Over at The Business Ethics Blog, Chris MacDonald has a very
interesting post on ethical issues surrounding the labor dispute at the Westin
St. Francis, the site of the 2010 Pacific Division meeting of the American
Philosophical Association. Specifically,
he asks what obligations the existence of such a dispute might impose upon
consumers. Should consumers stay away
from businesses when unions are calling for a boycott, or are on strike?
Chris raises a number of good points in his post, and I
won’t repeat them here. And I won’t try,
just yet, to answer the big question of what consumers have
all-things-considered reason to do in such situations in general, or in the
situation faced by the APA in particular.
But I do want to set out a few questions that I think are worth
addressing in the course of trying to answer that larger question. I’d be curious to hear what PEA Soupers think
about them, as well as what they think about the other issues Chris raises.
First, one might ask whether in the absence of any specific
information regarding the details of the particular dispute, there is any prima
facie reason to suppose that one side of the dispute is correct. That is, do we
think that unions or management are, as a general matter, more likely to have
the right stance on whatever empirical or
moral issues are at stake.
Second, do we have any prima facie reason to take a side that is independent of our
beliefs about which side is correct on the particular empirical and normative
issues at stake? Perhaps we might think
that because union members are more vulnerable, as a rule, than stockholders,
we should take the side of the union when we don’t have any information about
which side is correct (or perhaps even when we do have such information but our
uncertainty about the correct resolution of the issues falls short of a certain
Third, just what
constitutes taking a side, anyway?
It seems clear that deciding to stay at a hotel just because the union is boycotting it would constitute taking
sides against the union. But what about
an agent who, antecedent to the boycott, made plans to stay at the
soon-to-be-boycotted hotel? Would his
failure to cancel his reservation after the initiation of the boycott
constitute taking sides against the union?
Would, as Chris thinks, cancelling your reservation in such
circumstances constitute taking sides with the union? Is there anything one can do that wouldn’t constitute taking a side? I tend to think that there are distinctions
between causing negative consequences for B, being morally responsible for
causing negative consequences for B, and taking sides against B. But it’s not clear to me how much rides on
these distinctions in these kinds of cases.