with military officers, former legislative aides, and doctoral candidates, I realized the importance of different perspectives…and the frustration they often face when dealing with others. My college career began with already a preliminary understanding of the philosophical and legal foundations of human rights, understandings that came with their own biases and ideals. As my studies in international relations and political theories advanced, however, I found that my previous perspectives, undoubtedly held too by others, were incomplete. They lacked the interests and information from other sources, other perspectives, that were equally valid and rational. Soon, I could better understand why leaders decided to stand by while human atrocities continued. I learned why civilians made better heads of government than military. I discovered that the world is not black and white but rather, operates in shades of gray. As much as those without access to all perspectives may not understand why a politician votes a certain way, they may also not understand why businesses often choose to act in immoral ways.

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When I first started at BSR, my lack of faith in a company’s ability to do good was apparent to anyone that I talked to. I was skeptical about whether a company’s positive actions outweighed their negative ones. I doubted the sincerity of corporate commitment to upholding human rights beyond branding reasons. Now, after eight weeks of working at the nonprofit, I have confirmed that my previous beliefs were not completely unfounded. In fact, even the palpable pessimism in my previous beliefs may be justified. My works at BSR deals with BSR member companies, companies that have the foresight and dedication to put money and effort into trying to do good. Plenty of companies do not seem to care about important issues like climate change, women’s empowerment, or indigenous rights. But even the companies that do commit resources to acting ethically put the requirements of corporate social responsibility (CSR) below many other priorities. Sometimes, this deprioritization leads to failures to completely fulfill the company’s responsibilities to important stakeholders.

My intention for this post is not to merely repeat the critiques of past posts. Fortunately, my time at BSR has not simply reinforced my prior beliefs. It has also reminded me that I can apply what I have learned about political institutions to business institutions. Just as in government where a military general may not understand why the president issued a certain order, the Head of Sustainability may not understand why the CEO did not act in a certain way. Just as the president who must consider the interests and opinions from a multitude of sources, the CEO must consider the interest and opinions form a multitude of stakeholders. Understanding business operations in a more bureaucratic format may explain the reasons for why interest in sustainability has only started in the recent decades, and why even in companies with strong CSR department act in obviously unethical ways.

The problem with businesses, and any other institution with many objectives, is that all too often, doing what is right is not the highest priority. As such, entities are willing to sacrifice other areas of interest, or even all other areas, to achieve their highest goals. Unfortunately, in many businesses, ethical behavior and guidelines are sacrificed to reduce risk, increase profit, or appease shareholders. The current global norm is one where companies only undertake certain ethical actions that also happen to further their business goals. The problem is not an individual one, where CEOs do not have the will to act ethically. It is not even predominantly a problem involving people, be they the consumers, board, or other shareholders. The problem that perpetuates deprioritizing morality is one that is institutional, and quite simple. An institution that places profit, be they short-term or long-term, at the top of a list of priorities cannot act morally all the time. In this institution, that which is inalienable is money, not rights. As with any institution that does not place ethics before all else, companies cannot, in their current design, be anything but something that violates rights. No matter how far the status quo moves, as long as corporations place morality below the very top of their list, complete dedication to doing the right thing will be but a daydream.

Phil Ma

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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