Ethics of boycotts

Boycotts were news this past week. In one case a boycott was launched against a major producer because customers in quite a few communities felt personally offended by statements of the CEO; in another there were calls to boycott a major retailer because of cashiers’ allegedly substandard working conditions.

Both initiatives raised ethical questions. In the first case, a somewhat surreal scenario unfolded as other industrialists, incensed by the boycott, suggested collaborating to cut off food shipments to entire communities because a few residents stopped buying the products of a single producer in response to comments by a CEO that they found offensive.

The underlying ethical issue was unwarranted interference in “private” political judgments (as if CEOs of major companies are interviewed because of their stature as political commentators.) In the second case, the retailer denied that the clerks were being mistreated; the ethical issue involved was adequate clarification of the facts. In both cases consumer pressure was effective and the original statements and policies were moderated.

We should note that a classic boycott is a consumer action to lower prices or improve service. When sellers have a monopoly or cartel, they can exploit consumers; organizing consumers in a boycott creates what John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to level the playing field. This kind of boycott presents the fewest ethical challenges.

Consumers are trying to improve their competitive position – something considered completely legitimate in a free market economy. The main consideration is to adequately document sellers’ market power and focus the boycott accordingly. (I once got a letter from a reader who suspected that gas stations in his community were colluding to raise prices. Since it’s impossible to boycott gasoline entirely, he wanted to target one particular supplier which he thought the ringleader. Such a scenario is not impossible, but in general forming cartels in a basic commodity sold worldwide by many firms of varying sizes is pretty hard.)

However, the “social issue” boycott is different. The objective is to bring about some specific change in company policy that doesn’t directly impact the consumer. (Interestingly, this kind of boycott is a bit of a stumper for libertarians – those opposed to all interference in private actions that don’t harm others. Some consider it the most illegitimate kind, since the consumer is interfering in the private judgment of the firm. Others consider it completely legitimate, since the consumers themselves are entitled to complete liberty as long as they are not hurting anyone. This just goes to show that “non- intervention” as an ethical principle is not as simple as it sounds.)

A critical ethical insight in a “social issue” boycott is that the main objective of such action is a constructive, educational one: to create awareness of a particular social ill and work to rectify it. Therefore, organizers of this kind of boycott have an extra responsibility to carry out their activities in a constructive, educational manner. The objective, after all, is not to harm the merchant but to encourage it to adopt more enlightened policies.

From a Jewish point of view, we would view such a boycott as a fulfillment of the commandment to reprove (often I prefer to translate the Hebrew term as “improve”!) The concern of this mandate is not primarily to eliminate the negative behavior, but rather to show genuine concern for the transgressor by helping him mend his ways. The verse states: “Don’t hate your brother in your heart; surely reprove your brother, and don’t bear sin toward him.” (Leviticus 19:17.)

The emphasis is on the human relationship with the transgressor; not to hate him, but to acknowledge the basis of brotherhood, and to be careful not to sin ourselves in giving rebuke. To round out the picture, the end of the next verse admonishes: “Love your fellow as yourself.”

So in a boycott of this nature, every effort should be made to maintain constructive relations with the firm. Before actually announcing a boycott, demands should be clearly defined and publicized, and efforts should be made to meet with management to discuss ways of solving the problem. If these are not successful, then a boycott is a legitimate tool, but organizers should avoid an excessively adversarial approach. A bitter campaign will dilute or even contradict the underlying ethical message.

Finally, organizers should recognize that education is a two- way street. Biblical commentators explain that one of the purposes of the commandment of reproof is to give the suspected transgressor an opportunity to explain his behavior; perhaps there are valid reasons for the firm’s policy.

A boycott is a legitimate and valuable educational tool to increase awareness of various social problems and to create incentives to solve them. But educational goals can be achieved only through educational means: insistence on equity and transparency; a constructive and not adversarial approach; and a willingness to learn as well as to teach.