This week it’s guns, with at least 59 people dead and hundreds injured after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But the focus just as easily could be on cigarettes, or junk food, or sugary beverages.
No reasonable person disputes that all these products can be dangerous, whether we’re talking about firearm casualties, lung cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
The issue is how, or if, the makers of these products should be held accountable for the trouble they cause.
“CEOs have obligations to shareholders, but they also have obligations as citizens,” said Dana Radcliffe, a professor of business ethics at Cornell University. “One of those obligations is to be respectful to other citizens, to have moral responsibility.”
It’s tempting to argue that any business selling a knowingly dangerous product is behaving immorally, and thus, if nothing else, is a bad corporate citizen.
It also could be argued that when a citizen behaves in a fashion that’s detrimental to society, it’s the responsibility of government to uphold and enforce societal norms.
But what then?
Christopher Bauman, an associate professor of organization and management at UC Irvine, noted that roughly the same number of people are killed in auto accidents in this country every year as are killed by firearms.
“We don’t stop making cars,” he said. “We try to make them safer.”
For me, a key factor is trustworthiness. Has a business demonstrated that it’s a good citizen, that its motives and actions are honorable?
The tobacco industry — it’s hard to imagine a more dishonorable business.
Perhaps the industry’s lowest point was reached in 1994 when top executives of the seven largest U.S. tobacco companies testified in Congress that they didn’t believe cigarettes were addictive.
Records show that tobacco execs knew since the 1950s that their product was both addictive and dangerous. The industry waged a relentless and deliberate campaign to dupe the public — and cause unimaginable suffering and misery — for the sole purpose of enriching itself.
The food and beverage industries may not have nearly as much blood on their hands, but their response to the global obesity epidemic has been to follow Big Tobacco’s playbook: sowing doubt among consumers and reframing matters of public health as a question of personal choice.
It’s an effective approach. As a tobacco exec wrote in a 1969 memo: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public.”
The National Rifle Assn., which is funded to a large extent by gun makers, has synthesized its message to a single, deeply irresponsible catchphrase: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
That’s like saying heroin doesn’t kill people; drug dealers kill people. On the other hand, heroin is illegal, so there’s no question the government has a role to play in protecting people from its risks.
Guns, cigarettes, Big Macs, Cokes — these are legal products, one of which, guns, is protected by a constitutional right.
David Vogel, a professor of business ethics at UC Berkeley, told me that “banning bad consumer products is tricky,” which is true.
Ralph Nader famously demonstrated in his 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed” that the car industry was failing to make cars as safe as possible. But we didn’t ban cars as a result. We required safety features such as seat belts that saved thousands of lives.
Similar measures have been applied to cigarettes in the form of risk disclosures, and they’ve helped reduce the number of American smokers. Food and beverage companies are now scrambling to stay ahead of possible regulation by improving the healthiness of their offerings.
So what about guns?
Republican lawmakers were patting themselves on the back Thursday for being “open to” the idea of regulating so-called bump stocks — the add-on device that allowed the Las Vegas shooter to make a semi-automatic weapon fire like a machine gun.
However, these are the same guys who, until this week, were pushing legislation to make it easier to buy gun silencers. They’re also the ones with a bill to make it easier for people with concealed carry permits to take their hidden weapons across state borders.
What they should be doing is following the example set by Nader: If an industry is unwilling to make its products as reasonably safe as possible, then lawmakers and regulators must guide that industry to a higher standard of conduct.
In the case of firearms, let’s be realistic — there’s no reason for military-grade weapons to be in the hands of civilians. Semi-automatic assault rifles can and should be banned. This would violate neither the letter nor the spirit of the 2nd Amendment.
It also makes no sense that civilians require high-capacity magazines capable of holding up to 100 bullets. The only purpose of such magazines is to facilitate killing.
And just as car safety has been improved with technology — think air bags and automatic braking — gun makers should embrace “smart gun” technology that basically allows a weapon only to be fired by an authorized user.
This wouldn’t have stopped the Vegas shooter. But it would protect the nearly 2 million kids estimated to be in U.S. homes with unlocked guns. It also would address the hundreds of thousands of firearms lost or stolen from private residences every year.
“Every company and every person has a moral obligation to consider any harm that might result from its products, services or actions,” said Norman Bowie, a former president of the Society for Business Ethics.
Cornell’s Radcliffe boiled it down to what he called “the Spider-Man test,” as in Spider-Man’s realization that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
“These are powerful industries,” he said, “but they’re not behaving responsibly.”
The next question is obvious: How do we define irresponsible behavior?
I don’t know. I guess it’s like obscenity — you know it when you see it.
Like in Vegas, and Orlando, and Sandy Hook, and ...