Mark D. White
I've read an enormous amount of what's been written on the Chick-fil-A controversy the last couple weeks, although I'm sure I haven't scratched the surface. But I was fascinated by Will Wilkinson's recent post at The Economist's Democracy in America blog, titled "Feathers Flying," in which he casts the fast food company's stance against same-sex marriage as an example of corporate social responsibility (CSR), though not the typical social justice concerns usually associated with CSR.
It's my view that this sort of skirmish in the culture wars is an inevitable consequence of trends in "ethical consumption" and "corporate social responsibility". Conservatives sceptical of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement have often charged that CSR is a stalking horse for liberal causes that have failed to get traction through ordinary political channels. This charge finds some support, I think, in the fact that few in the media seem to see Chick-fil-A's Christian-influenced culture and business practices as an example of CSR, though obviously it is. Doesn't the demand that corporations act responsibly in the interests of society, in ways other than profit-seeking, directly imply that corporate leaders who find same-sex marriage socially irresponsible should do something or other to discourage it?
Rather than comment on Chick-fil-A's position itself, I want to point out Mr. Wilkinson's perceptive comments regarding the politicization of the marketplace itself:
Matters of moral truth aside, what's the difference between buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken? There is no difference. Which speaks to my proposition that CSR, when married to norms of ethical consumption, will inevitably incite bouts of culture-war strife. CSR with honest moral content, as opposed to anodyne public-relations campaigns about "values", is a recipe for the politicisation of production and sales. But if we also promote politicised consumption, we're asking consumers to punish companies whose ideas about social responsibility clash with our own.
Those opposed to a particular company's moral or political position may consider their actions to exemplify corporate social irresponsibility (or worse) rather than just a different type of CSR. The issue for ethical consumption then becomes not just a matter of choosing companies who actively support the "right" causes rather than those who don't, but more important, staying away or boycotting companies that support the "wrong" ones. (This is not new: for examples, labor union members have long refused to patronize nonunion businesses, whether out of solidariry or some other principle.)
Wilkinson's proposed remedy is elegant, and on first blush seems to make perfect sense:
I'd suggest the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business. Businesses then seek profits within the scope of those rules (and the consensus rules of common decency), and consumers buy the products that best satisfy their preferences.
That would be the ideal, I agree. In unpublished work on CSR, I draw a distinction between internal and external actions: internal CSR would cover the operations of the business itself, such as treatment of employees and environmental production methods, while external CSR involves actions not directly related to the business, such as charitable giving--or political positions. My conclusion based on this distinction can be considered a restatement of Milton Friedman's oft-caricatured position that business should focus on maximizing returns to owners within the legal and ethical standards of their industry. The italicized phrase refers to the importance of internal CSR--which still leaves room for controversy, such as whether benefits can be extended to same-sex partners or the extent of environmental safeguards--and cautions against external CSR, either because profits can be devoted to social or political causes by the owners just as well as by the company, or because the business wants to avoid endorsing a controversial position and politicizing its product.
I think that corresponds fairly well to what Wilkinson recommends, but I fear the horse has left the barn on that one. CSR and ethical consumption together comprise a vicious cycle that we will find it very difficult to extricate ourselves from at this point. Consumers have adopted the mindset of making a moral statement with their purchases--with good intentions--and they expect businesses or business leaders to reveal their positions. Businesses are more than happy to comply, sincerely or otherwise, even at the risk of alienating a segment of their customer base. Even companies that remain neutral on heated social issues may be accused of "if you're not with us you're against us"--and certainly with some issues, there is no neutral position. A company can refuse to take a public stand on same-sex marriage, but they either provide same-sex benefits or they don't.
I'll finish--as I often do--with Kant. Often caricatured himself as a rigid demanding moralist, he ridiculed as "fantastically virtuous" any person "who allows nothing to be morally indifferent and strews all his steps with duties, as with mantraps... Fantastic virtue is a concern with petty details which... would turn the government of virtue into tyranny” (Metaphysics of Morals, 409). We can take his comments one step farther and argue that, given our limited attention, the more attention we pay to "petty details," the less we pay to more serious issues or more effective ways to deal with them. Equality for gays and lesbians is no petty detail, of course, but no matter which side you're on, there must be a better way of supporting your position than choosing whether to eat a chicken sandwich.