Do Corporations Have Souls?

In light of the Chick-Fil-A “Appreciation Day” I’m wondering, “When did corporations become moral guardians for our society?

I distinctly remember my professor in my  Corporations Law class hammering home that the ONLY legal purpose for a corporation to exist is to maximise profits for its shareholders. In fact, at the time, and probably before and since, there was a debate regarding whether corporations have a moral or ethical responsibility toward the communities within which they operate above and beyond the basic standard of care. Obviously they can’t do harm, but do they have to do good? Is philanthropy part of their charter?

This debate came to a head for me after the Indian Ocean tsunami when many companies donated millions of dollars to charities. Some shareholders questioned whether those donations were illegal. They argued that they diminished profits. They would prefer the companies increase the dividend for the year and allow the shareholders to decide how to allocate their wealth. Here’s a couple of quotes from this lengthy report:

Corporate philanthropy is illegitimate spending by powerful corporate elite of someone else’s money; an attempt to bypass democratic allocation of taxes; philanthropy by individuals is laudable, but not by corporations.       P P McGuinness (2003)

Just as I wouldn’t want you to implement your personal judgments by writing checks on my bank account for charities of your choice, I feel it inappropriate to write checks on your corporate ‘bank account’ for the charities of my choice.      Warren Buffett (1981)

Compare this to the attitude of Starbucks which in early 2012 issued a memo supporting gay marriage in the US state of Washington.  When did public companies begin supporting social causes? Part of the disturbing trend is the perception that future marketing campaigns will focus on ideologies rather than demographics. Check out this article to see normalised this idea is to these guys.

If corporate marketing starts targeting ideology rather than demographics they will continue to feed the monster that divides the world into opposing camps: Red vs Blue, Liberal vs Conservative, Christian vs Not. We already see this in the media with CNN & NBC providing alternative worldviews to the conservative FOX News. (At the same time FOX airs shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy that certainly are not conservative in their orientation.)

Christians have also fed this monster by initiating boycotting campaigns for years. At the bottom of this article is an interesting slideshow from a LGBT perspective listing 25 companies that Christians have tried to boycott. Here’s an example of a Starbucks boycott.

There are so many problems with this approach:

  • How do Christians decide which issues are boycott worthy?
  • Is it even possible to know the moral values of the owners of every business we deal with?
  • Why would we support “Christian” businesses if their work or product is shoddy? How is that good stewardship?
  • If God has given Christians “a ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) how does protesting them build bridges?
  • Does boycotting companies express more hate for enemies or love for enemies?
  • Shouldn’t Christians be more concerned about transforming hearts than altering behaviour?
  • Do Christians really expected non-Christians to support Godly values?

Also, we saw with the Chick-Fil-A LGBT protest that it fueled an overwhelming response from conservative supporters of the company, or of free speech, that the company made record profits. That’s a boycott backfiring big time. I suspect that most protests work that way.

Boycotts and protests are empowering for individuals and create swarms of people moving toward or away from one corporation or cause after another.  But there are both swarms of supporters, and swarms of protesters. The whole context is incredibly adversarial. Last week was Starbucks, the week before Home Depot. This week it’s Chick-Fil-A. The opposing swarms never sit down and really listen to the other. In the meantime, a company may occasionally modify its behaviour, but for the most part it keeps doing business with few long-term consequences. They know that if they can weather this storm it will move on to another business before long because it’s incredibly difficult for protestors to maintain the rage and captivate the national attention for any significant length of time.

Corporations will never safe-guard Christian values and morals. Christians and churches can only truly influence society’s values and morals by sharing the Gospel and bringing more people into a saving relationship with Jesus. Changing the behaviour of people outside the kingdom of God through coercion only creates an illusory victory that distracts us from the real mission God’s given us.

It seems only fitting I give the final word to Dan Cathy. (Taken from Matt Dabbs’ blog, who took it from somewhere else…)

“We don’t claim to be a Christian business,” Cathy told the Biblical Recorder in a recent visit to North Carolina. He attended a business leadership conference many years ago where he heard Christian businessman Fred Roach say, “There is no such thing as a Christian business.”

“That got my attention,” Cathy said. Roach went on to say, “Christ never died for a corporation. He died for you and me.”

“In that spirit … [Christianity] is about a personal relationship. Companies are not lost or saved, but certainly individuals are,” Cathy added.

“But as an organization we can operate on biblical principles. So that is what we claim to be. [We are] based on biblical principles, asking God and pleading with God to give us wisdom on decisions we make about people and the programs and partnerships we have. And He has blessed us.”

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: this went thru my mind |
  2. alison2012internship

    What a great blog post! I agree when you say that corporate marketing focused on ideology only stirs up trouble and divides people. I think a corporation may take this approach in attempt to gain customers with passionate beliefs. But instead of getting people to pick sides, and gaining positive and negative talk, what about getting them to join a cause that benefits everyone–the positive. Green initiatives are an excellent example because they embody teamwork and collaboration.

    • ozziepete

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Yes, this type of marketing is just a more recent spin on familiar market segmentation which is becoming more and more specific

      I’m not sure about your reference to Green initiatives. While they often do involve multiple organisations collaborating, the Green movement itself is rather fragmented with conflict over priorities and often methodologies. However, we certainly see examples of that ideology being pandered to. For instance in 1998 Clorox launched “Green Works” as a “natural” alternative to their bleach based products. Now the controversy is over “how green is green enough?” http://inhabitat.com/is-it-green-clorox-green-works/

      People seem naturally controversial creatures. The point of this blog post is asking whether major corporations should feed or ignore those divisions, particularly when they divisions involve moral & ethical issues.

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