Course Notes for students of the OCR syllabus on Business Ethics as part of the Religion and Ethics Component

This blog entry is a one of several that are of relevance to the OCR syllabus for Business Ethics. The site itself is structured around the current Edexcel course. Business Ethics does not feature on that course. However, an attempt has been made here to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, insofar as some of the content below overlaps with the Edexcel specification as far Environmental Ethics and Religion and Equality are concerned and duplicates some of the information that can already be found on those topics on this site.

Please note that the first half of this lengthy post does no more than create a very necessary backdrop for a consideration of issues that are mentioned in the OCR syllabus. This is because it is simply not possible to arrive at any kind of informed judgement about whether human beings can flourish in the context of capitalism and consumerism, as well as the impact of globalisation, without knowing quite a bit about capitalism, and especially its neoliberal variant, to begin with. In undertaking such a task it is also important to look at at least one alternative to capitalism that may be better equipped to produce the same effect. So this is why Marxism gets mentioned.

With respect to the notion of ‘flourishing’, consideration is also given to a topic which has hitherto received little attention, namely, an assessment of the effects of the introduction of free market capitalist policies into state and higher education over the last thirty five years, both here and in the USA. Hopefully, a description of the responses of four philosophers of significance, Mary Warnock, Mark Fisher, Martha Nussbaum and Michael Sandel, will demonstrate that this is a story that is very much worth telling.

Lastly, because some OCR talking points overlap with each other, the same information is repeated in different sections of this blog entry in a few instances.

The current OCR syllabus for Business Ethics includes the following Key Ideas:

Corporate social responsibility – what it is (that a business has responsibility towards the community and environment) and its application to stakeholders, such as employees, customers, the local community, the country as whole and governments.

Whistle-blowing – what it is (that an employee discloses wrongdoing to the employer or the public) and its application to the contract between employee and employer.

Good ethics is good business – what it is (that good business decisions are good ethical decisions) and its application to shareholders and profit-making.

Globalisation – what it is (that around the world economies, industries, markets, cultures and policy-making is integrated) and its impact on stakeholders.

Learners should have the opportunity to discuss issues raised by these areas of business
ethics, including:

• the application of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism to business ethics.
• whether or not the concept of corporate social responsibility is nothing more than ‘hypocritical window-dressing’ covering the greed of a business intent on making profits.
• whether or not human beings can flourish in the context of capitalism and consumerism.
• whether globalisation encourages or discourages the pursuit of good ethics as the foundation of good business.

Modern capitalism: is it the equivalent of an ethical horror story?


Capitalism is a theory which maintains that the best economic system is one where the means of production (factories, machinery and so on) and distribution are owned primarily by private individuals and corporations. The prices of labour and goods are determined by the free market and not by central government. Profits are claimed by individual company owners or, in the case of corporations, by shareholders. The origins of this theory can be traced back to the writings of the Scottish enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith sketched out his vision of a society based on free-market competition, according to which, a more prosperous society is one in where people are allowed to indulge their essentially selfish desires in the marketplace. So, for example, a seller wishes to maximise profit, while a buyer wants the best deal on offer. Meanwhile, those who produce goods or services for the seller, his or her employees, would want as high a wage as possible, while their employer would again wish to keep wages as low as possible to maximise profit.

For Smith, provided there is competition (created by the possibility of other sellers stepping in to offer the same product for a different price, or conversely for a potential employee to offer their services for a lower wage), a natural equilibrium will result from the outcome of many thousands of decisions that are made in this manner, provided that there is no outside interference and the market remains free. What Smith referred to as an ‘invisible hand’ takes care of all this, and the only business of government is to prevent monopolies from being created, and any ‘price-gouging’ that results from suppliers conspiring together to fix their prices at similar, artificially high levels.

Capitalism tends to therefore be inevitably accompanied by consumerism – a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts – which in turn requires continuous economic growth.

Although the economic landscape has changed beyond all recognition since the time of Smith, it is fair to say that over the last forty years or so, free-market capitalism has assumed a more radical form (commonly referred to as ‘neolliberalism’) and become the pre-eminent economic theory in the world, as articulated by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman (among others), and represented by the policies of Thatcherism, so-called ‘Reaganomics’, Bill Clinton’s market globalism, Tony Blair’s Third Way, and what might be referred to as Trussonomics.


Although it would be incorrect to describe Adam Smith as a neoliberal, neoliberals put his ideas about the free market at the heart of their philosophy but go on to make some very big claims about the benefits of a free market system. Their basic idea is that free market exchange can form the basis for an entire ethic, one which is capable of acting as a guide for all human action. In other words, they believe in the power of self-regulating free markets to create a better world. One example of this is that allowing for free trade on a global scale can make the world into a more peaceful place, as countries which promote free trade tend to be democracies, and countries that are democracies are less likely to end up at war with each other (historically, there is some evidence for this claim).

If left alone markets will also naturally produce stability and prosperity. Businesses should therefore be given maximum freedom. Firms, being closest to the market know what is best for their businesses. If we let them do what they want, wealth creation will be maximized, which benefits the rest of society, and the economy as a whole will run more efficiently. This is in contrast to a socialist, planned economy (described below), like the one that existed in the former Soviet Union, where those doing the planning were simply incapable of gaining the vast specialist kind of knowledge needed to work out what people really wanted and make sure that they got it. Inefficiency, food surpluses, gluts of unwanted goods and famines all resulted from this approach. All are, of course, detrimental to human ‘flourishing’.

Too much government intervention (e.g. to tax company income or the pay of top executives) prevents the free market from producing that aforementioned stability and prosperity. So for capitalism to flourish, the state must remove itself from all economic activity except, in the words of Milton Friedman (a famous modern economic theorist who supported free market capitalism), for ‘the military, the courts and some of the major highways’. Notably, education, health, and purveyors of energy like gas and electricity do not feature on his list.

Globalisation* is, for neoliberals, the best method to spread the free market ethos, and in terms of foreign policy is accompanied by – in theory at least – support for the establishment of liberal democracies in as many parts of the world as possible.

*Economic globalisation refers to the spread throughout the world of industrialized production and new technologies promoted by unrestricted free trade and the free movement of capital and labour (potential employees) across national boundaries.


Marx never wrote anything systematic or substantial on ethics, and even once commented ‘Communists preach no morality at all’. He tended to think of moral theories as simply reflecting the specific interests, demands and situations of different classes at different times. Moralities are class-bound, conflicting, dependent on economic interests, and therefore neither truly ethical nor truly human. Moral codes were therefore not to be treated as either true or false in themselves. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels state that, ‘The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’

Engels [another Marxist theorist] also wrote in a text called Anti-Duhring that, ‘…morality was always a class morality; it has….justified the domination of the ruling class.’

Marx was the most famous critic of capitalist theory. According to Marx, capitalism requires profit and profit requires exploitation – of employer and employees. They are both victims of a system that produces their mutual hostility. In other words, the masters are no more free than the slaves, and it is the system itself that is the problem. As long as man cannot be himself, as long as he is forced to play out a role cast for him by the system, he cannot become the subject of ethics. His moralities are not expressions of his humanity, but reactions to his presently inhuman condition.

Marx therefore proposed socialism as an alternative economic theory. This is an economic system whereby the means of production and distribution are owned by the workers and the state. The prices of goods and wages are fixed by central government instead of being regulated by the market. The whole economy is rationally planned, rather than being determined by the random outcome of private initiatives, and the ownership of private property is abolished as it can give rise to class antagonisms (the Biblical commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ for example, is only needed in societies based on private property).

Marx regarded the emergence of Communist societies as inevitable, as the proletariat, the ordinary wage earners, eventually rise up against the capitalist class or bourgeoisie to seize the means of production. With the abolition of private property, exploitation and class conflict, a new society would emerge.

Marx’s vision is a highly utopian one: a new morality would also arise under Communism and people would become spontaneously co-operative and dedicated to the common cause. Crime would slowly wither away and there would be no need for a police force. There would also be no need for moral rules and sanctions. Disputes, as Lenin once said, will be settled on the spot, among comrades. The individual and the collective would become one. Both in the work that they do and in others, people would find true freedom and satisfaction, just as artists find inspiration and satisfaction in producing and creating their own work, and in appreciating the work of other artists. In other words, it is only under Communism that human beings can truly flourish.

Of course, the assumption Marx makes here, that there exists a natural inclination to be spontaneously co-operative that is common to all human beings, is highly questionable.

Marx also seems to assume that all social conflict would end once class structures and private property were to disappear. This, again, is highly debatable, and one only needs to consider people’s sexual behaviour within the sphere of private morality to come up with an area where, say, lying, manipulation and extra-marital affairs might still be commonplace.

One last assumption that Marx makes is that capitalism is inherently exploitative. To an extent this may well be true, but perhaps a more regulated form of capitalism, one with checks and balances built into it, may not be. This might be put in place to ensure that large corporations are not allowed to operate sweatshops (see below for more on this), pollute the environment, get away with paying little or no corporation tax, or unduly influence the policies of democratically elected governments.

Such a form of regulated capitalism might also mean that basic amenities and industries, like public transport, health and energy, remain in public [governmental] ownership to ensure that effective services are delivered, even where and when there is no profit to be had. Finally, the financial markets may also need to be regulated to prevent future economic crashes as a result of what the political philosopher Ralph Dahrendorf once called ‘casino capitalism’.

Note that – rather like utilitarianism and Kantian ethics – capitalism and communism can be seen as products of the Enlightenment (see the blog entry on postmodernism for more on this). Both are essentially utopian projects that envisage the establishment of a single worldwide community, one in which an existing diversity of cultures would eventually be displaced by a new civilization based on rationality.


In the case of Hayek, an Austrian-British economist who became influential after World War 2, economic freedom was a profoundly political and moral force that helped to shape all other aspects of a free and open society, and he was a great believer in the power of Smith’s free-market as a self-regulating and knowledge generating engine to bring about this type of society.

A particular concern of Hayek is that a centralised government is coercive. It forces people to conform to its approach (e.g. by only making the products that it thinks are necessary and useful). So ultimately it curtails individual freedom (‘flourishing’ by another name) and eventually leads, Hayek thinks, to unlimited totalitarian government. His most famous book is called The Road to Serfdom. Serfdom is another word for slavery, and Hayek thought that socialist economies would end up treating us all as serfs. He is also famous for saying ‘The chief evil is unlimited government’.

Milton Friedman was greatly influenced by Hayek and helped to promote his ideas. In the 1950’s they were only supported by a minority of economists but by the 1990’s, neoliberalism had become the ruling economic orthodoxy. Friedman’s own contribution was to focus on keeping inflation low (rather than unemployment), and to insist that only a free-market system could ensure that the right number of goods would be available at the correct price, produced by workers whose wage levels were determined by the free market.

Apparently, in 1975, newly elected Conservative party leader Margaret Thatcher interrupted a presentation by exasperatedly banging one of Hayek’s books on a table and declaring ‘This is what we believe’.

Marxists have responded by arguing that neoliberalism is still exploitative, as all forms of capitalism are, but tries to hide this by dressing up its philosophy in the seductive guise of high-minded ideals like ‘freedom’ and ‘opportunity’ . This kind of message appeals to workers who then fall into the trap of accepting their own exploitation.

Contrastingly, Keynesian economics is regarded as the most viable alternative to free market capitalism. Committed to the market principle but opposed to the free market, John Maynard Keynes (1883 to 1946) was an earlier economist who was sceptical about the ability of the market to correct itself during an economic crisis. So he was more in favour of government intervention. For example, he favoured kick-starting an economy in crisis by increasing public spending. The unemployed could then be paid for their participation in, say, government financed building projects, and in turn would spend their wages, which would increase demand and help to restore a healthier economic cycle. Keynes was also in favour of the state ownership of crucial national enterprises like railroads or energy companies, as it was not always possible to run these services at a profit eg. by providing a rail service or postal service to remote rural areas.

Historically, Keynesian economics became popular because Keynes’s policies helped to bring about an end to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Prior to that, Adam Smith’s free market philosophy had been in the ascendant, until (as in 2008) investors became overconfident and – in the absence of careful monitoring – overreached themselves, resulting in the great economic crash of that decade. Keynesian economics remained popular until the 1970’s when his policies could not satisfactorily address a problem of stagflation (when high rates of inflation and unemployment occur simultaneously) in MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries). This was the point at which the ideas of Smith, combined with the theories of Hayek and Friedman (who were also good at promoting them), underwent a major revival.

This is a rather amusing rap version of the points at issue between Keynes and Hayek

A problem with taking a Keynesian approach to any modern domestic economic crisis is that economies these days are much more open, so filling any local economy with newly printed money to stimulate demand may only have a limited effect, as much of that money may then simply flow abroad.


Is free-market capitalism compatible with Christian ethics? First of all, a supporter of Situation Ethics, or a Christian who regards Jesus’s emphasis on agape (selfless concern for others) to be of paramount importance in terms of love of neighbour, would be concerned that Smith makes no attempt to temper the selfishness of the typical economic actor. So he seems to be encouraging the type of egoism that both Jesus (and Joseph Fletcher) were opposed to.

However, the Christian theologian D. Stephen Long has drawn attention to the fact that the very title of Smith’s work (The Wealth of Nations) is actually a Biblical phrase taken from Isaiah 60 and 61, so its significance would surely not have been lost on its presumably more Biblically literate original readers. Additionally, Paul Oslington has suggested that Smith’s Calvinist upbringing may have influenced his views, to the extent that although human beings are inherently selfish as a result of the Fall of man, which produced a tendency to sin in them, God himself supplies the ‘invisible hand’ which ensures that collective harmony and prosperity nevertheless result from their decisions. This in turn suggests that Smith saw his system as entirely compatible with his Christian faith.

More recently, Church leaders such as Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury have been critical of the inequalities and deprivations that seem have resulted in many countries where the modern free-market capitalistic formula of deregulation of the economy, liberalisation (of trade and industry), and the privatisation of state owned enterprises (the well-known D-L-P formula) have all taken place. Both in MEDC’s (More Economically Developed Countries) and LEDCs (Less Economically Developed Countries), a widening gap seems to have opened up between a rich elite and the poor (e.g. as represented by the famous Russian oligarchs). In their recent books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have found that along with this gap, the more unequal a society is, the more people suffer from a variety of physical and mental health problems, such as obesity and depression. Additionally, drug abuse tends to be rife, rates of imprisonment and teenage pregnancies are higher, social mobility is less possible (making it harder for people to better their lot in life), trust between citizens is lower, and violence is more endemic. In other words, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries like the US and UK. Deregulated markets also tend to put a strain on family life, as both parents typically have to work long hours. It is therefore unsurprising that – according to the philosopher John Gray – by 1991 Britain had the highest divorce rate of any EU country, one that was only comparable to that of the United States. Given that America and Britain both serve as exemplars of the free market philosophy, in the light of Wilkinson and Pickett’s research, it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that this philosophy is hardly conducive to ‘flourishing’.

Overall, it is therefore also fair to say that these two church leaders are expressing valid concerns about what happens when markets are unregulated in the manner suggested by Smith and advocates of neoliberalism.

Interestingly, there has been traditionally been strong support for socialism from within Christianity. The theologian D. Stephen Long, for example, has emphasised the role that koinonia or ‘things held in common’ had within the early Christian community, arguing that ‘socialism’ was Christian before it was ‘made scientific and fundamentally distorted by Marx and Engels.’ Here Long is referring to the fact that Jesus and his disciples seem to have lived communally, sharing a common purse and giving what they had to the poor. Furthermore, according to the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, we are to be judged on our concern for others, with the ‘sheep’ enjoying the reward of eternal life because they gave food and drink to the hungry and thirsty.

Additionally, Ambrose, a fourth-century Archbishop of Milan wrote that when you give to the poor, ‘You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself.’ This reflection subsequently became part of the Christian tradition, with Aquinas going so far as to say that, ‘it is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in the case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.’

Commenting on these teachings in his book The Most Good You Can Do, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer states the following:

‘Surprisingly to some, the Roman Catholic Church has never repudiated this radical view and has even reiterated it on several occasions. Pope Paul VI quoted the passage in which Ambrose that what you give to the poor is already really theirs and added, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio, “We must repeat once more that the superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations. The rule which up to now held good for the benefit of those nearest to us, must today be applied to all the needy of this world.” On the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope John Paul II said it again, in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and Pope Francis has indicated his support for this doctrine too.’

Also worthy of mention is Pope Francis’s condemnation of ‘the idolatry of money’ (a reference to the second commandment – ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath’). Commenting on rising inequality in many societies – the gap that exists between the rich and the poor – he has also criticised the policy followed by many governments of not interfering with the way that businesses operate. This led the late Rush Limbaugh, at the time one of America’s most famous radio talk-show hosts, to accuse the Pope of ‘pure Marxism.’

In the following clip from his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, filmmaker Michael Moore is also critical of the excesses of capitalism, and talks about how his Catholic teachers inspired him to take a stand against those excesses.

Moving on, the Liberation Theology movement that has been popular in South American countries is inspired by Jesus’s teaching in Luke to ‘set free the oppressed’. Accordingly, supporters of this movement have regarded themselves as having a Christian duty to oppose governments that exploit their citizens, to the extent of torturing and murdering them. And so if El Salvador in the late 70’s and 80’s can be seen as an example of capitalistic excess (as it was a country with a military dictatorship that supported a wealthy elite of coffee plantation owners while the native Indian population were mired in poverty), then it seems as if Christian religious ethics, which has traditionally concerned itself with the poor and downtrodden, must be said to have more in common with socialist thinking, especially when one factors in Biblical injunctions against usury (lending money at interest) and Jesus’s insistence that one cannot love God and money and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

As was pointed out in a previous blog entry on equality, towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King also came to think of capitalism in this way. According to a study by James Cone, in spite of the success of the civil rights movement in ending racial segregation in the south, King eventually came to realize that – as Malcolm X had pointed out – there was little point in black Americans being able to eat at the same lunch counters as whites if they were unable to afford the meal. As Cone narrates:

‘Martin reflected upon socialism even more seriously when he realized that the black poor (as well as the white poor, a reality that surprised him) were getting poorer and the white rich richer, despite the passage of the much celebrated Civil Rights Act and President Johnson’s War on Poverty. He became explicit about the need for economic equality, an “Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” which would guarantee a job or an annual income for all Americans…But because he was still deeply aware of the harm that a “communist smear” could do to the civil rights movement, he was very cautious about the dangers of speaking positively of “democratic socialism.” “Now this means that we’re treading…in very difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with the economic system of our nation,” he said in a speech to his staff. “It means that something is wrong with capitalism.” During staff retreats, he often requested that tape recorders be switched off, so he could express his views frankly and honestly about the need for a complete, revolutionary change in the American political economy, replacing capitalism with some form of socialism. What we have had in America is “socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor,” Martin said often.’

What the above example perhaps demonstrates is that issues to do with discrimination cannot be separated from that of economic inequality. If the latter problem is not addressed, progress in the former is going to be more negligible.

Further criticisms of neoliberalism, this time ventured from a Buddhist perspective, are to be found in Matthieu Ricard’s mammoth 850 page multidisciplinary study of altruism.

Ricard is a rather unique character. His father was Jean Francois Revel, a former philosophy professor, journalist and enthusiastic proponent of free-market economics. At one point Ricard seemed destined for a career in cellular genetics but instead, in 1972, ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and since then has spent much of his time in the Himalayas. But this has not turned him into a benign but unworldly out-of-touch recluse. Ricard’s background in both Eastern and Western Philosophy positions him more than adequately to survey what is essentially ethical territory, and his reading has been interdisciplinary and thorough, taking in the most relevant up-to-date scholarship across a broad spectrum of academia. So what does he have to say?

First of all, Ricard takes issue with an assumption found in a lot of Western philosophical writing (his examples include Hobbes, Adam Smith and Ayn Rand) that human beings are selfishly and unalterably egocentric. This is as assumption that he shows to be false by drawing attention to the abundant, carefully calibrated and mutually reinforcing studies in the field of psychology which demonstrate our ability to empathise and act (from a surprisingly young age) in what seems to be a purely altruistic and spontaneously compassionate manner, uncontaminated by mercenary motivations. Research on the animal kingdom further indicates that such behaviour is widespread there too, which in turn suggests, perhaps counter-intuitively, that these dispositions are integral to our evolutionary heritage. Economic policy-making based on the model of homo economicus – the view that humans are narrowly individualistic, rational but self-interested creatures – therefore becomes suspect in the light of this research.

Ricard goes on to insist that our capacity to act in a benevolent manner (where the motive is simply to promote the well-being of others) can be built on and further cultivated both inwardly and outwardly. Specifically, he refers to surveys of neuronal plasticity affirming that the brain can be structurally modified through meditation practices specifically designed to spontaneously arouse and reinforce our potential for compassion. Interestingly, Ricard has been called ‘the happiest man alive’. This is because, as an advanced meditator, scans of his own brain have shown increased activity in the regions associated with what states of sublime contentment.

Additionally, Ricard highlights research indicating the possibility of a transformation brought about through environmental changes that might helpfully stimulate the expression of some genes while repressing others. Put more simply, and with reference to just one example (in fact Ricard’s book contains lots of suggestions to make the world a better place in this respect), regulation designed to rein in and curtail the excesses of neoliberalism, together with a drive to persuade the more privileged of the need to do something to reduce economic inequality, might, he believes, prevent genes associated with anxiety and other negative mental states from becoming active.

Of course, for Ricard, meditation practices that are based on the cultivation of compassion (karuna in Mahayana or ‘Greater Vehicle’ Buddhism) would be the method by which it is possible to become more empathic and altruistic. But what he might have overlooked is the fact that these practices have already been co-opted by neoliberalism as a means of helping people to cope with the instabilities and insecurities, the remorseless stresses, that inevitably accompany this form of late period capitalism, so that they do not then start to question the system itself. Mindfulness (or ‘McMindfulness’ as it has been dubbed) is now big business. Corporate leaders and employees at all levels are encouraged to adopt mindfulness practices (that can specifically include extending compassion and lovingkindness to oneself, one’s colleagues and customers) in staff training courses. And for school pupils subjected to a constant regime of testing, the method is also touted (and often introduced by inexperienced teachers with little formal training, or even via an iPhone App) as a way to address the mental health issues that are becoming increasingly prevalent among teenagers. But perhaps these contemplative techniques do nothing more than permit neoliberalism to perpetuate itself, as THIS article explains.


The failings of socialist ‘utopias’ are already well-known. For example, in the former Soviet Union, where central planning replaced markets, millions of lives were lost through totalitarian terror, endemic corruption, and environmental degradation. Meanwhile, Mao Zedong’s government policies caused an even greater number of deaths, up to 30 million of China’s own citizens, and the Communist Khmer Rouge regime is estimated to have killed off 1.7 million citizens of its own nation in Cambodia, thus confirming Hayek’s worst fears.

As a consequence, capitalism is now frequently presented as the only viable economic system, given that Marxism has lost so much credibility in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dilution of Communism in China. According to the late Mark Fisher (an author and blogger known as K-Punk who also taught Philosophy and Religious Studies in a sixth form college), the quotation “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” falsely attributed to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek , encompasses the present state of affairs.

In his brilliant global history of ethics The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik also writes in a similar vein:

‘By 2008…the possibility of change, at least in the way that Marx would have understood it had become negligibly small. The depth of the economic crisis led to talk of ‘a crisis of capitalism’. And yet there was no political challenge to capitalism. Worker’s organisations had been destroyed, the left had imploded, as had the idea that there could be an alternative to the market system. The resurrection of Marx challenged none of this. Those who turn to Marx these days look upon him not as a prophet of capitalism’s demise but as a poet of its moral corruption.’

But is capitalism in its neoliberal form faring any better? Below it will be shown to be exploitative in the case sweatshop employees in China, just as it has of the poor in the USA and Latin America, supportive of sympathetic autocratic regimes (El Salvador, see also Chile and the notorious ‘Chicago Boys‘), responsible for exacerbating economic inequality in many countries, and is, as Ricard has shown, based on a false and damaging view of human nature.

Interestingly, in drawing attention to the ‘pernicious effects that inequality has on societies‘, Wilkinson and Pickett (see above) also highlight the link that exists between excessive consumerism and inequality. In particular, they challenge the perceived view that consumerism is driven purely by forces of material self-interest and acquisitiveness, and instead show that it is more an expression of status anxiety. In a quest to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’, those who are less well-off will thus save less and borrow more, max out on credit cards and fall into debt, as well as work longer hours, all so as to be able to emulate others and not feel as if they are getting left behind. In other words, more unequal societies summon up an almost neurotic urge to shop and consume in their citizenry. The products that are purchased also tend to be selected for their prestige value and because they look good to others, rather than for their usefulness.

In turn, the constant and sustained economic growth and competition that all this demands is, Wilkinson and Pickett emphasise, very damaging to the biosphere, as it then becomes increasingly difficult to keep economic activity within sustainable levels. Contrastingly, more equal societies engender a wider sense of social responsibility in their populations, so that a higher proportion of waste gets recycled, and prominent business leaders are more strongly inclined to encourage their governments to comply with international environmental agreements. Additionally, health, happiness, friendship and community life are foregrounded and valued in societies less devoted to a cult of consumption. Wilkinson and Pickett’s research therefore adds further weight to the view that, at the very least, the more extreme neoliberal version of capitalism creates a culture hallmarked by an excess of consumption, one that nevertheless – when measured according to utilitarian terms of reference – does not result in greater collective happiness and flourishing.

Staying with the issue of capitalism, consumerism and flourishing, in an influential article and book, the political philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that free-market capitalist values have been allowed to invade too many areas of public life that they should be excluded from. One of many examples he gives is of pupils in US schools being forced to watch a TV news show for 12 minutes a day which includes two minutes of commercials featuring products such as Pepsi and Snickers. In return the school is provided with free televisions, video equipment and satellite links. Another is of school grade cards being issued in jackets bearing a promotion for McDonalds including a cartoon of Ronald McDonald. According to Sandel, this is wrong because the purpose of public schools is to inspire students to reflect critically on their desires and to restrain rather than indulge them, to cultivate the virtues of citizenship rather than consumerism. In other words, free market capitalism is corruptive of the shared values of a community. It is also coercive (cash strapped schools are forced to accept corporate sponsorship because state funding is inadequate). So if people and organisations are forced to enter the marketplace then we can no longer talk about a market being free.

John Gray has also been critical of how, in a Kantian sense, capitalism and consumerism work together to erode our perceptions of those we interact with most intimately, so that cease to see them as ‘ends in themselves’: ‘In a culture in which choice is the only undisputed value and wants are held to be insatiable, what is the difference between initiating a divorce and trading in a used car? The logic of the free market… is that all relationships become consumer goods.’

A further issue worth exploring is whether neoliberal policies have benefited LEDCs. Here, once again, the answer is ‘no’. For instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg (at the time of writing the new UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) once tweeted that ‘free trade is always the key to prosperity’ in connection with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Unfortunately, this claim is false. For poorer countries (Peru, Vietnam in this instance), free trade can be damaging. As the economist Ha Joon Chang has noted, when poor countries open their borders to free trade, infant industries within them often find themselves unable to compete with better established TNCs (Trans-National Corporations), and so end up going out of business. Contrastingly, economies that resist implementing free trade in a wholesale manner (for example, by not privatising state enterprises that deliver essential services, or keeping import tariffs to protect their infant industries) often perform better economically.

“The age of globalisation will be remembered as another turn in the history of human servitude.”

More generally, in his book False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, John Gray looks in detail at four countries that have experimented with neoliberal policies: the USA, UK, New Zealand and Mexico. In each instance, the imposition of these policies demonstrably increased economic inequality (thus confirming Wilkinson and Pickett’s research), and reduced social mobility and cohesion. For example, according to the Rowntree Report on Income and Wealth, inequality in the UK increased dramatically and quickly between 1977 and 1990, a period during which the poorest income groups ceased to benefit from economic growth, and there was a threefold increase in the proportion of the population earning less than half of the national income. However, by 1984-85, the richest 20% of earners enjoyed a 43% after tax share of that income, the highest since the end of the World War 2. Meanwhile, in New Zealand a previously non-existent underclass was created following the introduction of neoliberal policies, while in Mexico the size of the middle classes was substantially reduced, and the very poorest were driven into a state of even more abject poverty.

But what of the USA, a country that has both fully embraced and preached the free market philosophy? Gray takes the view that ‘it has gone far towards establishing itself as the unofficial American civil religion’ but that the results have been to ‘bring about levels of economic inequality unknown since the 1930’s* and far in excess of those found in any other advanced industrial society today, [and] has encompassed an experiment in mass incarceration**, accompanied by an elite retreat into walled proprietary communities***’ that has left the country deeply divided socioeconomically. He then goes on to add that, ‘in late twentieth-century America, the free market has become the engine of a perverse modernity. The prophet of today’s America is not Jefferson or Madison. Still less is it Burke. It is Jeremy Bentham, the nineteenth-century British enlightenment thinker who dreamed of a hyper-modern society that had been reconstructed on the model of an ideal prison.

*Gray notes that although productivity had risen over the two decades up to 1998 – the date of the publication of the first edition of False Dawn – the incomes of the majority (eight out of ten) had actually fallen.

** Gray’s figures are not recent but he notes that by the start of 1997, around one in fifty adult American males was in prison, while about one in twenty was on parole or probation, a rate that is ten times that of European countries.

*** False Dawn was first published in 1998. Back then, Gray estimates that some 28 million Americans – over 10 per cent of the population – were living in privately guarded buildings or housing developments.

Another intriguing but also disturbing effect of neoliberalism is its tendency to allow characters with narcissistic and psychopathic personality profiles to ascend to positions of prominence in business (a tendency that is, perhaps, also mirrored in politics, as revealed in the presentation by Ian Hughes that features in THIS previous blog entry). According to Clive Boddy (in his book Corporate Psychopaths), as deregulation in the UK, US and elsewhere has loosened restraints, characters with this kind of profile have increasingly been unleashed in the world of business. Boddy in fact claims that genuine psychopaths, who typically lack any kind of conscience or ability to empathise with others, have risen to senior positions within modern financial corporations, from where they have then been able to influence the moral climate of the whole organisation and wield considerable power. In a 2011 interview with the journalist Brian Basham, he has also gone as far as asserting that they ‘largely caused the [banking] crisis’ in 2008.

Such claims may seem a little outlandish, until one considers a study at the University of Surrey which found that the personality traits of thirty-nine senior managers matched, and even exceeded, the narcissistic, dictatorial and manipulative tendencies typically exhibited by psychiatric patients and psychopaths, all concealed behind a veneer of superficial charm and charisma. Jeff Skilling, the infamous former CEO of the multinational Enron, is arguably someone who might possibly fit this description. A self-declared admirer of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Herbert Spencer’s phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, Skilling remains notorious for having implemented a ‘Rank and Yank’ appraisal system involving the constant monitoring of employees and the sacking and public humiliation of up to one-fifth of those with the lowest production figures every year. It is also surely not without significance that in the article which features the interview with Boddy, it is revealed that one major investment bank was actively seeking to appoint potential employees with a psychopathic profile to senior roles.

Sleaford Mods’ depiction of the collapsed department store chain BHS and its former owner Sir Philip Green as a metaphor for the decline of the UK as a whole is also perhaps illustrative of the failings of modern capitalism.

John Rawls (1921 – 2002)

A Theory of Justice : John Rawls : 9780674000780

Rawls is renowned for an influential thought experiment that he described in the above publication. He asks us to imagine that we are to become a member of a new society but presently know nothing about what part we will play in it. For example, we don’t know if we will be rich, poor, able-bodied, good looking, male, female, intelligent, unintelligent, talented or unskilled, and we won’t know which ethnic group we will belong to or what our sexual proclivities might be. Rawls thought that in our currently prior state (which he called the Original Position), where we have to collectively decide in advance from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ on the rules that will govern our new world, that we would be rationally attracted to choosing ones that could improve our situation if we ended up disadvantaged in some way. In other words, we would opt those that would produce a relatively egalitarian society.

Specifically, he thought that it would be rational to accept two fundamental principles: those of Freedom and Equality. The first principle is one that would maximise a range of freedoms for all citizens, such as being able to vote for who governs you and extensive freedom of expression, while the second, which is also called the Difference Principle, would ensure more equal levels of wealth and opportunity. For example, although some people might be paid very high salaries, this would only be allowed if lower paid workers somehow received more money because of this arrangement, more than they would if the highest paid citizens were paid less. Rawls also thought that those who are endowed with natural talents, such as intelligence or sporting ability, were not necessarily entitled to more money, as being blessed in this way is mainly due to luck and good genes.

Overall, Rawls’ theory implies that the fairest and most just society might not be one based on free market capitalist principles because of the excessive economic inequalities that the free market currently permits.


It may seem odd to select the education system itself as an example. But then, neoliberalism is, according to Guardian journalist George Monbiot, an ideology that operates covertly, under the radar so to speak. This is revealed by the fact that while almost everyone knows what Marxism is, ‘mention neoliberalism in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it.‘ So it is no surprise that its influence on schools has gone undetected.

Apologies to photographer Diane Arbus and film director Stanley Kubrick for the above

In this particular instance, neoliberal mission creep can be traced back to the late 1980’s. In her A Memoir: People and Places, Mary Warnock writes as follows:

The consequence of the 1988 Education Act in so far as it was concerned with school education, was to introduce the idea of competition between schools, and choice for parents. The league tables showing the academic achievements of schools alongside one another were supposed to enable parents to choose the best schools. The free market would operate. Schools which performed badly would not be chosen by parents, and so would ultimately wither away. This was the original idea. (no one gave thought, apparently, to what would happen to children who were pupils at these bad schools while they were in the process of withering away).’ [Warnock herself was worried about the impact on the education of children with special needs]. 

‘This part of the 1988 Act was derived largely…from a personal vendetta of Margaret Thatcher’s, this time against the teaching profession. Teachers could be judged, she thought, by the academic results of their pupils; the operation of the free market would succeed in the end in eliminating those schools where the teachers were bad; or market competition would cause those schools to get rid of their bad teachers and employ good ones, so that they would become good schools. This was the theory, enthusiastically propounded by Kenneth Baker, and close to Margaret Thatcher’s own heart.’ 

Later in the chapter and still on the subject of the 1988 Great Educational Reform Bill, and the establishment of the University Funding Council, Warnock notes that the latter new body was dominated by representatives from the business world who were largely in thrall to the view that the goal of higher education should be to satisfy the needs of commerce and industry. The preceding White Paper had made it clear that it was up to Whitehall and not students to decide which subjects were worthy of study: ‘The Government considers student demand…to be an insufficient basis for the planning of higher education. A major determinant must be…the demands for highly qualified manpower.’ In a nutshell, the purpose of universities should primarily be to serve ‘the world of business’.

Warnock goes on to conclude that ‘the condition to which higher education was reduced was, I think, one of the worst effects of Thatcherism…the concept of learning, the respect for higher education for its own sake, as something intrinsically worth having, an essential part of any civilised society, had been thrown out; and this largely because of her own detestation of academics.’

NOTE: for a much fuller exploration of the impact of neoliberal policy on higher education both here and in other parts of the world, see THIS PREVIOUS BLOG ENTRY (a review of Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities).

Fast-forward to 2009 and the publication of Mark Fisher’s influential Capitalist Realism : Is There No Alternative? The title of the book is based on “the widespread sense [following the collapse of the Soviet Union] that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” The effect of this has been to subvert discussions from those in which capitalism is considered as just one of many potential ways of operating an economy, to one in which political considerations operate solely within the confines of the capitalist system. 

Fisher regards the bank bailouts following the 2008 economic crisis as an example of capitalist realism in action, reasoning that they occurred largely because the idea of allowing the banking system to fail was unimaginable to both politicians and the general population. Due to the banks intrinsic value to the capitalist system, the influence of capitalist realism meant that such a failure was never considered an option. As a consequence, Fisher observes, the neoliberal system survived and capitalist realism was further validated. According to Fisher, capitalist realism-type thinking can and should be challenged on the basis that it is not realistic at all.

Firstly, he points out that it ignores the possibility of a future environmental catastrophe because it is based on the decidedly unrealistic view that the earth’s resources are infinite, that capitalism’s need for constantly expanding markets will not eventually use them up, and that environmental problems simply require ‘market solutions.’ The effect is to treat the ecosystem as if it is a business providing services to humanity. Additionally, Fisher notes that a correlation has been found between rising rates of mental distress and illness and neoliberal economics as practised in the UK, USA and Australia. For example, in Britain, depression is now, Fisher claims, the condition that is most treated by the NHS. He argues that this is due to the instability of the modern working environment, in which there is no longer any long term job security.

The pressures of constant evaluations that employees (and school pupils!) are repeatedly subjected to additionally results in an unprecedented level of bureaucracy and excessive paperwork , which mainly involves employees having to prove that they are doing their jobs properly.  Fisher sometimes refers to this process as ‘Market Stalinism’, as it is more readily associated with planned economies like the ones favoured by Marx, which are typically criticised for being excessively bureaucratic. 

In state sector teaching, rigidly formatted and excessively detailed lesson planning is one manifestation of this bureaucracy at work and is part of the machinery of self-surveillance (as the documentation evidences the efficacy of the teaching). However, given that teachers these days are held to account for pupil’s public examination performances, the teaching itself tends to be geared passing the examinations. Narrowly focused ‘exam drills’ replace a wider engagement with subjects.

A further point (not mentioned by Fisher), is that the logic of the free-market has also been applied to school budgets. A noted though not widely reported effect of this has been that experienced but more expensive older teachers have been eased out of their jobs under the guise of a process known as ‘capability’, whereby the senior management of schools observe the teacher, judge the lesson to have been inadequate, and instigate a process that ends with the teacher leaving or resigning in many instances. While in some cases the teacher’s competence may have rightly been called into question, the consensus of the now defunct Times Educational Supplement forum (a formerly very active online community of teachers) was that this procedure was being utilized by schools as a pretext to save money.

Recruitment policies were also alleged to have been adjusted. Given that younger teachers cost less to hire than older ones, and are generally perceived to be more compliant and prepared to work unreasonably long hours, they tend to be the ones appointed at interview.

Meanwhile, when it comes to pupils, Fisher states that ‘it is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being classified as a sickness.’ One reason for this is, of course, because teaching to the test requires pupils to be constantly evaluated. Additionally, families are buckling under the pressure of a neoliberalism that requires both parents to work (and frequently to work long hours as neoliberalism promotes a 24/7 working culture). A consequence of this is that teachers are now increasingly required to act almost as surrogate parents in their role as profferers of pastoral and emotional support.

Fisher goes on to conclude, like Wilkinson and Pickett, that, ‘The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional.’

Finally, and moving on to 2022, the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak and Elizabeth Truss, both made comments that are relevant to this case study during their respective campaigns. As has previously been mentioned, what they said has already been evaluated in the review of Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, an assessment that – along with the points made above – suggest that largely unregulated capitalism is having a profoundly damaging effect on human flourishing in the sphere of education.


First of all, this issue needs to be framed within the context of the limits of corporate social responsibility, and specifically what might be seen as the competing pressures exerted by shareholders and stakeholders on how large, often multinational businesses, conduct themselves. So a lengthy preamble will be required, one which describes the relevant moral landscape and the responses that might be made to it by subscribers to the relevant normative ethical theories, before moving on to noting how, in formulating its approach to the energy crisis, the Conservative government has, in true neoliberal fashion, largely overridden stakeholder concerns.

Shareholders versus Stakeholders Part One: Milton Friedman

A shareholder is a person (or institution) who, in return for investing money in a company, legally owns a portion of it in the form of shares. In return for this they may receive a dividend, an annual payment made from any profits the company makes.

A stakeholder is anyone who is affected by the activities of a company, for example, employees, suppliers, customers, or the local community (who may suffer any adverse environmental effects of the company’s actions).

The Milton Friedman choir explain why corporations are ‘amoral’ and should devote themselves exclusively to making profits (which Friedman fails to notice is itself a moral decision, just as it is a moral decision to label corporations as ‘amoral’ in the first place) and why free market principles should be applied to schools, a view not shared by Mary Warnock and Michael Sandel.

Milton Friedman has famously and controversially argued that – when deciding which of these two constituencies to favour – the sole responsibility of a corporation (or the corporate executives running it) is to make profits for its shareholders. He considers that when a company or corporation gives to charity this means that it may not be fulfilling its responsibility to its shareholders to maximise profit. More generally, if corporate executives cut into profits to exercise their social responsibilities that they are not legally required to fulfil (examples might be to reduce any pollution that a company causes through its activities beyond what the law requires, or to deliberately hire staff from an ethnic minority according to the principle of affirmative action), this is like taxing the shareholders to redistribute their wealth, something which is the business of government and not the company itself. He also argues that a corporation is not a person and that it cannot therefore be held morally responsible for its actions in the way that individuals can. However, he does believe that decision makers within the company are accountable for their decisions and that they should not behave in a fraudulent or illegal manner.

This view has been criticised by R. Edward Freeman on the grounds that big corporations often contribute to political parties, who if they win elections might return the favour by not making laws about the environment and the rights of employees that are strict enough to ensure that stakeholders are legally protected from the worst effects of business activity, which might also include price gouging (overcharging for essential goods and services – a criticism that has been made of UK energy suppliers), and price fixing (where participants on the same side in a market agree to buy or sell a product or service at more or less the same price).

The philosopher Noam Chomsky has also been critical of the highly unethical behaviour of large transnational corporations (TNC’s) who put profits over and above any sense of responsibility to their own employees, their consumers, or the environment. Chomsky maintains that corporations are obliged to act in ways that we would regard as pathological (i.e. dangerous and psychopathic) if that behaviour was exhibited by a human being. Chomsky’s comments are based on the research of psychologist Robert Hare. According to Hare, large corporations are singularly self-interested, irresponsible, manipulative, lacking in empathy, have no conscience, experience no guilt about their actions, and will lie readily and relate to others in a superficial manner. For example, they set out to destroy their competitors and are not especially concerned about what happens to the general public or the environment as long as people are buying their product. So in the documentary movie The Corporation, Chomsky can be seen to disagree with Friedman’s view that corporations are not persons and should not be treated as if they are (with all the moral responsibilities that being a person entails). For Chomsky, multinational corporations are dangerously amoral, and the public need protecting from them in the same way that they might need protecting from a dangerous psychopath.

Another problem with Friedman’s business philosophy is revealed when we look more closely at what happens when it is actually enacted, something which is possible in the case of the US and UK.

Since the 1980’s, when neoliberal policy-making that dovetails with Friedman’s thinking has been influential in both countries, companies have been put under increasing pressure to deliver high short-term profits (otherwise they may place themselves at risk of a hostile takeover from a Gordon Gekko-type character). Gekko is the protagonist in the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street who famously declared that ‘Greed is good’.

The easiest way for the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of a company to enable short-term profits to be made is simply to cut costs, something that  can be achieved by reducing the workforce through redundancies, freezing salaries, lowering overheads (like paying for employee pensions, cutting investment in Research & Development, and selling off less profitable arms of the business. This ‘slash and burn’ approach is faithfully depicted in Stone’s movie.

So what has been happening is that CEO’s have been paid astronomical salaries to achieve these short-term profits (in a practice known as ‘shareholder value maximisation’) even at the cost of product quality and worker morale.  This practice has left very few resources with which the company can invest in things like new machines, research and development, and staff training. And by the time the company gets into trouble, the CEOs who enacted this policy will often have moved on. Given what has already been noted about corporate psychopathy at the managerial level, these business practices could be examples of psychopathy in action.

To convey an impression of how serious this problem is, according to the economist Ha Joon Chang, in the UK, the average period of shareholding, which had already fallen from 5 years in the mid-1960’s to two years in the 1980’s, plummeted to about 7.5 months by the end of 2007. Additionally, Chang notes that between the 1950’s and 1970’s (when Keynesian economic policies were in the ascendant) about 35-45% of corporate profits were given to shareholders in the form of dividends. But between 2001 and 2010, the largest US companies handed over 94% of their profits, while the top UK companies gave away 89% of theirs.

Followers of the main teleological and deontological ethical theories might also criticise the view that the only moral responsibility a corporation has is to its shareholders. For example, a follower of Kantian Ethics may argue that stakeholders should be treated not as a means to an end (profit) but as ends in themselves by corporate executives, a point which particularly applies to employees of a company, as everyone who works in one would be considered to be part of a ‘kingdom of ends, a community of rational, autonomous beings who deserve equal treatment simply because they are rational and autonomous. Meanwhile, from a Benthamite perspective, his hedonic calculus includes remoteness, extent, duration and fecundity. Quite obviously, actions taken to increase profits that adversely impact employees as stakeholders would not be regarded as morally justifiable in terms of extent (who is affected by a moral decision). The factor of remoteness (how far off in time the pleasure is) also comes into play when the greater long-term interests of a company are damaged by the pursuit of short-term goals. If, in the longer term, the company becomes insolvent or is reduced to a shadow of its former self, then any ‘pleasures’ experienced through the achievement of those aforementioned goals are likely to be short-lived (duration), and are therefore unlikely to generate further pleasures (fecundity).


Another issue that can arise in relation to business practice and shareholder/stakeholder interests is that of ‘whistle-blowing’. This happens when an employee within a company discovers an illegal or harmful practice that the company is engaging in and makes the news public. A famous example is Karen Silkwood, a US plutonium plant worker who in the early 1970’s exposed lax health and safety practices at her organization and who subsequently died in a car crash, prompting persistent rumours that she was murdered.

Under health and safety law in the UK, according to the government’s Health and Safety Executive website , ’employers are responsible for managing health and safety risks in their businesses.It is an employer’s duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their work activities. Employers must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this. This means making sure that workers and others are protected from any risks arising from work activities.‘ An example of when this duty is not observed might arise if, for example, noise-cancelling headgear is not issued to employees undertaking roadworks, who would therefore run the risk of damaging their hearing or developing tinnitus. HSE guidance in such circumstances is listed HERE. Obviously, as far as the OCR syllabus is concerned, all this has a bearing on ‘the contract between employee and employer.’ Again, according to the government’s website, ‘If workers think their employer is exposing them to risks or is not carrying out their legal duties with regards to health and safety, and if this has been pointed out to them but no satisfactory response has been received, workers can report this to HSE.’

From the perspective of rule utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle is of relevance. With respect to this Principle, people should be at liberty to live their lives in however manner they wish (and even engage in acts of self-harm under certain circumstances) provided that others are not physically harmed by whatever they get up to. So it might also be appealed to when corporate activity harms a wider stakeholder community. On the other hand, in revealing activity of this kind, whistle-blowers run the risk of losing their job, and may also diminish their prospects of securing future employment as a result of having acquired for themselves a reputation as a troublemaker.

Given the rule-governed duties and obligations that one might also have with regard to one’s nearest and dearest (e.g. look after your own family), rule utilitarianism in its strong format might therefore lead to a conflict of rules, so that no clear-cut decision can be made. Mill, however, advises that clashes of rules can be overcome through a direct appeal to the utility principle, in order to decide which rule takes priority. In this instance, given the greater number of stakeholders affected by illegal or harmful practices, a purely Benthamite assessment would suggest that the whistle should be blown, unless a greater number would be adversely affected, as might happen if the business was to, for example, close a sweatshop and dispense altogether with its workforce rather than improve conditions for them.

Alternatively, when it comes to Kantian ethics, the matter is arguably more clear-cut, as the love that is experienced for one’s family should be set aside in favour of the wider boundaries of ethical concern encompassed by the categorical imperative. For Kant, ethical actions should be performed with a ‘good will’. That is, they should be free of selfish motives. Family considerations are more limited in this respect, as encapsulated by the expression ‘blood is thicker than water’. Given Kant’s insistence that the boundaries of moral concern should be extended to all rational beings, as expressed in the second formulation of the categorical imperative, according to which such beings are to be regarded as ‘ends in themselves’, again this would entail that the whistle should be heard.

One interesting divergence in the application of Utilitarian and Kantian thinking to whistle-blowing may nevertheless arise when the blower is seeking to expose an issue to do with animal welfare. The maltreatment of animals in the food industry or with respect to medical research involving vivisection are two scenarios that may cause employees to consider bringing this to the attention of the wider public. Bentham was, of course, one of the first Western philosophers to deem the suffering of animals worthy of moral consideration. Many other philosophers, including Kant, thought that as animals were unable to reason or to speak, they had no moral status. But Bentham was aware that Nature had not only ‘placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure’ but animals as well. He was keenly aware that, like us, they were in possession of nervous systems and could feel pain. As he put it, ‘…the question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer? For Bentham, the answer to this last question was a definite ‘yes’.

Mill broadly agreed with Bentham:

Granted that any practice causes more pain to animals than it gives pleasure to man; is that practice moral or immoral? And if, exactly in proportion as human beings raise their heads out of the slough of selfishness, they do not with one voice answer “immoral,” let the morality of the principle of utility be for ever condemned.’ – “Whewell on Moral Philosophy”, in Collected Works, vol. X, pp. 185-187

Among contemporary utilitarians, Peter Singer is an impassioned advocate of animal welfare, and he labels those human beings who exhibit no moral regard for animals as ‘speciesists’, in doing so likening them to racist white slave owners. Singer is also at pains to cite evidence demonstrating that some animals are in possession of ‘personhood’, a level of self-awareness indicative of rationality. For example, in the third edition of his book Practical Ethics, Singer provides examples of chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans who have mastered sign language, as well as other examples of chimpanzee behaviour that involve the deployment of conceptual thought.

So a potential whistle-blower motivated by utilitarian considerations may very well end up acting on their concerns. But then so might a modern Kantian if, on the basis of Singer’s evidence they were to extend the boundaries of his ‘Kingdom of Ends’ to include animals, such as those mentioned by Singer, as well as African Grey Parrots, all of whom have exhibited communicative abilities that, in turn, are suggestive of an ability to reason. In summary, at least some animals deserve to be afforded the same moral status as stakeholders.

The picture quality isn’t great but this clip of Einstein the African Grey parrot is wonderfully entertaining

Moving on, two of Thomas Aquinas’s Primary Precepts in his Natural Law theory are to do with preserving life and living in a community. Companies who operate in a manner that disregards the health and safety of their employees, as sweatshops often do (see below), and that fail to recognise that they are part of a wider community, would be condemned according to these principles.

Both Kant and Aquinas would also consider a failure to address the problems created by negative externalities (external costs, created by the company but borne by someone else) to be immoral. One example of this was the decision of the Ford motor company not to rectify a design flaw in the fuel tank of its Pinto model because bosses calculated that it would be cheaper to pay compensation to the victims who would have died or been badly burned as a consequence of accidents that caused the tank to ignite. Clearly this decision violates the respect for life that is so central to both of these deontological theories.

For Utilitarians who are followers of Jeremy Bentham, actions which maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number in terms of their consequences are to be preferred, which makes it inevitable that the wider happiness of stakeholders (a category that would include animals in some instances) must be considered.  Similarly, someone who follows the philosophy of rule utilitarianism as formulated by John Stuart Mill, would be aware of his famous Harm Principle, and might therefore argue that while companies exist to maximise profits, they must not do so in a manner that might damage the health of or cause physical injury to stakeholders, for example by neglecting health and safety standards within their premises.

A possible compromise between the concerns of shareholders and stakeholders can potentially be found in the work of Roger Steare, a ‘corporate philosopher’ in the Aristotelian tradition of virtue ethics, who trains the management of companies to be more virtuous. He cites the empirical research carried out by Jim Collins at Stanford University, which indicates that when companies are led by managers who consistently exhibit the virtues of self discipline, courage and personal humility, the companies themselves tend to be more profitable and outperform their rivals.

Furthermore, not all companies regard the maximisation of profit as their main priority. For example, so-called ‘firms of endearment’ (examples include IKEA, Honda, Costco, Timberland) try to act with a measure of integrity in their corporate activity. They have outperformed the S&P 500 (a stock market index tracking the stock performance of 500 large companies listed on exchanges in the United States) by 14 times over a period of 15 years up to 2018. During the same period so-called ‘Good To Great’ Companies (a label that alludes to the title Collins’ bestselling and influential book – examples include Walgreens, Wells Fargo, Kimberley Clark, Abbott Laboratories) did so by 6 times. Within such companies, the management are actively encouraged to exhibit the virtues cited by Collins, and to give ethical consideration to stakeholders.

In doing so, it may be worth noting that one reason for their success is that they attract a better calibre of employee, namely, those who are talented but not necessarily only in it for the money (the philosopher Peter Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do describes many individuals embedded in senior positions in the corporate world, high-flyers who are altruistically rather than selfishly motivated).

Over in the UK, Julian Richer is a successful business owner who is keenly sensitive to stakeholder concerns. Others include Matthew Moulding, Bill Gates and Yvon Chouinard.

Is corporate social responsibility is nothing more than ‘hypocritical window-dressing’?

The fact that some companies are even prepared to employ a ‘corporate philosopher’ like Roger Steare suggests that profit-making is not incompatible with stakeholder-sensitive business ethics, and the benefits of this policy are palpably represented by the performance of the above ‘firms of endearment’, who may be cited as examples that serve to challenge the rather cynical view that companies are only motivated to convey a superficial impression that they are socially responsible.

On the other hand, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek goes much further than alleging that businesses are merely engaged in ‘hypocritical window-dressing’ , as he suggests that this kind of activity on the part of companies as a so-called ‘cure’ for the ills of capitalism only exacerbates and prolongs the illness, as capitalism is the illness.

The gist of Zizek’s argument is that by purchasing a certain product in the advanced knowledge that a proportion of the payment will contribute to a worthy cause, this can offset any feelings of guilt that a culture of consumerism might induce in those who want to feel that they are socially responsible citizens. In doing so, those of a Kantian persuasion are able to consume in the knowledge that they are fulfilling an ethical duty such as, for example, observing a maxim that requires someone to act in a manner that will benefit a fellow member of the ‘kingdom of ends’ in a poor country, Or in the case of a utilitarian, the purchase will contribute more fully to the overall happiness because a poorer person will benefit. In a similar fashion, the company selling the product can convince itself that it is meeting its wider ethical obligations. By way of illustration, Zizek mentions the footwear and accessory designer and retailer TOMS, who formerly operated a “One for One” giving strategy — that is, buy a pair of shoes and the brand gives a pair to a child in a developing or undeveloped country.

For Zizek, this is an example of ‘global capitalism with a human face’. And what this form of capitalism does is perpetuate the very problems – economic inequalities and environmental damage – that it is attempting to alleviate. For Zizek, a better aim would be to do away with capitalism altogether on order to create better societies where poverty becomes an impossibility. An example of how this could be achieved is described below – Kohei Saito’s Marxist inspired eco-socialism.

Going back to the original question, whether firms are genuine in their philanthropic activities therefore turns out to be neither here nor there for Zizek, as it is the capitalist system and the consumer society that results from it that is itself in need of a radical overhaul or perhaps replacing altogether.

Shareholders versus Stakeholders Part Two : the 2022 UK Energy Crisis

Moving on yet again, the current energy crisis, which has led to criticism of UK energy supplying companies continuing to maintain vast profits while foisting bills on their customers that are driving them into ‘fuel poverty’ is arguably a classic example of the shareholder versus stakeholder issue being played out in real time. And in this instance, it would seem that Prime Minister Elizabeth Truss is following a Milton Friedman-like trajectory. The fact that government policy and intervention (or lack of it) features in this instance should come as no surprise, as businesses often court influence over politicians and their parties and may donate to them. Politicians who leave office also often subsequently secure remunerative positions in prominent companies, who then benefit from the expertise that politician has acquired while they were in a ministerial post, as well as the connections they will continue to maintain with Westminster. Additionally, it may be not without significance that Truss herself was once employed by Shell as a management accountant.

Zarah Sultana is the Labour MP Coventry South

As Sultana states, Truss has publicly declared that she is “against a windfall tax”. During a debate in parliament she said: “I believe it is the wrong thing to be putting companies off investing in the United Kingdom just when we need to be growing the economy.” So energy companies will be allowed to keep their profits. Instead, domestic energy bills will be frozen at around £2,500 annually for the typical household. It is currently unknown exactly how long the support for energy consumers will last for, but analysts have estimated the total bill for the package could reach at least £100 billion. This package would be funded by increased government borrowing and so is effectively a loan paid for by the British taxpayer.

In response, Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer has questioned how Truss plans to raise money for her package, arguing the government should instead extend a windfall tax on gas and oil company profits to pay for the support, rather than heaping debt on taxpayers’ shoulders in years to come. Speaking at the first Prime Ministers Questions session since Ms Truss took office, the Labour leader told MPs that energy producers, “will make £170bn in excess profits over the next two years”. He added, “Is she really telling us that she is going to leave these vast excess profits on the table and make working people foot the bill for decades to come?”

As for Truss’s claim that a windfall tax may deter companies from investing in the UK, this has not prevented Germany from imposing a tax of this kind on its own energy companies.

Overall, it would therefore seem that, once again, the ethics of a neoliberal approach to the handling of an important socioeconomic issue are questionable, especially when the major normative ethical theories would seem to line up against the kind of policy-making where the social costs of running a business are borne by consumers who are faced with no alternative but to continue using a service. Given that so much of neoliberal philosophy is crucially predicated on choice and competition in a free market, no such freedom exists in this instance.

Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980)

In 1955 the German philosopher Erich Fromm published a book called The Sane Society. In it, he diagnosed whole societies as mad. He believed that the obsession with money and profit found in Western capitalist societies was a symptom of mental illness on a grand scale.  Capitalism leaves people alienated, and alienation is madness. So Fromm definitely believed that capitalism and consumerism were incapable of helping human beings to flourish.

Alienation for Fromm, is a form of experience in which someone experiences themselves as an alien, someone unfamiliar. He or she does not experience themselves as the center of their world, as the creator of their own acts. The alienated person is as out of touch with themselves as much as they are out of touch with other people. And the alienated person cannot be happy. They are simply glad to have finished another day without a sense of failure or humiliation.

Someone like this could – to update Fromm – certainly be regarded as a casualty of neoliberalism, which narrowly redefines human beings as rational economic actors, members of the species homo economicus. In doing so each of us comes to be understood as an individual entrepreneur in competition with others. The self becomes, in effect, ‘Me, Inc.’*

Small wonder then that such a deformed and atomized view of humanity, one that is neglectful of communal well being (and therefore recalls Margaret Thatcher’s declaration that ‘there’s no such thing as society’), should have resulted in an epidemic of loneliness and relative isolation, as well as much higher rates of divorce. For example, Matthieu Ricard notes that, according to the 2013 US census, about half of all households had single occupants, while in some neighbourhoods the proportion was as high as two-thirds. Given that significant numbers regard themselves as being very lonely, living lives that are bereft of meaningful relationships**, the ability of capitalism and consumerism to cause human human beings to flourish, is once more called into question.

Contrastingly, for Fromm, true mental health is something quite different. It is characterized by the ability to love and create. The aim of life is to live it intensely, to be fully born and fully awake. The mentally healthy person is someone who lives by love, reason and faith, who respects life, his own, and that of others.

*A term devised by Ronald Purser, the author of McMindfulness (see above).

**See Ruth Whippman America the Anxious.


Hare and Chomsky’s concerns about the behaviour of multinational corporations have already been noted. Such businesses may gravitate to countries where it is possible to get away with paying sweatshop level wages, employment rights are minimal, and laws relating to environmental concerns more lax. So the deregulation that neoliberals encourage through their advocacy of free trade can certainly have deleterious effects.

TNC’s or Trans-National Corporations undoubtedly wield an extraordinary amount of power and influence in our modern age, but in some cases have used that influence to locate themselves in countries where their employees (that sometimes include children) are being made to work very long hours for low pay in conditions which are injurious to their overall health and safety. A good example is the Taiwanese corporation Foxconn, whose creation of a sweatshop culture within their factories in mainland China (specifically in Shenzhen) led to well-publicised cases of some staff committing suicide.

Given that the OCR syllabus requires an understanding of how utilitarianism and Kantian ethics might be applied to issues arising in business ethics, let us look at this matter in more detail with reference to utilitarianism and consider the following question:

Is it morally right for someone to purchase an item that could have been made in a sweatshop?

In what follows it will be argued that in relation to sweatshops, teleological utilitarian thinking may result in a more nuanced outcome that is rather more calibrated to the actual situation of sweatshop employees than the zero tolerance deontological approach suggested by Kantian principles and the precepts of Natural Law theory.

The above documentary includes an excellent section on sweatshops in China that starts at precisely the 60 minute point. in the UK, Wal-Mart enjoys “an ongoing commercial relationship” with the Asda supermarket chain and has a seat on the board.


Around the world there are people working long hours for little pay, in sometimes dangerous, dirty or just unpleasant conditions. Whether they are growing cheap crops, stitching expensive designer clothes, or manufacturing electrical components, only a tiny fraction of what we pay for the products they make goes back to them.

A well-known recent example involved a spate of suicides in 2010, mainly amongst younger employees of the Taiwanese electronics company Foxconn at one of their factories in mainland China. Foxconn manufactures Apple’s iPhone and iPod, as well as goods for just about every major technology company, including Sony and Nintendo.  One report compiled from research carried out at 20 Chinese universities described Foxconn factories as ‘labour camps’ and detailed widespread worker abuse and illegal overtime. Meanwhile the Southern Weekend newspaper, which sent an intern to work in a Foxconn factory for a month, pointed out that the workers were making “top-notch” products, but that their monthly wage is “so low they cannot even afford to buy an iPhone”.


First of all, just to recap, Bentham’s act utilitarianism is a teleological theory that aims to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people affected by a moral decision through the use of his hedonic calculus. Bentham’s reason for basing his ethic on collective experiences of pleasure and pain was because he thought that a sound ethical theory must be rooted in human nature, in what human beings are actually like, and he thought that as a species all of us were inclined to maximise pleasure and minimise pain in our lives, or as he put it, ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.’

For Bentham then, only the consequences of our actions matter, and those consequences are assessed purely in terms of the quantity of physical pleasure produced for everyone affected. Furthermore, the means by which collective pleasure is produced are irrelevant: if the greatest happiness of the greatest number in a specific situation comes about as a result of playing pushpin (a mindless pub game that was popular in Bentham’s day) rather than through reading poetry, Bentham would have opted for the game.

A full description of Bentham’s felicific or hedonic calculus is set out in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1781). It might be applied to the issue of sweatshops as follows.

First of all, the Purity of the pleasure consumers of products made in sweatshops may experience might be contaminated by feelings of guilt or concern about what might be happening to workers at the other end of the supply chain, even when someone might only suspect that their purchase may have been manufactured in this way. The Slavoj Zizek video embedded above features an amusing take on how some businesses have addressed this concern. The Intensity of the pleasure many of us take in retail therapy may also be diminished by this knowledge. A sound application of the hedonic calculus must therefore take these factors into account. It is not enough simply to argue that the collective pleasure consumers of sweatshop products derive from their purchases must exceed the pain experienced by those who made them, simply because there are proportionally more consumers than sweatshop workers.

Any decision we make about the ethics of a purchase may be a drop in the ocean, but if we decide not to buy a product made in a sweatshop, perhaps in response to reading about how it was made, in terms of Remoteness, it may not be long before a business is forced to react to bad publicity by improving working conditions for its employees. For example, Foxconn responded fairly quickly to media criticism of its practices. Suicide-prevention netting was installed at some of its facilities, and it promised to offer substantially higher wages to employees at the facility inn mainland China where the suicides took place.

As far as Certainty is concerned, it is interesting to compare a Benthamite approach with possible deontological approaches to the same issue. A Kantian ethicist would not wish to purchase any item manufactured in a sweatshop because of Kant’s insistence that all rational beings be treated as ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. Employees in sweatshops are exploited for profit, making the practice immoral. Similarly, as has already been noted, two of Aquinas’s primary precepts (preservation of life, education of the young) that are central to his theory of Natural Law would be violated. This is because health and safety practices tend to be almost non-existent in sweatshops, with the result that workers in them have sometimes died as a consequence of accidents and fires. And if children are part of the workforce, they are not receiving an education. All this would result in a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to companies like Foxconn (which has also been criticised for making use of child labour).

However, deontologists typically do not consider consequences, and one result of a refusal to have anything to do with sweatshops is that they may eventually close, which would then mean that all the employees get thrown out of work. Plus, if any children employed lose their job, this might have serious consequences if they are the only breadwinner in a family.

A Benthamite act utilitarian approach, which involves a careful calculation of the potential consequences of an action, might therefore be more nuanced and sensitive to this aspect of the problem, something which most ‘fair trade’ campaigners are already aware of. For example, the Maquila Solidarity Network advises, ‘Don’t promote a blanket boycott of all goods produced by child labour’, precisely on the grounds that simply withdrawing custom and leaving nothing in its place would be actually harmful to those they want to help.

Instead, gradual reform is encouraged by, for example, persuading businesses to phase out the recruitment of child labour, and the support of trade and development policies that strengthen the capacity of countries to provide educational opportunities and economic security so children are no longer compelled to work. Fair trade initiatives, such as Rugmark, that encourage production of goods under humane conditions without exploiting children or adults, is another measure favoured by the MSN organisation.

From this we can see that Bentham’s description of talk of human rights as ‘nonsense upon stilts’ may have something going for it. Simply failing to engage point blank with the corporations and companies that permit sweatshops in the name of human rights may, as has already been mentioned, make things worse rather than better.

In terms of Extent, Duration and Fecundity, if lasting reforms are achieved, the ending of exploitative labour practices is certain to benefit the thousands upon thousands of employees who are caught up in the sweatshop system. And when living standards for everyone rise in an emerging economy, this tends to result in the creation of an aspirational middle class of employees who may become more vocal in the attempt to secure further rights that could make their collective lives more pleasurable.

John Stuart Mill

Mill’s version of Utilitarianism is again teleological and focuses on general rules that everyone should follow to bring about the greatest good for a community. The best overall rules are deemed to be those which, when pursued by that community as a whole, lead to the best result. One important feature of his system is that, in any particular situation, the relevant rule must be obeyed even if, on that particular occasion, it does not result in the greatest pleasure for me. For example, occasions might arise for us to indulge in fare evasion when we use public transport, but for Mill this would be immoral as a good public transport system depends on everyone adhering to the rule about payment of fares.

However, Mill is regarded as a weak rule utilitarian. In exceptional situations a given rule could be set aside. So if it was a matter of evading one’s fare in order to eat, this could possibly be morally acceptable.

Mill was also preoccupied with the quality of pleasure resulting from an action rather than the mere quantity. Non-physical pleasures such as might be gained from reading the works of the great philosophers or poets, were considered to be more worthy than the mere physical pleasures such as eating or sex. Mill thought it better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Overall, the best rules for Mill would be those which attempt to instil an ability to appreciate higher pleasures in the general population.

In accordance with this emphasis on higher pleasures, as far as the use of child labour in sweatshops is concerned, Mill would therefore almost certainly have been opposed to this practice, as he was a believer in universal education in order ‘not to improve people as workmen merely but as human beings’. In particular, he wanted ‘schools in which the children of the poor should learn to use not only their hands but their heads.’ Such an education would not be possible for children who work from a young age, making it likely that Mill would have sought to end this practice.

An important principle for Mill was that everyone should be allowed to be sovereign over their own bodies, even if a particular decision might have physically harmful effects for oneself as an individual. When applied to the issue of working in sweatshop, it might therefore be argued that someone who takes on a job of this kind knows what they are getting into, no matter how dangerous or unpleasant that job is. It is not as if they are getting tricked into taking this kind of employment, and in a typical LEDC American multinational companies tend to pay comparatively higher wages. Given also that working long hours in an awful job is better than being unemployed, perhaps those of us in MEDC’s should, according to this line of thinking, not be agonising quite so much over the plight of the people in sweatshops.

However, another important rule in Mill’s utilitarian system was his famous Harm Principle. According to this rule, everyone should be at liberty to do as they please, as long as no-one is physically harmed as a result of our actions. Mill thought that one of the main purposes of a government was to make laws to prevent this from happening, so that in theory, minority groups are protected from physical harm in a manner that may not be possible under Bentham’s system, which has been criticised for not taking account of the rights of minorities, that can simply be disregarded if more pleasure for a majority is produced by doing so.

On the grounds that health and safety conditions are minimal or nonexistent in sweatshops, and that accidents and fires are common, it would seem that Mill’s system would lead to the decision that it is wrong to buy a product made in one. However, only a strong rule utilitarian might make this kind of decision, and Mill himself might have noted the problems previously mentioned that result from the zero-tolerance of sweatshops. Given also that those who opt to work in one could actually be faced with two unpleasant choices (do this type of work or have no job at all), it does not seem fair to appeal to Mill’s principle of sovereignty in order to defend any decision made when the only available options were bad to begin with.

It is also worth mentioning that Mill was very much in favour of the empowerment of workers, in the sense that they should become self-reliant and not dependent on the receipt of welfare from the rich. He thought that instead of seeking protection from their employers, workers should form new enterprises in which they themselves had a stake, so that they could ‘become their own employers’. He took a lifelong interest in the formation of co-operatives and other methods by which workers could ‘make themselves capitalists’. In summary, while the social reformers of his age worried about how to get workers more food, money, leisure and health, Mill worried about how to get them more freedom and the ability to stand on their own two feet.

Overall then, it therefore seems reasonable to conclude that someone following Mill’s system of rule utilitarianism would not be supportive of sweatshops, practices that sustain them, and the use of child labour that goes on in them. Improving conditions for workers through the enforcement of legislative rules, the gradual phasing out of the employment of children, and the provision of decent forms of alternative employment would be needed in order to make our consumption of products produced in LEDC’s moral.

Natural Law and Situation Ethics

Given that OCR candidates are required to consider whether these normative theories provide ‘a helpful method or moral decision- making’, some very brief observations may be in order.

Aquinas’s Natural Law theory contains several primary precepts that are to be understood deontologically. One of these is ‘preservation of life’, which can hardly happen if health and safety conditions are flouted within a sweatshop culture, and if employees are driven to end their own lives as a result of the stresses imposed on them. Aquinas also thought that education of the young was important, but this simply cannot happen if children are in employment and working long hours. So from a Christian perspective informed by Natural Law, a zero-tolerance of sweatshop culture would be advocated.

Situation Ethicists start with the situation itself, and make their decisions relativistically (relativism was one of Fletcher’s 4 working principles). They also adhere to Fletcher’s principle of pragmatism: what is true is what works. In their moral decision making they would also bear in mind Fletcher’s fundamental principle ‘love is not liking’, according to which we may not like what goes on in sweatshops, but closing them might make the former workers destitute.

Fletcher recommended that an ‘agapeic calculus’ be performed in order that ‘love and justice’ might coincide. Taking into account the fact that SE values a personalistic approach to ethical decision-making, and that the principle of agape is inclusive, so that it would include stakeholders, a follower of this system is likely to agree with the Maquila Solidarity Network that gradual reform of sweatshop practices, including the eventual elimination of the use of child labour, would represent the most agapeistic outcome.


Returning to the wider question of whether globalisation encourages or discourages good business ethics, some further points can be made.

Firstly, a definition of globalisation is required. According to Anthony Giddens, it is ‘the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant realities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away, and vice-versa.’ Note that Giddens’ definition does not assume that any particular version of ‘worldwide social relations’ should hold sway. Although it is certainly true that the ideology of capitalism has become established almost everywhere in the world, it is also possible to imagine an alternate reality in which Marxism is globally preeminent. In such a reality, markets will have been dispensed with, which would render any discussion of good or bad business ethics moot, as there would no longer be any private companies. So there is not necessarily an intrinsic connection between globalisation and capitalism, as globalisation is not a singular condition following a linear trajectory towards a particular goal or end point.

There is also some difficulty in evaluating the globalisation that most of us are living with in terms of ethics, for the simple reason that although the neoliberal version of capitalism has come to be predominant, it is by no means the only one that can be found in the world. For example, capitalism in Japan and capitalism in Russia have certainly not developed along lines that resemble the operation of the free market in the USA. What this means is that it is therefore not inevitable that American business culture will eventually be copied throughout the world, and so each species of capitalism would need to be assessed on its specific merits, a task requiring an awful lot of research in order to arrive at any informed moral judgement because of the openness to interpretation of wide landscapes of data.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to make some ethical headway, and indeed, it has already been noted that the citizens of more egalitarian societies, those that have resisted deregulation and privatisation, have not been beset by the issues highlighted by Wilkinson and Pickett. This in turn suggests that the businesses that operate in those countries arguably practise better business ethics, for instance in terms of addressing stakeholder concerns, especially those that are to do with the environment. The American belief (derived from Friedman), that corporations are nothing more than vehicles for shareholder profiteering is also one that is not found in less economically unequal societies, like Germany (where stakeholders like employees and local communities are enfranchised in corporate governance), and Japan (where zaibatsu or business conglomerates also operate in the role of social institutions) .

In another sense, as John Gray has noted, globalisation refers to ‘the worldwide spread of modern technologies of industrial production and communication of all kinds across frontiers – in trade, capital, production and information’ in a manner which ensures that ‘nearly all economies are networked with other economies throughout the world.’ Such a linking of economies means that multinational companies are in a position to choose countries whose employment markets, tax and regulatory regimes they find most congenial.

As far as good business ethics are concerned, the example of sweatshops has already been discussed ad nauseam. But there is also another consequence that is worth describing, as more unscrupulous TNCs operating in the manner noted by Hare are going to be attracted to poorer countries where barriers to free trade are less restrictive.

One might think that this development is not necessarily bad, as if a particular TNC establishes a presence for itself in an LEDC, then jobs are going to be created for the local populace. And as the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has pointed out in his book One World Now: The Ethics of Globalization, ‘if jobs flow from rich countries to poor ones, that can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much less well off than the workers in rich countries who lose their jobs. Those who favour reducing poverty globally, rather than only in their own country, should see this as a good thing.’

Perhaps this is why, before he became the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted that ‘free trade is always the key to prosperity’ in connection with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Unfortunately, as was noted above in an earlier discussion of this Tweet and is worth repeating once again, his claim is contestable.

For poorer countries (Peru, Vietnam in this instance), free trade can be damaging. As a result of opening up their borders to free trade, infant industries within an LEDC (Less Economically Developed Country) often find themselves unable to compete with better established TNCs (Trans-National Corporations), and so end up going out of business, while the TNCs themselves often operate in an exploitative fashion, introducing a sweatshop culture into the economy. Many observers of this process might therefore deem it to be intrinsically immoral.

Economies that resist implementing free trade in a wholesale manner (for example, by not privatising state enterprises that deliver essential services, or keeping import tariffs to protect their infant industries) often perform better economically.

Another issue that can arise when multinational companies have business dealings with poorer countries concerns those who trade in extractive industries like oil and minerals. In theory, a country that is in possession of such valuable resources should be able to increase the standard of living of its general population. However, in practice, oil and mineral rich developing countries tend to suffer from authoritarian leadership, corruption and poverty. This is unsurprising, as there is a temptation for the powerful to overthrow civilian, democratic governments to gain control of the revenues that accrue from the export of these valuable raw materials.

Unfortunately, as far as Equatorial Guinea is concerned, a dictatorship with one of the worst human rights records in the world, consistently ranking among the “worst of the worst” in Freedom House’s annual survey of political and civil rights, this has not deterred energy companies such as Chevron Texaco, Exxon Mobil, Hess, and Marathon Oil from doing business there, in implicit acceptance of its government’s right to sell resources that truly belong to the citizenry as a whole. In doing so they are, of course, effectively lining the pockets of the leaders of a corrupt regime. In this instance, globalisation therefore does not seem to have encouraged good business ethics. Perhaps too, given how companies like this tend to operate, Elizabeth Truss’s decision to not commit to appointing an ethics advisor might be seen as suspect, given her expressed opposition to imposing a windfall tax on them (a view shared by Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Karteng).

The only mitigating factor is that larger corporations are not omnipotent and immune from criticism. In a globalised world, news spreads rapidly, and it is possible for international pressure to be exerted on those businesses that act in a disreputable manner, in some instances producing a change of policy in order to preserve their reputation. In 1995 Shell, for example, was dissuaded from disposing of its Brent Spar oil facility in the North Atlantic, following several occupations of the structure by Greenpeace, and as a result of large scale pro-Greenpeace protest in the UK, Germany and other continental countries. Greenpeace’s carefully orchestrated media campaign resulted in a boycott of Shell products across much of continental northern Europe, thereby damaging Shell’s profitability as well as brand image. In the end Shell took the decision because of the bad publicity and the damage this was causing.

More recently, multinational companies like Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple have received increasingly adverse publicity for tax avoidance in the UK. Additionally, in 2013, Oxfam International launched a Behind the Brands campaign to monitor and publicise for the benefit of consumers, how the ten largest food and beverage companies (firms such as Nestle, Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and Mars) perform on issues such as the treatment of agricultural workers and smaller producers in their supply chain. Again, these developments can encourage companies to modify their behaviour, while consumers armed with this knowledge can choose not to purchase goods and services from organisations with poor track records.

Additionally, since the late 1990s, socially responsible investing (SRI) has gained increasing prominence, especially as a means to promote environmentally sustainable development, as many investors now consider the effects of global climate change to be a significant business and investment risk.

SRI has, in fact, become a booming market in both the US and Europe. The figures are not recent, but the European SRI market alone grew from €1 trillion in 2005 to €1.6 trillion in 2007. To cite one specific example, pension funds were placed under pressure to disinvest from the arms company BAE Systems, partly due to a campaign run by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Liverpool City Council, for instance, passed a successful resolution to disinvest from the company in 2007.

That there is an increasing market for ethical investment suggests that Milton Friedman is wrong to assert that the primary responsibility of a company is to its shareholders, as it would seem that many potential investors take an active interest in how their money is invested, and share many of the same concerns as stakeholders. Those who invest ethically might therefore steer clear of businesses that share Friedman’s philosophy, therefore depriving those businesses of potential capital.

Some of the main normative ethical theories would also be supportive of ethical investment, regardless of whether the approach is deontological or teleological. Kantian ethicists, for example, would approve of the fact that ethical investors take account of whether stakeholders are respected, so that no community or individual would be treated as a ‘means’ rather than an ‘end in themselves’, according to the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative. A supporter of Natural Law theory would be impressed that the primary precepts of preservation of life and living in a community are adhered to. From a consequentialist point of view, a hedonic (or agapeic) calculus would surely lead to decisions that have a positive effect for the majority of stakeholders affected by an investment decision, and this is what SRI tries to ensure.

What the above examples therefore perhaps indicate is that when businesses that operate globally are held to account and encouraged to uphold improved moral standards, then in some instances this can provide a better ethical foundation for business. Furthermore, businesses that are perceived to be more ethical in their conduct may also appear more attractive to potential investors. This means that it is not always inevitable that corporate multinational behaviour will imitate that of individuals with a psychopathic profile, as Hare and Chomsky assume.

More generally, one of the effects of globalisation has been to introduce greater instability into the virtual financial economy, as evidenced by the collapse of Baring Brothers, Britain’s oldest bank, in 1995, as well as the global financial crisis of 2008. Such incidents are also disruptive of the underlying real economy. Significantly, almost no countries experienced any kind of banking crisis between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970’s, when the financial sector was more regulated . Between the mid-1970’s and the late 1980’s, the proportion of countries who experienced a banking crisis rose to 5 to 10%, weighted by their share of world income, and then shot up to around 20% in the mid-1990’s. The ratio then briefly fell to zero for a few years in the mid-2000s, but went up again to 35% following the 2008 global financial crisis.

Increasingly flexible labour markets have also, as has already been noted, resulted in a lack of job security, which has impacted on traditional family life. This has been accompanied, in some cases, by the outsourcing and contracting out of labour, thus reducing the permanent workforce of some companies to a smaller cadre.

Thirdly, the volatility and unpredictability of markets, whose behaviour has become much more difficult to predict, means that national governments, who their citizenry look to in troubled times to protect them from the worst effects of economic convulsions and recessions, are effectively ‘flying blind’ and therefore unable to anticipate and influence events.

All of this means that if security and stability are morally desirable, then the effects of globalisation at the macroeconomic level work against both in terms of good ethics.

Having said this, there is one remaining caveat. Although the general thrust of this entire blog entry would seem to indicate that the neoliberal conceptions of capitalism, consumerism, and economic globalisation are all ethically suspect in relation to the impact that they have had and are still having on the world and the natural environment, the news is not all bad.

Firstly, it has also been demonstrated that a capitalism that is more transparent and regulated may lead to better ethical outcomes. As it is presently the dominant economic system, in the absence of a viable alternative, the curbing of its excesses would seem to be the way forward. It is also very much worth highlighting the conclusions reached by Peter Singer when considering the period of economic globalisation that took place between 1988 to 2008, which he summarises as follows:

*The incomes of the bottom 5 percent of the world’s people (around 360 million people) have remained the same.

*The incomes of the bottom third of the world’s people (about 2.4 billion people) have risen by 40 – 70 percent.

*The incomes of people at or slightly below the median income (about 380 million people) have risen by 70-80 percent.

*The incomes of the top 1 percent (about 72 million people) have risen by 60 percent.

If our overriding priority is the welfare of everyone affected by economic globalization we should think of this as good news.’

It may also be worth noting that – to take one specific example – poverty in China has been significantly reduced since the country was opened up to free trade. According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent in 2015. As of 2020, China has succeeded in eradicating absolute poverty but not the poverty defined for upper middle-income countries which China belongs to. China still had around 13% of its population falling below this poverty line of $5.50 per day in 2020, but the progress that has been made would continue to support Singer’s view that capitalism is producing better outcomes for some of the poorest people on the planet.

Finally, Singer argues that the focus should be on ensuring that everyone has enough rather than the reduction of inequality. To support this claim he points out that a society in which most enjoy a standard of living comparable to that in Norway even when a minority of its citizens are billionaires would be preferable to a different one that is egalitarian but in which everyone was at the level of the typical Eritrean. As he puts it, ‘what matters is people’s welfare, not the size of the gap between rich and poor’, though he does caution that greater inequality can be detrimental to overall welfare (as Wilkinson and Pickett have found).

Emissions Trading

Emissions trading is a capitalist solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions and is a method through which countries that emit more than their fair share of those gases can still meet their targets. They do so by purchasing extra capacity from other countries that have been set limits on emissions that they fall below. As high emitters tend to be rich countries, and developing countries are poor ones, everyone benefits. For example, LEDCs (Less Economically Developed Countries) have something they can sell that will help them to raise money to pay for their own needs while MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries) get to meet their targets. Additionally, LEDCs are provided with an incentive to put their signature to binding agreements on quotas, as without these quotas they would have nothing to sell.

Carbon emission trading for CO2 and other greenhouse has already been introduced in China, the European Union and other countries as a key tool for the alleviation of climate change, and it possible that at some point in the future, a fully global form of this kind of trading will be contemplated.

In the absence of an alternative, and even though he admits to being no ‘starry-eyed enthusiast for the global capitalist system we have today’, Peter Singer is broadly supportive of this approach. For example, he notes that on utilitarian grounds, it would provide a way to overcome the problem that a rich but colder country like Canada would face in attempting to restrict its emissions, simply by dint of the fact that Canadians may suffer from undue hardship if they were unable to use more energy to keep warm in the winter. All that the Canadian government would need to do is purchase permits that allow them to exceed their quota from other countries that have some spare capacity. Without such an efficient system in place, any reductions would be likely to be lower as a result of lack of adherence to quota allocations. In other words, everyone gets to ‘flourish’.

However, emissions trading has been criticised on the grounds that it actually stops high emitters from facing up to their responsibilities. By analogy, it is like someone in a relationship paying someone else to remain monogamous so they can cheat on their partner. This analogy is explored in the following video (by the creators of the now defunct cheatneutral website*):

Supporters of the normative theory of virtue ethics, according to which morality is more to do with the cultivation of desirable character traits rather than hedonic calculations, might agree with this analogy, and therefore be opposed to carbon trading on the grounds that it provides a way for rich countries to conveniently sidestep an ethical obligation to exhibit more restraint and self-discipline in their environmental policies. Additionally, the video includes a sequence where one of its authors points out that carbon offsetting simply defers the very necessary lifestyle, industrial and economic changes that will eventually be required to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

*some information on Cheat Neutral can still be found HERE.

Kohei Saito : Marx in the Anthropocene

At the outset of the chapter ‘One Economy’ in One World Now, Peter Singer cautions that, ‘If you are among those who believe that the solution to the world’s economic problems is to end capitalism, this chapter is not for you.’ This is because he thinks that there is presently no viable alternative system that is capable of providing for basic human needs. As we have just seen, this accounts for his support for emissions trading.

Could that be about to change with the publication of translations of Kohei Saito’s Capital in the Anthropocene and Marx in the Anthropocene? Already, the former title has sold over half a million copies in Japan, which is somewhat surprising given Kenan Malik and Mark Fisher’s observations (see above) about the current state of Marxism in the West.

What is even more surprising is that Saito’s proposal for a post-capitalist global society invokes Karl Marx, a philosopher who is understood to have – just like Adam Smith – ‘regarded nature as at best a resource to be exploited for human purposes, at worst a foe to be conquered.’ (John Gray False Dawn pg.149). In False Dawn, Gray catalogues in detail the devastation and environmental despoliation unleashed on a vast scale by the Communist experiments in Russia and China. For example, under the system of War Communism that existed in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1921, a policy of requisitioning grain from peasants resulted in a famine that claimed over 5 million lives. Marx himself argued for the industrialization of farming, a process that would see peasant small-holdings replaced by huge factory farms. But when this was attempted in Russia, the results were disastrous, and another 11 million peasants are estimated to have perished through famine between 1930 and 1937 (as well as 3.5 million in forced labour camps). And when Mao used the Soviet example as a template for his own attempt to modernise China during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962, which again involved an attempt to industrialize agriculture, the outcomes were similar. An artificial famine was triggered and around 30 million people died.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, towards the end of the Soviet era, according to Murray Feschbach and Alfred Friendly in their book Ecocide in the USSR, previously low infant mortality rates began to rise again. The co-authors speculate that this increase may have been due to illness resulting from environmental abuse, as ‘Few industrialized areas of the Soviet Union are environmentally risk-free, and some form of severe ecological condition obtains in 16 per cent of the country’s land area, where one fifth of the population lives.’

Gray, however, is rather less tentative. Writing in 1998, he declares that, ‘Russia’s pollution is apocalyptic in its scale and human consequences. In the birthplace of Genghis Khan – Baley, in the Chita region of the Russian Far East – more than 95 per cent of children are mentally deficient, rates of stillbirths are five times higher than the Russian average, rates of child mortality 2.5 times higher and of Downs syndrome four times higher. Births of children with six fingers and six toes, with hare lips, wolves’ mouths, back deformities, huge heads and missing limbs are common. In Baley, radioactive sand from uranium mines which provided material for the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb was used to build homes, hospitals, schools and nurseries.’

Gray even goes so far as to assert that environmental political movements that arose in response to the slow handling of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and which coalesced around opposition to vast dam-building projects in Siberia, were a significant internal catalyst for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.

From an ecological perspective, the Marxist inspired denial that China could ever suffer from issues arising from overpopulation meant that natural resources there were overstretched, and the impact on the environment more profound than in Russia. Indeed, as Vaclav Smil has noted in his 1984 study The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China, ‘During the past 40 years, China has lost about a third of its cropland to soil erosion, desertification, energy projects (hydro stations, coal mining) and to industrial and housing construction.’ One example (cited by Gray not Smil) is particularly noteworthy: dams were constructed in China but most quickly collapsed, and when those located in Henan province broke down in 1975, this resulted in the worst damburst in history, one that killed nearly a quarter of a million people.

Set against this historical backdrop, and given that China remains a significant contributor to global warming, what could Saito’s ideas about a form of ‘degrowth communism’ possibly have to offer?

Well firstly, he is taking inspiration from some unpublished writings of Marx which express a keen interest in the types of society that existed before the rise of capitalism, including a self-governing agricultural commune in Russia and a medieval community in Germany. According to Saito, Marx drew on these examples to forge a vision of a sustainable and egalitarian post-capitalist society, one which Saito refers to as ‘eco-socialism’. Such an outlook is therefore obviously of relevance to the “Anthropocene”, a term used to describe the period in which human activity has become a globally significant environmental force, impacting not only the world’s climate and biodiversity but also its basic geological structure.

Essentially, as described by Saito, Marx’s eco-socialism is based on the notion of “commons”, around the shared ownership of resources that are essential for our daily lives, such as water, heating and medical care. Before the advent of capitalism these were, Marx maintains, managed together by a community, and were accessible to everyone. The subsequent appropriation of “commons” for profit-making, with all the inequalities this creates, therefore needs reversing, especially as what accompanies this appropriation are the incessant demands, so characteristic of capitalism, for still further growth, with all its attendant adverse effects on both the environment and the continued availability of those aforementioned resources. Instead, a restoration of the former state is required and democratic systems put in place to ensure a more equitable distribution of them. What Saito seems to have in mind is the establishment of communes that are each reflective of this lifestyle.

What is clear from his analysis is that capitalism cannot achieve a balance between growth and sustainability, and this makes Saito sceptical of ‘Green New Deal‘ policies which seek to do so. For example, when interviewed about this, Saito responded as follows:

‘Consumption of energy and resources keeps increasing as an economy develops. To tackle climate change, we need to drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions. But I don’t think we can manage economic growth at the same time. Those of us who live in developed countries, must find a way to slow down to steady-state, sustainable economies. If we produce large quantities of electric vehicles, or solar panels, or wind turbines, we will need to exploit limited resources, like lithium, that are mainly sourced from less developed parts of the world. I am concerned that such a situation could eventually give rise to a new form of imperialism.’

Saito therefore proposes that decarbonisation might be better achieved through shorter working hours and the prioritising of essential, “labour-intensive” work.

The ‘de-growth’ that he advocates has apparently drawn criticism from those who believe that this will necessarily entail that wealthier societies will inevitably have to tolerate much lower standards of living and a poorer quality of life, and it could additionally be argued that, even taking into his historical examples, Marx’s notion of “commons” could possibly be the secular equivalent of the Genesis myth, a vision of a paradisiacal society that never existed prior to capitalism and never could exist.

With respect to the former allegation, Saito admits that “People accuse me of wanting to go back to the [feudal] Edo period [1603-1868].” But would this necessarily be a bad thing? During that time Japan practised an isolationist foreign policy, was almost completely closed to foreign trade, and did what Western theories of scientific progress thought was impossible, namely, reversed technological evolution insofar as it reverted from the gun to the katana or samurai sword. In doing so, as the essayist and academic Noel Perrin has observed, the country demonstrated ‘that a no-growth economy is perfectly compatible with prosperity and civilised life.’ Furthermore, in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett note that, ‘If, to cut carbon emissions, we need to limit economic growth severely in the rich countries, then it is important to know that this does not mean sacrificing improvements in the real quality of life – in the quality of life as measured by health, happiness, friendship and community life, which really matters.’

From these remarks, it is evident that a form of Marxist eco-socialism might be realizable, even if it may not be possible to ascertain whether Marx’s idyllic “commons”-based community was anything more than a myth. Such an experiment is also very unlikely to repeat the Russian and Chinese catastrophes, that could eventually come to be perceived as having been based on a misreading of Marx. Lastly, it can be argued that if the ongoing debate about capitalist and socialist proposals for addressing climate change has a mythical component, it more plausibly resides with the capitalist insistence that their system can exist in perpetuity without eventually consuming the planet.



In terms of their track records and ability to produce ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, the neoliberal version of capitalism and Marxism have not, thus far, produced outcomes that would secure for them a teleological Benthamite seal of approval. Both have encouraged a destructive attitude to the environment and both have exhibited a scant regard for the human casualties of the economic progress that these alternative systems are, in theory at least, meant to bring about. For example, while neoliberalism has shown itself to be capable of generating better levels of productivity and the meeting of human needs than the planned economies entailed by Marxism, this has sometimes been achieved at the cost of wrecking existing industries (as a result of the introduction of new technologies), the exacerbation of economic inequality, and the erosion of the very fabric of societies that are predicated on family and community cohesiveness, as well as social mobility. If hedonic pleasure is a consequence of the lowering of anxiety about job security and economic stability, neoliberalism guarantees neither. In particular, the boom and bust cycle of capitalism means that this system is flawed in terms of its fecundity, as there can be no certainty that any pleasures that are generated through a period of prosperity can be sustained.

Properly understood, globalization refers to ‘the increasing interconnection between economic and cultural life in distant parts of the world’ and ‘is a trend that can be dated back to the projection of European power into other parts of the world in imperialist policies from the sixteenth century onwards.’ [John Gray False Dawn pg. 215]. And so where globalisation has been a vehicle for the introduction of neoliberal economic reforms in various parts of the world, the consequences of the deregulation that is part and parcel of these policies have arguably been damaging in many instances: infant industries in LEDCs have found themselves unable to compete with transnational corporations, those very same corporations have established a sweatshop culture in many parts of the world, and stakeholder concerns have generally been overridden by the pursuit of profit. It hardly needs a hedonic calculus to be performed to reach the conclusion that these consequences are undesirable.

Closer to home, the introduction of free market policies into the UK education system have set schools against each other when it comes to league tables, resulted in classroom practices that focus on teaching to the test rather than instilling a sense of the value of education for its own sake, and led to a neglect of humanities subjects that arguably help to foster critical thinking and empathy on the part of students (a problem that also afflicts higher education). Indeed, if the arts and humanities are capable of cultivating an appreciation of ‘higher pleasures’ on the part of those who are exposed to them, a subscriber to John Stuart Mill’s form of utilitarianism may be concerned about this. Lastly, there is a suggestion that, in some instances, older and more expensive teachers have been forced out of the profession in the name of budgetary efficiency and prudence.

As far as consumerism is concerned, capitalism has been shown to have a tendency to encourage excessive levels of consumption that are environmentally unsustainable. Certainty, Extent and Duration as factors in any hedonic calculation may therefore have to be borne in mind once it is recognised that the pleasures of retail therapy tend to be short lived and not extendable to future generations if the raw materials available to manufacture the products are no longer available and climate change is a consequence of that manufacturing process. Where the products are manufactured in sweatshops, the working conditions under which some products are made also has to be factored in. Again, a follower of Mill might have concerns about a consumer culture devoted to the satisfaction of banal and shallow lower pleasures.

On the other hand, there is a suggestion that if, like the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, we are concerned for the welfare of poorer members of societies then, imperfect though it is, capitalism has been successful at raising many out of the poverty trap in the two decades up to the year 2008, an outcome that must surely be seen as consistent with securing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Moreover, there is evidence that a more regulated form of capitalism may help people to prosper, as the public services on which they depend tend to be preserved from market forces when they are not privatised. For rule utilitarians, such regulations might include laws that ensure that financial organisations always retain a sufficient amount of capital so as not to risk bankruptcy as a result of, say, risky currency, stock and bond trading. Recalling Michael Sandel’s worry that market forces have been permitted to intrude on too many areas of public life where they do not belong, rules could also be made to prevent US schools from accepting corporate sponsorship and exposing their pupils to commercial advertising.

Although, in theory, capitalism enables humans to flourish, and a culture of consumerism provides an opportunity to maximise pleasure, in practice a more tempered form of capitalism that does not facilitate uncurbed consumerism may therefore be more closely aligned with the consequences that act and rule utilitarians would be looking for in any assessment of whether capitalism is capable of ‘doing what it says on the tin.’

In bringing this discussion of utilitarianism, globalisation and macroeconomics to a close, there is one further issue to consider, namely, whether this normative theory generates moral obligations to future generations of humans when a hedonic calculation is performed. Here, environmental concerns once again need to be taken account of when it comes to climate policy.

On the one hand, if we continue with what is often referred to as ‘Business as Usual’, then in relation to climate change, if we persist with ecologically unsustainable forms of capitalism, then future generations may be much worse off. However, the adoption of a model that can be called one of ‘Sustainability’ would involve a curtailing of dependence on fossil fuels, and lifestyle changes that might include the reduction of someone’s global footprint, lower meat consumption (something that would obviously be of benefit to animals), and a radically different approach to industry and consumption. As a consequence, the next few generations might be worse off than they would be under ‘Business as Usual’, but in the long the impact of ‘Sustainability’ would surely lead to much better consequences for humanity as a whole and for the natural world.

But in drawing attention to this, as he does in the third edition of Practical Ethics, Peter Singer then goes on to describe a mischievous thought experiment. He invites us to imagine a scenario according to which humanity has persisted with the ‘Business as Usual’ model, so that life for more distant generations, while still tolerable, is set against a backdrop of a drastically reduced quality of life. In anticipation of their inevitable complaints, Singer suggests that we leave them a note reminding them that their lives are still worth living, even if they are of a lower quality than they might have been. That same document would then go on to inform its readers that, had the ‘Sustainability’ model been followed, they would not have existed at all, as their parents would never have met (a consequence of reduced travel and other factors, such as employment, that would result from the very different lifestyle that ‘Sustainability’ demands).

However, Singer does not endorse ‘Business as Usual’. For him this thought experiment demonstrates that ‘we can, and should, compare the lives of those who will exist with the lives of those who might have existed if we had acted differently.’ Arguing from this perspective it is clear that the switch to ‘Sustainability’ will ensure that the lives of those who end up existing will be superior in quality to the lives of those who will exist under ‘Business as Usual’. What his example shows is that we therefore certainly do have moral obligations to the non-existent that need to be taken account of in any utilitarian computation, even when this entails that others may never get to experience life.

What would utilitarians make of Kohei Saito’s eco-socialism? Comments on this are necessarily provisional, given that Saito’s most recent two books on this have yet to appear in English. However, if capitalism in all of its present forms is unsustainable, and if his proposals prove to be as popular in the West as they have in Japan, and prove to be practically implementable, then they may then be favourably received by utilitarians. It may also be of significance that in his 1993 publication Japan’s Capitalism, the economist Shigeto Tsuru has already drawn attention to John Stuart Mill’s observation that, ‘a stationary condition of capital and production need not be a stationary state of human improvement.’

Kantian Ethics

As has already been noted, with its emphasis on treating others as ‘ends in themselves’, Kantian ethics would disapprove of sweatshops and uphold stakeholder interests (as stakeholders would be acknowledged as members of Kant’s ‘kingdom of ends’, an envisaged community of fellow rational beings). Meanwhile, possible concerns about the impact of whistle-blowing on the family of an employee who takes this risk should not be allowed to take precedence over the selfless demands of the Categorical Imperative.

Kant would also have been critical of the disregard for human life that was shown by the Soviet authorities in Russia and by Communist China. For example, in the words of Orlando Figes, ‘the Bolsheviks had no means to influence workers except through the threat of force…[so that]…factories would be placed under martial law, with military discipline on the shop-floor, and persistent absentees shot for desertion.’ Meanwhile in China, the government was responsible for vast numbers of deaths, with estimates ranging from 40 to 80 million victims through starvation, persecution, prison labour, and mass executions.

However, a deontological attitude of zero tolerance, one that takes no account of consequences, might prove detrimental to the interests of sweatshop employees, who may find themselves unemployed and in an even worse situation if the factories they work in were to be closed down. For this reason, organisations such as the Maquila Solidarity Network, as we have seen, therefore do not favour a Kantian approach, and might be more broadly supportive of a utilitarian analysis that focuses on consequences, in this instance on the better outcomes that putting pressure on sweatshop owners to improve working conditions for their staff may achieve.

With respect to consumerism, supporters of Kantian ethics may regard it as somewhat dangerous for this to become a basis for any society, as such a society then runs the risk of consumerist attitudes being transferred onto the consumers themselves, so that we end up treating others as mere objects who are only to be cultivated if what they have to offer, as work colleagues, friends or lovers, aligns with our personal ambitions and life goals. And if they subsequently fail to line up with those projects, they can be cast aside like any other obsolete product or service. When the same issue came up earlier in this blog entry, a quotation from John Gray was cited to sum up this concern. It is worth mentioning once more: ‘‘In a culture in which choice is the only undisputed value and wants are held to be insatiable, what is the difference between initiating a divorce and trading in a used car? The logic of the free market… is that all relationships become consumer goods.’

Moving on, according to Anthony Curtis Adler, a professor at Yonsei University, ‘Kant did discuss globalism and world trade in his ‘Idea for a Philosophy of History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’ and his ‘Perpetual Peace.’ He regards it as part of the ‘hidden plan’ of nature that leads the human race toward a cosmopolitan political order based on a federation of free republics. This suggests that he had a basically positive view of free trade — though not necessarily of Industrial capitalism, since this did not yet exist. But even in Kant’s time, the exploitative character of world trade, and the colonial-relations to which it gave rise, were quite clear to those who cared to look.

Finally, in relation to capitalism, Kantian ethics would have nothing to say about the exploitation of animals under this system, as they are not considered to be in possession of the rationality required for admission to Kant’s ‘kingdom of ends’, although armed with a better knowledge of animal consciousness, it is not inconceivable that a modern Kantian might recognise certain species of animals as being capable of rational thought, and would therefore be prepared to modify their views in the light of this. And by extending the boundaries of the Kingdom of Ends to the natural habitat of such species, a case might be made for preserving rainforests etc. So Kantian ethics does not have to be anthropocentric. But can a rule to not exploit nature be universalised? The neo-Kantian Paul Taylor in fact has suggested that we can, at least, universalise a rule which states that animals and plants have legal rights that are deserving of protection.

To conclude this discussion, there is one additional and significant point that needs to be made, not least because it may serve to cast all of what has previously been said in a very different light.

First of all, it will be recalled that for Adam Smith, capitalism is entirely predicated on the assumption that we are a rationally self-interested species, an aspect of human nature which is nevertheless tolerated because in the marketplace (with some adjustments from his famous ‘invisible hand’*), goods and services are bought and sold for the best possible price. However, this would arguably be morally unacceptable for Kantians, for the simple reason, as illustrated by the well-known example of the honest shopkeeper, that for an action to be truly moral it must be uncontaminated by any selfish motive. Only then can it be said to be expressive of what Kant referred to as a ‘good will’. In the case of the shopkeeper, his honesty in dispensing the correct change is motivated by a hypothetical imperative, namely, a self-interested concern for the reputation of his business. For Kant this cannot be an act which is demonstrative of any genuine fidelity to the moral law, even though it is in accordance to it. Thus, for Kant, all market transactions of the sort envisaged by Smith would also be inherently immoral, even those that dovetail with the moral law, because the motivation for their performance is inevitably selfish. So in terms of Kantian ethics, this would mean that any discussion of a capitalist form of Business Ethics would necessarily have to be stillborn. It would never get as far as looking at matters like shareholder versus stakeholder concerns, or whistle-blowing, for the simple reason that Kantian ethics could never be accepting of capitalism in the first place.

*Remember that The Wealth of Nations may be regarded as an overtly theological work, one that reflects Smith’s Calvinist upbringing. Put simply, humanity in rendered selfish by The Fall, but in the marketplace this does not matter because an ‘invisible hand’ of divine benevolence performs acts of fine-tuning to ensure that the right balance between supply and demand is achieved. Contrastingly, Kantian ethics maintains that the rational imperative of the moral law can compel us to transcend our selfish nature.