When you examine the behavior of corporations today you begin to wonder… Is there a moral philosophical underpinning to their behavior? What determines right and wrong? And in an age of anthropogenic climate change what is the responsibility of business to the larger society?
I decided to revisit the philosophy of David Hume and see if I could scrape together some clues to better understand what we are experiencing. Hume was an English philosopher in the 18th century. Along with John Locke, Hume wrote several treatises that became the foundation of philosophical thought in England, but also importantly, for the United States. Hume’s insights can be found in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. As a result, his thinking played a crucial role in the development of business and industry, and the policies that supported their development.
To understand how government developed and the role it played in regulating behavior, Hume and others described an original condition (prior to government) he called the “State of Nature”.
Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher described the State of Nature as “the natural condition of mankind”. Hobbes believed “natural inequalities between humans are not so great as to give anyone clear superiority; and thus all must live in constant fear of loss or violence”; there is a war of “every man against every man”. In this state, every person has a natural right to do anything one thinks necessary for preserving one’s own life, and life is “solitary, poor, nasty brutish and short.”(1)
When you begin to examine human behavior in the 21st century, especially in terms of how businesses treat consumers and the general populace it looks as if it is a zero-sum game, “every man against every man” for the sake of profit and personal gain. No priority is given to the life and safety of individuals.
A casual scanning of the news and you may see food companies creating processed foods which when tested are unhealthy and dangerous to a person’s health. You see large chemical companies selling chemicals that cause cancer and not warning the user. You see large car companies claiming their car has unique technology that burns diesel in a way that is less pollutive, but in reality the technology deceives monitors and leads to more pollution.
Looking at these behaviors that are injurious to individuals it looks to me like, even though we have government, a “state of nature” exists. The question becomes what is the role of government and individuals to protect people from the worst offenses?
A second philosopher from the 17th century, John Locke, examined the “state of nature”. Locke argued that while a “state of nature” exists he believes that reason teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, and or property”. He therefore contends that civil society is necessary to protect the rights of individuals.(1)
The fact that the chemical company has recently lost several lawsuits that showed their product caused cancer and injured users is positive. But why would a business feel morally justified to expose people to the danger in the first place?
The fact that the car company has been forced to recall cars and compensate consumers is a positive. But why would a business feel empowered to purposely deceive consumers and regulators?
When David Hume entered the philosophical scene in the 18th century and examined the “state of nature” he decided to dig deeper into human motivation and moral philosophy. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) provides the core insights.
Hume believed we ‘evaluate motives largely by comparison with what we consider to be normal human psychology, and that the rules of justice are so “obvious” and “necessary” an invention that they can still be deemed “natural” to the human species.’(2) Perhaps we have lost touch with these “natural” qualities.
Why do we invest the rules of justice with moral significance? ‘His answer… begins with our need for society. Humans are not strong, skilled, or secure enough to meet our needs alone, and only society can offer additional labor force, specialization, and mutual aid—all important advantages of society learned of through growing up in families. But this necessary social union is threatened both by human selfishness and by the scarcity and instability of external goods.’(2) Government and society exist to protect all from the transgressions that threaten the lives and happiness of all, not just a select few.
Hume explains ‘were it not for certain non-ideal circumstances (selfishness, limited generosity, resource scarcity, resource instability), the rules of justice would be pointless. Real-world cases illustrate the idea: close personal relationships bring one’s private belongings into common ownership, and free goods like air and water are allowed unrestricted use.’(2) Yet today we see millions afflicted by air pollution from coal fired power plants and water being bottled up and sold for profit, even as communities suffer from polluted pipes, drained aquafers, or even a drying up of reservoirs due to high temperatures as recently witnessed in India and South Africa.
Hume realizes that the ‘wholehearted pursuit of the public interest would make justice pointless and unrestrained pursuit of private interests would leave justice in ruins.’(2) As the planet passes 415 ppm of CO2 private interests may threaten the future of humanity. In October 2018 the UN Panel of Climate Change stated that humanity has 12 years to change its behavior; if action is not taken the effects of climate change will assuredly create a worst case scenario.
A key portion of the problem we face is short term financial thinking by companies, CEOs, and consumers.
‘The need for government arises from our short-term thinking: though lawful conduct is clearly in our interest, we get carried away by a dangerous “narrowness of soul, which makes [us] prefer the present to the remote”, so that rule violations become more frequent and therefore more strategically advisable. Humans are incapable of overcoming this weakness and changing our nature, no matter how much we may regret it from a clear-sighted long-term perspective, so we must instead change our situation and turn to the artificial expedient of government…’(2)
Hume states that we must, ‘give fairly disinterested public officials the power to enforce the laws of justice, to decide disputes impartially, and even to provide public goods otherwise underproduced due to free rider problems.’(2) This statement is a clarion call for a different approach to government then what we currently see anywhere on the planet.
While we currently have governments and leaders, they are clearly not meeting their responsibilities and have allowed the world around us to return to a “state of nature”, and as a result bring with it the effects of environmental degradation and climate change. It is our responsibility to demand and create a government and society that protects all people from the worst effects of the “state of nature”. Hume wrote, “Avarice, is the spur of industry.” He also recognized that “Men often act knowingly against their interest.”(3) We must demand and expect much more from business and business leaders.
Only by changing how we relate to each other, and specifically how business relates to society, can we effect real change. Hume wrote, “It is not reason which is the guide of life, but custom.”(3) We must change deeply engrained behaviors, and we must do it quickly.
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