Friday, August 24, 2012

When to Boycott

A few weeks ago, in response to my first Chick-fil-A post, someone left the following comment:

"We should boycott OPEC by not purchasing gasoline. After all, Saudi Arabia executes homosexuals."

At the time I ignored the comment for a few reasons:  (a) the comment was off-topic, since I wasn't arguing in the post that we should boycott Chick-fil-A (although I certainly won't be caught eating there); (b) the commenter, in leaving something so brief and glib anonymously, didn't strike me as likely to be interested in a genuine exchange; (c) Patrick offered a fine response a few days later; and (d) the comment struck me as obviously silly in any event.

But I've since learned from my wife that this comment has become something of a meme. People in her circle of acquaintances keep repeating it, mostly on social media. And things don't become memes unless there are a significant number of people who don't find it obviously silly--who, on the contrary, think it's a good point well made.

And as I reflect more on the issue, it seems that taking the time to actually engage with this comment can offer some insight into a broader question with some social significance: When should we boycott?

There are actually two questions here: First, when do you have a duty to boycott? Second, when is it a noble or praiseworthy thing to boycott, even if you don't have a duty to do so?

In considering these questions, we need an understanding of what boycotting is. Boycotting a business or a product is more than just choosing not to frequent that business or purchase that product. There are all sorts of reasons you might not go to a particular restaurant: you don't like the food, you hate the atmosphere, the manager's your ex. To boycott involves not only withholding your business, but doing so for reasons of conscience: the business is engaged in practices that you find morally objectionable, practices that at a minimun you don't want to underwrite with your dollars.

It typically also involves an effort at collective action: you encourage others to withhold their business as well, or join in with others who are already deliberately and publicly withholding their business, again for reasons of conscience. And associated with this collective action is the aim of putting pressure on the business to change the behavior you find objectionable (or, if not that, to send a message to other businesses that it might not be wise for them to behave in similar ways, since they may lose customers).

Those with a moral conscience anything like mine, however, have a problem in this world: There are so many businesses doing so many morally questionable things that it's hard to keep track of them all, and it would be practically impossible while still living in the world to withhold your business from every company that did something you found morally troubling (or that used raw materials from a supplier that did something morally troubling, etc.).

The example of OPEC oil is actually an excellent one for the purposes of highlighting the problem. Basically, fossil fuels are so implicated in our way of life that to boycott them would require that we remove ourselves from society in a rather decisive way. After all, fossil fuels are used in the growing of our food, in the production and transport of most goods, in powering our homes, as well as in getting us to and from work, getting our kids to and from school, etc. It's not as if our world is set up so that we can easily distinguish between goods that were brought to market only using fuel derived from non-OPEC oil fields. We can't even choose a gas station that can give us such a guarantee.

And this means that the decision to boycott OPEC is the decision to fundamentally withdraw from modern social life, to turn our lives radically upside down. It would likely involve giving up our jobs and homes and communities in order to...well, maybe hope the nearest Amish community will take us in, and failing that learning to hunt with a homemade bow and moving into some remote wilderness.

Now I don't want to say that people can never have an obligation to so radically change their lives, to make staggering sacrifices. But it does seem that as the cost to oneself of boycotting something goes up, the presumption of a moral duty to boycott weakens. And so the case for such a duty must become correspondingly weightier.

There are, I think, at least three distinct factors that make the case for a duty to boycott weightier: (1) the gravity of the wrong; (2) the chances that boycotting will do any good in reducing or eliminating the wrong; (3) the level and directness of your own complicity in the wrong (were you not to boycott).

If a wrong is very grave, but boycotting would probably do no good and it's not the case that your dollars are being used to directly finance the wrong, then the overall case for a duty to boycott may not be especially strong even though the wrong at issue is serious. Still, the seriousness of the wrong all by itself may be enough to generate a duty if there's little or no cost to you--if you can get by just fine without the product. But if the cost to you is a complete upheaval of your life, even if the wrong at issue is grave you may not have a duty to boycott. It might be a noble or praiseworthy thing to do, but it wouldn't be a duty.

So, bringing this to bear on the difference between Chick-fil-A and OPEC: To boycott Chick-fil-A costs me very, very little. Unlike my wife, I don't actively dislike the taste of their chicken. But I don't especially crave it or anything. And there are countless alternatives for getting fed each day.

When the costs are that low, a duty to boycott might arise when you have a significant wrong (e.g., the business finances organizations that actively seek to perpetuate the social discrimination against and marginalization of my gay and lesbian neighbors), some chance of sending a message that could make some difference in the world, and some direct complicity in the wrong were one to give money to the business (since a percentage of Chick-fil-A earnings are donated to anti-gay groups).

On the issue of when it is praiseworthy to boycott, even if not a strict obligation, we need to think about some other issues. For example, boycotting something may not merely create hardships for me, but for others who are dependent on me. As a father, were I to boycott OPEC I would be choosing the weighty implications of this choice not just for myself, but also for my children. And so we need to see how those implications relate to my duties to my children--what I have a right to choose for them and what I don't, how I ought to provide for them, etc. Taking these things into consideration, boycotting OPEC might not be praiseworthy at all. It might even be impermissible.

More broadly, if a boycott has ripple effects that do more harm than good for all those affected, then a boycott might not be praiseworthy even if the wrong one is protesting against is significant.

Finally, while boycotts can be a powerful tool for influencing corporate behavior, their potential to be such a tool may depend on a certain selectivity in their use. If I call for a boycott whenever there's a business misstep, I may have far less effect than if I save that call for those issues that score high with respect to at least one of the factors (1)-(3). And so it may not be praiseworthy to call for boycotts too often or too indiscriminately.

When it comes to the Chick-fil-A controversy, it may be that culturally we have reached a juncture where boycotting a business that funnels profits towards the marginalizations of LGBT persons acquires a certain symbolic significance, one that resonates beyond the particular controversy and succeeds in calling widespread attention to the issue of why so many in our society regard the marginalization of sexual minorities as being the very opposite of the morally upright choice that the Chick-fil-A leadership takes it to be. If  so, then a boycott in this case, at this time, may actually make a difference in a way that it wouldn't have at another time and place. So, perhaps, it wouldn't have been praiseworthy to call for a boycott against Chick-fil-A fifteen years ago, but now it is--even if the wrong being committed, and the consumer's complicity in the wrong, hasn't changed.

In any event, these are some of the factors that I think need to be weighed when deciding whether to boycott a business. Since this is the first time I've ever thought explicitly about this question, I'd be especially curious to know what other people think.

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