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Capitalist Humanitarianism with Lucia Hulsether

Ethnographer and historian of religion Lucia Hulsether is on the show today to talk about the strange phenomenon she calls “capitalist humanitarianism.” She studies the ways that corporations attempt to distance themselves from the harms of capitalism by doing things like by selling environmentally-friendly goods or promoting socially-responsible investing.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Lucia HulsetherCapitalist Humanitarianism

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Capering” by Blue Dot Sessions

Thinking about Trust with C. Thi Nguyen

Many of us rely heavily on our smartphones and computers. But does it make sense to say we “trust” them? On today’s episode of Examining Ethics, the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen explores the relationship of trust we form with the technology we use. We not only can trust non-human objects like smartphones, we tend to trust those objects in an unquestioning way; we’re not thinking about it all that much. While this unquestioning trust makes our everyday lives easier, we don’t recognize just how vulnerable we’re making ourselves to large and increasingly powerful corporations.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Credits

Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

The Big Ten by Blue Dot Sessions

Lemon and Melon by Blue Dot Sessions

Commodifying Activism

"Nike" by Miguel Vaca licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Recently, Nike aired an advertisement that sparked a lot of cultural and political buzz. This ad contained professional football player, Colin Kaepernick, a man who has become a household name in political discourse through his protest to police brutality, delivering a simple message: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Since the airing of this ad, there has been a considerable backlash with a variety of Twitter hashtags like #justburnit or #BoycottNike becoming increasingly popular. Despite this response to Nike’s use of Kaepernick’s controversial figure, the value of Nike’s stock has only risen and sales have increased. Nike’s promotion has helped spread awareness and increase support for Colin Kaepernick, but what right do companies with a history like Nike’s have to be champions of social justice? Nike has a notorious history of utilizing sweatshops and child labor and not only that, but they just signed a new contract with the same league that has collectively barred Kaepernick from playing. This amalgam of good and bad aspects of Nike’s support for social justice begs the question: is it ethical for companies to commodify social and political activism? And what are its effects on our societal norms? In the following paragraphs, I will explore how similar ad campaigns have informed their respective social justice movements and if there is an ethical way to market these movements within a consumerist economy.

Activism within consumerism can play many valuable roles: the increased awareness that marketing campaigns offer represents one of the most powerful ways for a social justice movement to take flight. One prominent example is the #LikeAGirl movement in 2015. In a commercial that was popularized after its airing during Super Bowl XLIX, children were asked to perform actions “like a girl.” According to Alana Vagionos of the Huffington Post, when the young boys acted out these things, “Instead of simply doing these actions, each person weakly reenacted them, by accidentally dropping the ball or slapping instead of punching,” making it clear that in American culture femininity is often synonymous with weakness. As Vagionos notes, the phrase “like a girl” is similar to saying something is “gay” — both are used in a derogatory manner. But when little girls were asked to complete the same actions “like a girl,” they did so with vigor, strength, and confidence.

Efforts like this, while ultimately designed to generate more profit, can be very productive in shifting public opinion on social issues. According to a case study done by D&AD, almost 100 million people viewed the commercial on YouTube alone and prior to watching the clip, just 19% of 16-24 year-olds had a positive association toward the phrase “like a girl.” After watching, however, 76% said they no longer saw the phrase negatively. So, from the standpoint of publicity and raising awareness of the larger issues at play, this type of activism seems fruitful.

However, there are many who object to commodifying activism. While there is potential for positive change, there is also the possibility of further reinforcing inequality and exacerbating damaging societal norms. Using movements like #BlackLivesMatter to promote a new product line or a special offer dilutes the meaning and value of these symbols and covers over systemic power inequalities.

One campaign that demonstrates many of the faults in retail activism is the “NIKE(RED)” campaign put on during the 2010 World Cup. This movement sought to increase awareness and funding for programs that combat the AIDS epidemic through a new line of merchandise emphasizing the color red. But Spring-Serenity Duvall and Matthew C. Guschwan believe that this “retail activism” reinforces colonial norms, asserting in Communication, Culture and Critique that this campaign simplifies an extremely complex global health predicament.

They claim that it further reinforces the way that Western consumers view the people in need of aid. It exacerbates the perceived divide between the aid recipients and the consumers and does nothing to increase solidarity between them. Ultimately, the “NIKE(RED)” movement,

“perpetuat[es] images of hierarchies that privilege Western consumers and marginaliz[es] African peoples whom the organization seeks to aid […] The ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy positions Western consumers as a powerful force and Third World peoples as passively in need of aid. So, a major contradiction within (RED) is that while consumer-based campaigns use rhetorics of unity, they ultimately rely on the individual, private, and personal expenditure of money that does not promote substantial social solidarity.”

Additionally, the simplified view that these campaigns perpetuate merely pacifies consumer bases rather than helping to resolve the issue. It breeds ignorance about the power structures in play and distorts the fact that these powerful brands are often contributors to the problem. Guil Louis of the Lawrentian says that “it seems as if social consciousness has become something that not just these celebrities can commodify, but so too can their sponsors.” The truth of the matter is that when it comes to retail activism, there is always an ulterior motive: the profit-making potential of the issue brought about in the advertisement. When meaningful change is a positive externality instead of the primary goal, Louis says that it will “pacify us and make it even more difficult to identify oppressive structures or conditions.”

It is clear that there are both benefits and detriments to this type of approach to activism, but it is important to be aware of the effects that this commercialization has on the movements themselves. Ultimately this approach to activism, while beneficial in some ways, is not enough if it is the only approach to activism. There are a variety of meaningful and effective ways to sway positive social change, and ultimately awareness, especially if diluted by a profit-making incentive, can only go so far without action.

“Nudges” and the Environmental Influences on our Morals

A photo of a telephone booth

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist, won the Nobel Prize in economics this year. He co-authored the book, Nudge, in 2008. The theory behind “nudges” (a term he coined) changed the perspective of economics on the agents to be studied. Instead of picturing humans as rational preference satisfiers, Thaler suggests that we are susceptible to all sorts of irrational pressures and rarely do we decide to behave in ways that can be modeled on principles of rationality and our individual preferences. The “nudge” is one tool he uses in order to see one way in which we deviate from the rationalistic model of classical economics.

A “nudge” is a non-rational psychological factor that makes it more likely that someone behave in one way rather than another. Thaler himself came up with the model for behavior when he became frustrated at the speed with which he and his roommates were going through their stash of cashews. They took familiar enough means to remedy the problem – they kept the cashews out of the living rooms so that they’d have to trek to the kitchen to fill up, or started to hide them. Dieters everywhere have come up with similar solutions to reduce their intake of their favorite food – putting chips into a portioned bowl instead of eating from the bag, for instance. Taking steps like these are providing yourself with “nudges” to eat less: doing these things makes it more likely that you will exhibit self-control.

We can see intuitively why this might be. By putting food into portions, you need to exert effort to refill, and by putting the food at a distance away that also ups the effort level. Along with this extra effort expenditure comes a break in behavior: now you can’t more or less “mindlessly” continue to consume. You face a choice when your bowl is empty: get up and refill? Do you really want or need more? So there is more chance you will stop. You’re helping yourself out with these nudges.

Along these lines, we are more likely to opt for healthy food if it is at eye level when we are hungry – otherwise we’ll go for our normal junk food of choice. The arrangement of grocery stores can have an impact on the healthy choices of its customers by arranging food accordingly and making it easier to choose healthful options.

Thaler noted how irrational we are as agents. We make decisions mostly based on convenience and speed, and fall victim to irrational decision structures like sunk costs.

Perhaps the most famously effective nudges have been outside the realm of food: the presence of an insect on the bottom of a urinal raises the likelihood that people urinating make their target. There are also policies spreading worldwide that have citizens opt out of organ donation programs if they prefer not to be donors rather than opt in if they would like to be a donor. This change to policy increased participation significantly, despite the fact that according to classical economics, the method of selection should be a neutral factor: the number of people who want to be donors should end up being donors either way.

In Chicago in 2016, the ideas24 anti-gun program used the underlying psychology of Thaler’s views to develop an approach to working with incarcerated teenagers. Noting that people behave in a scripted way when under stress, teenagers were encouraged to note triggers and rewrite the scripts, with “group lessons around decision making” that take Thaler’s views to heart by focusing on things that would nudge them away from violence: “In one lesson, inmates list the people who may be affected by something they’ve done.” Nudge theories are on the horizon for use in decreasing gun crime in New York City as well as other cities in the United States. Daniel Webster, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy Research, hopes that nudging people to believe that carrying a gun isn’t normal – “that their behavior is ‘out there’” – will affect change.

The key commitment behind implementing nudges in order to affect change in behavior is that the way that individuals decide what to do isn’t on the basis of deciding what they think is best and behaving accordingly. The nudge is in place based on an external determination about what is best to do – external to the agent’s decision-making process at the time. This has led to some controversy in politics: to what extent should the government be actively trying to shape the behavior of its citizens?

Recall the benighted soda tax in New York City. Though cities such as Philadelphia and Berkeley have a tax on sugary drinks, intended to dissuade people from purchasing excessive amounts of the detrimental beverages, when such a bill was proposed in New York City, it was met with public outrage.

We can ask questions beyond the legitimacy of such government policies. If our behavior can be so easily influenced by factors outside of our control, or disconnected from our preferences and commitments about what to do, then how will that affect our notions about how responsible we are for our actions?

The impact of nudges on our behavior fits with a family of psychological studies in the second half of the twentieth century that showed the significant impact of apparently irrelevant features of the environment on our moral behavior.

Intuitively, it is important to develop and cultivate a good moral personality or character. We care about having good character traits ourselves and look for good traits in one another. Traits such as honesty, compassion, bravery, humility, etc. are desirable and typically relevant for assessing the behavior we come across in the world. If we take someone to be honest, we think they will be more likely to tell the truth. This is why we value having honest friends – we take them to be more reliable in this regard. If someone we take to be honest lies on one occasion, the fact that we take them to have this trait of honesty typically allows us to chalk the lie up to a rare or one-time event. We can lean on the reliability of the trait and maintain the relationship.

The research on nudges may break the connection between character traits and behavior. For when a nudge results in a behavior, something other than the character trait was the cause of the behavior. This is in line with other psychological studies that showed trait-irrelevant factors to be better predictors of behavior than these traits that our moral practices tend to favor.

Consider a sampling of the well-known studies. The “dime experiment,” conducted in 1972 by Isen and Levin, tested the likelihood that subjects would help someone who dropped a large amount of papers on the street (the paper-dropper being a participant in the experiment). The subjects had just used a payphone, and those that found a dime left in the phone were significantly more likely to help than those that did not find a dime. In what we could call the “smell experiments,” people were more fair and generous when in a room that smelled clean. Finally, the proximity of a perceived authority figure significantly affected subjects’ willingness to cause pain to a stranger in the famous Milgram experiments. These effects did not track the moral makeup of the agents in question, yet predicted their moral behavior.

The effectiveness of nudges, and the success of the manipulation of subjects in the experiments sampled above, suggests a worry for our practices of moral evaluation. If someone acts in a certain way because of a smell, or because they found a dime, or because of a nudge, to what extent was the action their own? Would we blame or praise them to the same extent if they had acted without the external factor?

The more we learn about human agency, the more we must accept that we are influenced by a host of external factors. Thaler’s work to a large degree suggested harnessing this feature for good – using the influence-ability of our agency to direct it towards higher-order goals. This may be the direction our blame and praise practices head towards as well: how well we are managing our agency, rather than individual actions. On such a picture, we are creatures to manage and direct, responsible for driving ourselves well.

Gender Segregation: Empowering or Exclusive?

A black-and-white photo of a movie theatre during a film.

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


With over $400 million dollars in North American profits, Wonder Woman has set the record for the biggest U.S. film opening with a female director. Even before setting this record, the 2017 comic book adaptation was heralded by many as a feminist film, including actress and former Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. Despite its success, the film was not without criticism, with some women claiming that they did not find the film empowering, and even that it ignores non-white women. Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding the film has to do with a Texas movie theatre, which offered “women-only” screenings of the film back in June. This decision was met with a wave of retaliation, accusations of discrimination, and even a lawsuit. Is it sexist to provide a women-only screening of the film? Is it fair to call the movie theatre’s actions as feminist? And most importantly, how does this reaction reflect American society’s tolerance, or lack thereof, of gender segregation?

Continue reading “Gender Segregation: Empowering or Exclusive?”

The Dangers of Ethical Fading in the Workplace

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.


Suppose your boss asks you to fudge certain numbers on a business report on the same week the company is conducting layoffs. Is this an ethical dilemma, a financial dilemma, or seeing as it will affect your family, a social dilemma? Likely, all three are true, and more layers exist beneath the surface. Are you in debt from taking a luxurious vacation? Do you have children in college? Are you hoping to get a promotion soon? Research shows that navigating through these many layers makes it increasingly difficult to see the ethical dilemma. This describes “ethical fading,” the process by which individuals are unable to see the ethical dimensions of a situation due to overriding factors.

Ann Tenbrunsel first described ethical fading in 2004 as, “the process by which the moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.” Since moral decisions are made in the same parts of the brain that process emotions, moral decisions are made almost automatically, instinctively, and therefore are prone to self-deception. Self-deception appears in the workplace when employees see an ethical dilemma as firstly a financial dilemma or personal dilemma instead. Seeing a dilemma, such as polishing numbers in a report, as a choice that could affect personal financial stability allows an individual to make unethical decisions while still referring to themselves as an ethical person. In fact, ethical fading eliminates the awareness that one is making an unethical decision in the first place.

This phenomenon can manifest in a variety of ways, making ethical fading a difficult problem to tackle. Sometimes, an individual replaces the idea of an ethical dilemma with a financial or personal dilemma. Sometimes an individual is under so much pressure that an ethical dilemma passes through them unseen. In other cases, individuals are exposed to ethical dilemmas so often that they become jaded.

Tenbrunsel argues that ethics training in companies is null and void if ethical fading is occurring. No amount of training can teach an individual how to navigate an ethical dilemma if one doesn’t see an ethical dilemma in the first place. One recent case study of ethical fading is with college administration. In 2009, The University of Illinois was found to have a hidden admissions process that pushed through applicants with significant ties to politicians, donors, and university officials. Since the ethical dilemma was lost in the culture and organizational structure of the university’s administration, this case has been deemed an example of ethical fading. Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, stated that a growing number of college administrations are “starting to see ethical problems as system problems.”

Like other examples of ethical fading, budget cuts were pressuring the administration to reach out to donors more, and the ethical problem of giving preferential treatment to certain applicants was forgotten. Following Tenbrunsel’s argument, this problem wouldn’t be remedied with ethics training, unless the hidden applications system was fixed as well. Since those inside the administration didn’t see the hidden application system as an ethical problem in the first place, ethics training wouldn’t prompt employees to come forward and fix the application system.

A similar incident has been occurring in the military as well. In 2015, a study by Army War College professors Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras found that lying is rampant in the military, and is likely caused by the immense physical and emotional strain that soldiers experience. Ethical fading in this case means that Army officers have become “ethically numb” to the consequences of lying. When the professors pressed their participants on how they manage juggling their many duties, classic sugar-coat phrases often heard in the business sector were reported. In order to satisfy their many duties and requirements, Army officers routinely resort to deception in the form of “hand-waving, fudging, massaging, and checking the box.” This case reveals that financial strain is not the only cause of ethical fading, but physical and emotional strain as well, and that sectors besides business are prone to ethical fading in their employees.

Tenbrunsel’s argument for self-deception provides yet another obstacle for business ethics. If the cause of unethical behavior isn’t caused by a lack of information and training, but the human trait of self-deception, no amount of ethics seminars will discourage unethical behavior. As a start, ethics training should include information on how to spot ethical fading, overcome prejudices, and tips to handle emotional strain in the workplace. However, ethical fading helps address the fact that unethical behavior is not limited to unethical people. Tenbrunsel points out the fact that everyone practices self-deception at some point, and this may be the start to addressing unethical behavior in the workplace properly. Addressing unethical behavior as a human tendency will hopefully start to fill the gaps in current ethics training programs. If not, ethical dilemmas will continue to be sugar-coated and slip through the cracks.

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