Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Morally Culpable Tobacco Harvesters

An anonymous comment on the previous post suggested that agricultural workers harvesting tobacco should find other jobs in less despicable industries. This comment made me think, and I will pose the question to everyone: do employees bear culpability for the products they help produce? Should the conduct of the company be imputed to its employees?
I suspect anonymous would answer both these questions in the affirmative. When I read the comment my first reaction was, “crazy bleeding-heart liberal.” But then I thought about it.
In the case of the agricultural worker: the average worker is a recent immigrant (or illegal immigrant), comes from a low socioeconomic class, and is uneducated. As a practical matter, this worker does not have a whole lot of options for work. And one of the few jobs they can get is exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Should the most vulnerable among be held morally culpable for the work they help perform?
Yes. We are all human beings (except for robots, who are not humans at all), capable of making rational choices (robots may be capable of rational decision making also). Now these choices are going to be influenced by outside factors (our upbringing, family situation, dire need of money). There may be strong forces in your live pushing you toward taking a job which directly or indirectly aids the commission of what you may consider moral wrongs. When you decide to aid the tobacco companies, for instance, by selling your labor to them, you are making a judgment that your monetary needs outweigh your belief that tobacco is harmful and tobacco companies are evil. You are choosing yourself over society.
Likewise, if your law firm chooses to represent swiss banks in lawsuits against holocaust survivors, and if you think nazis are bad and stealing money from minorities when they are being slaughtered on a massive scale, you have a choice to make. Either you believe that your well-being outweighs the interests of those who miraculously surived torment at the hands of the Nazis and feel like they should be compensated for their trouble. Your choice to represent a Nazi enabler must reflect on you as a person.
Now, if you are like me and don't believe in right and wrong, this is not a problem. In fact, it would be silly to alter any of your conduct based on socially prevailing norms. However, most people are not like me. If you believe something is wrong, you should not provide aid to the cause through sale of your labor. Furthermore, you should not support extending protectionist legislation to those who work in evil industries. So in this sense, I think anonymous is absolutely right. You can behave in a morally reprehensible way if you want, but I will not sympathize with your plight when you complain that the Nazi's are not compensating you in line with federal law.


Blogger Matt said...

The further one goes down the causal chain, the less the concern about the evils of RJR and the like matter to someone who just wants to feed himself or his family. I mean, it's not like he's addicting a 12 year old to cigarettes. Not to mention that your example assumes that the worker thinks that big tobacco is evil. As for the lawyer example, everybody deserves representation, including those whom we find morally reprehensible.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Squishy Burrito said...

What about purchasing other products the tobacco companies sell? The big ones also produce a good chunk of the food we buy at the grocery. Is that morally wrong?

3:54 PM  
Anonymous NELL said...

I would just like to point out that my husband is NOT a Nazi sympathizer if anyone out there chooses to read it that way.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Xeno said...

I find it unlikely that the picking of a plant to be a moral wrong in and of itself. The act of picking a tobacco leaf is no different morally from the picking of a poppy or a daisy. The moral wrong lays on the heads of the people that actively encourage something that kills others.

Moral should not be confused with legal. In the same token
immoral!=illegal. It is immoral to cheat on a spouse not illegal. Laws exist to allow people to live together in society. Morals are a personal feeling of right/wrong.

In reply to the venerable squishy, you cannot extend the blame that far for several reasons. Craft for example is owned by a tobacco company it is not run by the same people however. Buying from them only peripherally helps the tobacco company. If you were to take the blame that far then you could go even further in saying that giving a smoker a job is wrong because you are enabling his/her habit. Or even further by saying that anyone that does not actively hunt down the purveyors of tobacco are morally culpable.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Beer kills people. Cars kill people. Just sayin'.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

Some responses and questions:
Matt, indeed my example does assume that the worker believe big tobacco is evil. I tried to make that explicit in the post. If you are amoral, you're home free. Though the amoral should not expect support from people who are not amoral, who have strong beliefs in right and wrong. Secondly, everyone does not deserve representation, except in criminal trials. There is no right to representation in civil trials, nor should there be. Or maybe there should be. I don't know. But you personally don't have to represent someone you think is evil.

Squishy, you bring up an interesting point. The post was specifically about providing one's labor, but consumers have much more leeway in changing company behavior. I vote with my dollar, and so should everyone.

Xeno, don't the swiss banks who helped finance the holocaust also have some moral blame on their heads? Although we should probably place more blame on the actors, those who enable the act have some culpability also.
I agree with you on the moral/legal distinction, although frequently laws are written and passed attempting to legislate morality. But clearly each occupies, and should occupy a separate realm.
As to your last point, if you have moral convictions and they conflict severely with the conduct of a company, then third party boycotts are a real and necessary route. Starve the beast in any incarnation, you might say.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Xeno said...

Sure a swiss bank can have a moral blame... for holding money that doesn't rightfully belong to them. Not for the crimes of the Nazis though. They have commited their own wrong. Boycots are all well and good. I don't see any problem with boycots as a means to an end. I was just saying that Oreo cookies doesn't necessarly share a moral wrong with RJ Reynolds for it's tobacco sales.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

Xeno, oreos and tobacco sales probably should be viewed in different lights; in fact, might it discourage tobacco production if oreo sales were shown to be more profitable? Might it then be a moral good (if you view tobacco prodcution/sales as an evil) to buy as many oreos as possible to encourage RJ Reynolds to shift their capital away from tobacco and into oreo production (Matt is sure to point out that Oreos could be more harmful than cigarettes, in terms of trans-fats and heart disease, and thus a shift to oreo production may be more harmful to society)? Good point Xeno.
In regards to the swiss banks:
Are they really only culpable for taking other people's money? What if they simply took the Nazi's money and gave them 6% interest; what if the swiss banks provided low interest loans to the nazi's, allowing them to invest in murderous capital? In the specific instance of taking and converting holocaust gold, I think you are right. The moral wrong for which each side is culpable are distict, separate wrongs. But isn't it the case that someone who aids a wrongful enterprise in a lawful way is still acting immorally (though, of course, not illegally)? Are there two separate wrongs, or is the aider culpable for the specific acts the aider made possible?

8:51 PM  
Blogger Xeno said...

Great ore rant, he. Only reason I picked Oreos was because they are owned by RJ Reynolds. It would be hilarious to see oreos become a billion dollar business through a buy oreos not tobacco campain.

In the case of the bank loans/interest paid I think that they are morally culpable for any actions they made and possibly any intended benefits towards the Nazis.

Aiding a wrongful enterprise can be morally wrong if the intention is to support the wrongful action or perhaps even willfully ignoring the ramifications of their actions.

However being that banking is not inherently evil(or is it?) a simple loan or interest is not wrong. If they give a man a loan and he goes out and buys a gun with the money and shoots a lot of people I don't think that the bank is responsible.

11:03 PM  
Blogger warm fuzzy said...

As much as I hate tobacco products, I'm going to have to agree with Matt on this one. People need to acquire their basic needs before they can begin to contemplate their actions within the societal spectrum. If there are other feasible work options for these poeple, then I would hope they would take them, but there might not be. The tobacco plant may be the best option for them to farm so they can put food on their table.

It is very easy for people who have never had to contemplate whether or not they have shelter or food to sustain their family to make value judgements on others. The moral blame shoudl be placed where it belongs - on the people running the company and choosing to market a product in a form that harms people and makes them smell bad and cough goop.

The basic point is that people should make the best moral decisions they can given the circumstances they are in. The law provides some semblence of a guideline on the matter and if they are not doing anything so henious as to break the law, then given their circumstances they are hopefully doing the best they can.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Xeno said...


1:11 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

warm fuzzy, that's just the kind of morally relative, bleeding heart, wishy-washy liberal response I would expect from you. Hippie.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

on tobacco - I smell like a field of fragrant roses and cough delicious hollandaise sauce. on nazis-I hate those guys. and, I would tend to agree with you, teddo, that the banks that financed the nazi machine have tons of moral responsibility. There the causal chain is clearer because those fucks knew that the nazis were nasty people. We can distinguish the bank/gun example because the actions of some one guy going into a bank are not really forseeable or knowable beyond what he tells the bank. So if he sez that he's going to shoot up some preschoolers, then yeah, the bank has some moral (and I would guess in this situation legal) problems. Usually, though, no problems. In the case of the nazi's though, ignorance can't be an excuse because the sums are just too effing big.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous nell said...

I agree with the hippies and on a side note I've smelled Matt. I think that the roses are a bit of an overstatement... I would go with stink-blossom. I can't speak to the nature of the coughed up goop however.

7:39 PM  

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