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Posts Tagged ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’

Elysium: Immigration and the Ethics of Inequality

In the 22nd century, the privileged few live on a luxurious, disease-free, space habitat called Elysium (2013) while the masses reside within a planet Earth rampant with socioeconomic inequality.  At the same time, an alliance between big business (military-weapons supplier Armadyne)  and totalitarian government fosters exploitative workplace conditions.

Should everyone have access to the benefits/privileges of Elysium?  The film advances a populist ideal that everyone ought to have the freedom and right to live in Elysium (inside a world devoid of death, disease, or war, without borders nor boundaries). But is this position correct? Illegal immigration is obviously against the law but perhaps we need to look toward ethics to give us reasons why it is wrong. Making a distinction between universal human rights and the privileges/ responsibilities of citizenship (that belong with membership in particular groups, territories, and countries) might help, – e.g., consider the American right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness that goes along with the obligation to follow U.S. law.

Built to Last

Last weekend, I attended a Sustainability, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship Conference and toured one of the world’s most energy-efficient corporate headquarters (the National Renewal Energy Lab in Golden, CO features net zero carbon emissions and energy consumption). It draws from past architecture (e.g. warm, thick Cathedral walls) to construct the modern building.

I had often assumed that sustainability was financially prohibitive–at least in the short run–but learned that high costs of “going green” primarily come from reactively correcting “brown habits” or modifying traditional construction. When sustainability is the plan from the get-go, expenditures can fall to financially and environmentally desirable levels. This built-in structure reinforces ethical behavior and stewardship of our natural resources.

The relationship between sustainability and business ethics is not limited to office space. Former executive Greg Smith famously quit Goldman Sachs last month from the lack of moral fiber in the corporate ethos. Smith’s diatribe reinforces the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ sentiments against moral unsustainability. During reactive and costly moves to regulate misconduct, greed is the familiar explanatory scapegoat.

The practical question for moral architects consists of how to build ethics into business foundations and incentivize moral sustainability. Business ethicist Jim O’Toole reminded conferees of ethikos (a Greek term for moral character or structure) as a guard against the hazard of group think; to reduce the moral cost, we need ethics integrated into corporate structure from the get-go.

While it is virtuous for corporate employees to be team players, it is also easy to justify questionable behaviors from within the group. While unethical behavior may be obvious to individuals on the outside, the pressure that otherwise mature adults face in the workplace need mitigation. Sustainability and ethics must be built within our corporate structure and foundation.

Steven Jobs (1955-2011), former Apple Chief Ethics Officer

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc]

A repeated criticism of Steve Jobs focused on Apple’s lack of philanthropy in relation to his contemporaries. While the question of whether corporations must give away part of their profits follows naturally from a stakeholder view, let us set aside the larger business ethics concern for a more personal question.

Jobs’ lack of what Aristotle called liberality (generosity) provoked the continued accusation that he was less moral or ethical than his peers. Public generosity is praiseworthy but, as a sole moral criterion, represents a limited view of morality. By broadening the Greek notion of ethics [from ethikos toward ethos], we find character, moral structure, a harmonious relationship between parts, and an accustomed place. Jobs was a private individual and we may never know the amount or lack of financial giving behind the scenes. However, we do know the public impact he made on our collective ethos:

He structured the way we relate to music and each other, helped organize the relationship between information and the disparate parts of our lives, and offered us a shared, accustomed place to express ourselves within the confines of his technology.

Those who have followed Jobs over the years will make no claims of sainthood; in fact, his leadership style was often reported as ruthless and borderline abusive. This “artist” certainly is not an ethical archetype in the traditional sense. But one thing he has done is help modify the ethos for how we live life (whether we own an iProduct, an Android OS device, or “refuse to participate”) in this revolution of time and space. The way our world is structured is no longer the same, and for this grand contribution to ethics, Jobs may be considered (per Aristotle) a magnanimous albeit morally-complicated man.

The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

The Book is Eli

The Book of Eli (2010) details one man’s post-apocalyptic trek to protect a book few people want and most cannot even read. The remarkable twist lies not only in what Eli could not do but also in what he eventually accomplished while meditating on the text. It is why Eli could truthfully tell Lombardi toward the end of the film that he had the book in his possession, having hid its words in his heart.

The often lonely trek through a moral wasteland is a fitting descriptive metaphor for many individuals in the marketplace. For some, the continual need for guidance and direction to navigate ethical quandaries is necessary amid personal failure and triumph. Others use this image as a backdrop for the unique rules of corporate competition (cf. the game of poker). Whether Eli’s quest ought to exist as a universal business paradigm is a question needing constant contextual consideration.

Eli describes what commerce was like . . . before the contemporary economic system of wasteland backpack bartering replaced it:

(We) had more than (we) needed. We had no idea what was precious and what wasn’t. We threw away things people kill each other for now.

While material excess is often associated with free market economies, the Hughes brothers are not targeting capitalism. Abuse, waste, and overage are no strangers to devotees of socialism and command oriented systems. Rather, the directors’ fingers point at our collective reckless relationship toward conserving our resources.

Avatar CSR

Critics who tirelessly pan Avatar’s (2010) message as a recycled, retrospective Dance with Wolves-like’ (1990) analysis of the white man’s treatment of indigenous peoples miss the point. James Cameron is not simply creating a descriptive message of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but prescribes a call toward action to stop repeating the tactics from our collective past. He does not seek to hide the brutal treatment of the Na’vi at the hands of a commercially backed paramilitary brigade devoted ad nauseum to the profit motive. Parker Selfridge, the passive-aggressive head administrator of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) reveals Pandora’s bottom line:

This is why we’re here−unobtainium−because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. This pays for the whole party.

Jake Sully, the self-reflective ex-marine, resigns himself to his role among the Na’vi: a warrior dreaming he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, he has to “wake up.” Jake openly embraces the connection that the Na’vi have with their Pandora home and the contradictions between his own values and actions.

Giant transnational corporations (see Shell Petroleum and the Ogoni) who use the very same tactics portrayed in Avatar to placate their Boards and shareholders continue to threaten and harass indigenous peoples. Usually there is some nuanced benefit derived from the corporation and descriptive ‘diplomatic’ solutions do not wind up solely as public relations window dressing. However, Cameron’s not-so hidden, ought-not prescriptive message in Avatar is straightforward: the treatment of indigenous peoples for sake of the profit motive is unethical and needs to stop.