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Now What ?

I have been struggling for the past couple of weeks with what to say about the tragic building collapse in Bangladesh.  How do we wrap our minds around the deaths of 1100 people making $40 a month so we Americans can have cheaper sweat pants?  What does morality have to say to a consumer society about such an obscenity?

Professor Michael J. Sandel of Harvard University in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets points out that, “The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed.  It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” 

Sandel argues that not everything should be for sale.  However, our US society has drifted in the direction of putting a value on almost everything in spite of the fact that, “some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities.”  This has happened without a public discussion and, “As a result, without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” 

That is, being a society where everything is monetized and for sale.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that companies in the United States choose to do business in parts of the world where employees earn $40 a month while working in dangerous circumstances.  

Since this is where corporate America finds itself in the face of the disaster in Bangladesh, now what?  First, the people in Bangladesh most responsible for the lack of building safety should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.  This will provide little comfort to the families and loved ones of the deceased and injured but it will fulfill the basic requirements of justice. 

Second, the United States companies for whom the clothing was being made have a moral decision to make.  It is also a business and financial decision but given the circumstances, I suggest the moral decision trumps the other considerations this time.

These companies are now faced with a wrong vs. wrong decision … that is, parties will be injured and evil will result no matter what decision is made.  The companies may decide to stop doing business in Bangladesh.  This will be a serious blow to the economy of the country and will leave individual workers in poverty and with few lawful alternatives to their lost work in the clothing factories.    

Or, the companies may decide to continue their business relationships with the clothing industry in Bangladesh.  This almost certainly puts them in league with practices that Pope Francis called “slave labor” and with people whose business ethics do not rise to the level of acceptable corporate social responsibility. 

In either scenario, “parties will be injured and evil will result.”  Since US companies have already made the decision to do business in Bangladesh, I propose the stronger moral position now is to stay rather than leave.

Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago in a speech in 2000 at Case Western Reserve University titled “The Costs of Tragedy” describes the wrong vs. wrong decision as “the obvious question.”  That is, “what should we do?”   

Nussbaum goes further to point out that answering the obvious question is not enough when all of the alternatives include injury and evil.  Then, morally one must face into “the tragic question.”  The tragic question “forces the actor to see that whichever way the obvious question is answered, some harm is bound to be done, some evil will directly flow from whatever decision is made.”  Nussbaum says, “… tragedy is rarely just tragedy, most often behind the gloom is stupidity, selfishness, or laziness.” 

Morally, the tragic question requires the US companies doing business in Bangladesh to “clean up the mess they have helped to make” and to ask “is there a rearrangement of our practices that can remove tragedy?”  Compensation for worker families, independent building inspections, building safety improvements, and increased compensation are just a few of the ways US companies could help to “clean up the mess” and “remove tragedy” in the future. 

By staying in Bangladesh, US companies have the opportunity and the moral responsibility to address both.            


Posted in Ethics
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