Is it wrong to steal from big business? A philosopher debates ethics

If you ask someone if stealing is okay, chances are most people will say no. This absolutist approach – stealing is wrong no matter what – finds a philosophical foundation in the work of 18th century thinker Immanuel Kant, who argued that there can be no exceptions to moral rules.

But things may be more nuanced than Kant suggested. We often judge the near-destitute worker who steals bread to feed his family differently from the thief who steals his grandmother’s money to fund a lavish lifestyle. In the current cost of living crisis, for example, supermarket workers have spoken of turning a blind eye to thefts committed by customers who are clearly struggling. The Constabulary’s new Chief Inspector Andy Cooke has also reportedly suggested police should exercise “discretion” over whether to charge those who steal so they can eat.

If we allow exceptions to the moral rules, then the question becomes: Is there anything that can make corporate theft just, or excusable?

I certainly do not tolerate any type of theft. But the question constitutes a poignant thought experiment for philosophers. Society’s perception of businesses, especially large corporations and industries, has evolved in recent years. Consumers are demanding companies to uphold high ethical standards, expecting them to accept responsibility for climate change and unethical behavior.

Maybe then it is okay to steal from a society if that society is already stealing from us. But outside of directly scamming customers, the idea of ​​a company “stealing” from us is complicated.

Breaking the social contract

A large corporation could steal from society by failing to meet the terms of its social contract. The social contract, an idea developed by philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, refers to the tacit agreement by which individuals or organizations give up certain freedoms in order to enjoy the greater benefits of the social order. . For example, I tacitly agree not to hit others in order to live in a society where others are not allowed to hit me.

The social contract is most often understood in terms of the relationship between individuals and the state. However, the business benefits of social assets and a well-functioning state – including transport, education and legal protection – are clear.

During the pandemic (and before that, the financial crisis), the state stepped in to rescue private sector organizations through bailout funds, loans, and other programs. In exchange for this support, it seems that the social contract of private sector organizations should require that they create social value and make a positive contribution to society.

Norms against scandals

In recent years, the scandals that have shaken the private sector are proof that the social contract is not always respected. The financial crisis, car emissions, the mis-selling of opioid painkillers, data sharing and environmental crimes are all examples.

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis laid bare the growing imbalance between what society provided to business and what business provided to society. Recognition of this disparity has led to widespread demand for change via the international inequality protest movement Occupy. Ordinary citizens demanded a broader understanding of what businesses owe society beyond the provision of goods, services and jobs.

After Occupy, customers are now recognizing how critical their buying decisions can be in motivating companies to do better. Tesla was the first carmaker to reach a market valuation of over US$1 trillion (£797bn). Its growth has forced a huge acceleration in the development of the electric car in other companies.

A handmade black sign with red lettering that reads 'People over profits'.
The Occupy protest movement has demanded more of the social contract with corporations.
Arindambanerjee / Shutterstock

The corporate world itself also seems to be responding to the demand to do things differently. The B-Corps movement, a certification program that aims to “make business a force for good”, began in 2006 and now has more than 5,000 registered companies, covering more than 400,000 workers. Companies like Unilever, Hermes Investment and NatWest have worked to show that they are driven by their social purpose. Regulators also impose ethical requirements on companies. Part of the Bank of England’s stress test now requires banks to show how they are mitigating climate change risks.

Yet, without continued consumer and government pressure, there is a risk that these corporate moves will become little more than an ethics washout. For example, despite being a fully certified B-Corp, BrewDog was still accused of having a “culture of fear.” And in 2021, NatWest was found guilty of failing to stop money laundering – a failure that Mark Steward, executive director of enforcement and market surveillance at the Financial Conduct Authority, said “has let down the whole community”.

Exceptions to ethical rules

In my research, I have argued that we need to do more to recognize that businesses can only function when society tacitly grants them a social license. This license is only granted on the assumption that the business will benefit society overall. Companies that do not follow this principle risk having their social license to operate revoked.

Intuitively (and unlike Kant), ethical rules have exceptions – you can lie to the assassin who asks you where his target is. Given the broader understanding of what corporations owe to the societies they serve, philosophers might argue that it is not always immoral to steal from a corporation that breaks the social contract. Especially if that company breaks that contract by stealing our future, failing to take action to mitigate climate change, or undermining the social fabric.

However, a much better approach would be to work together to clarify what companies need to do to meet their social license obligations. Rather than stealing from corporations, we should use our powers as consumers, workers, shareholders and citizens to push private sector organizations themselves to behave more ethically.

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