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Corporate “amoralism”…

A long, long time ago, but not so far away, I went to a “Howard Dean” rally when he was running for President. At the time, and unfortunately I don’t remember the exacts (so paraphrasing), he said:

Corporations are not good or evil, they’re “amoral”.

It was the first time I had heard it put that way and it had some resonance for me – the idea that rather than thinking of companies as “evil”, as often I was inclined (specifically “big business”), really I should see them as “amoral”, almost as children or even animals. Corporations didn’t work in moralistic terms, they just did what was best for the corporation. So in the same way that animals need to be “trained” to behave, corporations needed to be “governed” by outside rules.

While I can’t really argue with the basic premise, and I certainly agree on external governance, the idea that they were somehow “amoral” and thus like animals and innocent children “absolved” of their sins, never quite sat well with me. Some part of the back of my brain was thinking, “Something is missing here – this is just too easy.”

Recently in one of those cases of “thinking without thinking” (ie: out of nowhere your brain presents you with the answer) I figured out what it is and it’s simple really:

Corporations are run by people (non-animal adults more specifically).

“Of course they’re run by people,” you say, “so what?”

Well, non-animal adult people have morals. They have been “morally trained”. They know “right from wrong”. They believe in God (95% of them). They’ve read the Bible (or claim to have). They know not to lie, cheat, steal, poop on their neighbors lawn, or any of the multitude of other sins that humans might be inclined to if they were “amoral”.

Yet when they walk into the workplace they put their morals away and instead because it’s “business” it’s now ok to lie, cheat, and steal. No, not in the “legal” sense, which is exactly the problem (as long as you don’t “break the law” it’s not seen as lying, cheating, or stealing), but the moral sense.  Telling employees its “all ok” when it isn’t, is just part of business (lie). Telling vendors that you’re considering other options when you’re not (to leverage the price), is similarly so (lie/cheat). Putting some poison pill way down on page 500 of 1000 of a 4 point text contract, is just fine (cheat). As is paying someone well below a fair wage if you can get it (steal). Or charging usurious interest rates (steal).

We wouldn’t do it at home, with our neighbors, at church, or with our investment club (well, most of us), but it’s all par for the course in modern business. It’s all a game and as long as you don’t break the hard “legal” rules, you can bend every damn moral rule in the book.

Or not.

You see, going back to the fact that we’re “non-animal adult people”, well, we know better. We are not absolved by some magical “get out of Hell free card” because we’ve entered the halls of business. It matters not if “we don’t do it, they will.” It’s still wrong.

So what happens when you meet someone who knows the moral code but behaves “amorally”? What do you think?

You think that person is “evil”.

In fact, they’re called “sociopaths” and considered worse than people who are “immoral”, because frankly they’re a cancer from within that cannot be trusted. Even an “immoral” person is predictable and works within the bounds of moral fear, but an “amoral” person is downright frightening. They are the serial killers of the world, or worse (politicians?). They are in some sense, “animals”. They literally do not know right from wrong other than in the most tactical sense.

On the other hand, the people at the top of corporations know better and the only reason they behave “amorally” is because of a conscious choice to behave “amorally”. They’re not animals. So let’s stop letting them off with the “amoral” bit – when they behave “amorally” they’re really immoral at best, and evil at worst.

And “if we don’t the shareholders will fire us,” doesn’t count either. Someone’s wife might say she’s going to leave him unless he shoots her boss, but that excuse won’t fly with anyone when said boss is lying in a pool of his own blood thank you. Answer: If you have to behave amorally (ie: immorally) to stay employed, well get fired or better yet leave.

Now I do work in big business, and I can’t say I haven’t played the game to some extent as well. It’s pretty insidious, particularly when you have a family to feed. Certainly I get it and I don’t have a great answer for it in every case, however there’s something different between hardball negotiation with another big company, and ripping off the little guys which has been the case far too often of late. Case in point, the sub-prime mega-meltdown. The savage credit card interest rates. Banks charging you $2 to access your own money. The shift of full time employees to part time to avoid paying real benefits. Etc. etc.

It’s all nasty and wrong and I’m sorry you don’t get a pass because “it’s part of work”. Because it’s not a “game” for the people on the other end, it’s their hard wrought lives. And when they lose, they don’t go back to “Start” and play happily again, they just get screwed.

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